Excerpts from The Jungle
Published in 1906
"There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about it."
Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) was among a group of writers in the first decade of the twentieth century who were known as muckrakers; the term refers to someone who clears manure from a stall. These writers specialized in writing articles (or, in the case of Sinclair, novels) exposing abuses and wrongdoing by the major business leaders and corporations of the era. They were given their nickname by Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), himself a champion of corporate reform.
In 1906 Sinclair published what would turn out to be his most popular novel, The Jungle. It tells the story of a family of immigrants from Lithuania who come to Chicago, looking to achieve the American dream of a better life. Instead they find the American nightmare: poverty, death, and despair.
The principal character in the book is Jurgis (YOORghis) Rudkus, a young man from rural Lithuania. Jurgis and his extended family (wife, children, parents-in-law) settle in Chicago. There, the adults in the family get jobs in the city's huge packinghouse industry, where animals are slaughtered and butchered and sent out to stores as food.
At first, Jurgis is optimistic. Money is in short supply, but he vows to work harder to earn more. Gradually, however, Jurgis is consumed by his job. He is cheated out of money when buying a house. The horrific working conditions in the packinghouse—wading for hours in cold water, for example—destroy his health and the health of other family members. There is not enough money for a doctor when illness strikes.
The tale of Jurgis's woes was the story Upton Sinclair intended to tell, with the aim of arousing sympathy for the desperately poor workers in Chicago's stockyards (temporary places to keep cattle before they are slaughtered.)
However, in the course of telling the story of Jurgis, Sinclair also told another story: how hogs and cattle were processed and sent to food markets. The book includes graphic descriptions of how packinghouses treated rotten meat with chemicals and packaged it in cans to be sold to unsuspecting consumers. Sinclair described the filthy conditions surrounding the processing of meat, and he wrote of ineffective federal inspectors who were bribed to look the other way and ignore violations of regulations governing sanitation.
It was this consumer aspect of The Jungle that captured the nation's attention. The public was outraged to read (even if in a novel) that rotten meat was being repackaged in sausage and in canned products that might end up on the tables of middle-class citizens. In some respects, The Jungle was one of the most effective pieces of writing ever published, in terms of arousing the public and causing the federal government to tighten regulations governing the sale of food products.
Things to remember while reading the excerpts from The Jungle:
- The Jungle is a novel, a work of fiction. But it is based on facts uncovered by Sinclair during nearly two months spent talking to the packinghouse workers in Chicago. Because of the book's realistic treatment of the subject, the public believed that they were reading a factual account of how business was conducted in the stockyards, and they demanded that Congress crack down with tougher rules and tighter inspections.
- Another of Sinclair's themes was the "beef trust," a group of seemingly competitive beef-processing companies that got...
(The entire section is 3,775 words.)