Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”: A 100th Anniversary Retrospective

"I failed in my purpose…I wished to frighten the country by a picture of what the industrial masters were doing to their victims; entirely by chance I had stumbled on another discovery…what they were doing to the meat supply of the civilized world…"

Following labor unrest in the Chicago stockyards, Sinclair had been approached by the 500,000-circulation socialist weekly newspaper Appeal to Reason to write, according to Sinclair, "a novel dealing with the life of those wage slaves of the Beef Trust." With the intention of writing the "`Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of wage-slavery," Sinclair left the East Coast for Chicago’s Packingtown neighborhood in the fall of 1904 and lived for 7 weeks among the workers on the $500 advance he had received from Appeal to Reason. During his 7 weeks in Chicago, Sinclair dressed poorly, and "with a dinner pail in his hand, he moved about everywhere in the Chicago stockyards, talking and exchanging notes with scores of workers;" and he "also keenly and accurately observed everything that he saw and took extensive notes," according to the book "Art for Social Justice: The Major Novels of Upton Sinclair" by R.N. Mookerjee. Ella Reeve Bloor, the Socialist Party organizer-agitator whose nickname was "Mother Bloor," also helped Sinclair collect material for "The Jungle", according to a pamphlet by Ann Barton,

After his return from Chicago, Sinclair then built an 8 x 10 foot cabin on a hillside near Princeton, N.J., started writing "The Jungle" on Christmas Day 1904, and finished the novel in the summer of 1905. As Sinclair wrote the novel, the Appeal to Reason newspaper began publishing it in weekly installments between February 1905 and December 1905.

Sinclair had some difficulty in getting "The Jungle" published as a novel in book form by a mainstream book publisher because of the special influence of the Beef Trust. Five mainstream book publishers refused to publish "The Jungle"; and Doubleday only agreed to publish it after it sent its own investigator to the Chicago stockyards to verify that Sinclair had written the truth about the packing industry in his novel. In an attempt to discourage Doubleday from publishing the book, Chicago Tribune newspaper editor James Keeley had previously mailed Doubleday a 32-page report on "The Jungle"–written by an Armour & Company meatpacking firm publicity agent, but masquerading as a "confidential investigation of a trusted reporter of the Chicago Tribune"–which denied the truth of Sinclair’s muckraking novel.

Sinclair also had difficulty in getting a muckraking article about the Beef Trust–based on his and Mother Bloor’s research for the novel–published by a mainstream magazine publisher. When he tried to place the article in Collier’s magazine, its publishers "employed U.S. army officer, Major Louis L. Seaman…who accepted the hospitality of the packers, and reported…all" of Sinclair’s "charges were exaggerated" and "entirely false," according to Sinclair. Collier’s publishers then printed a long article by Major Seaman praising the Chicago stockyards, but published only three paragraphs of the muckraking article Sinclair had previously submitted to it. According to Sinclair, Collier’s attempted to discredit his muckraking in this way because it counted upon full-page advertisements of automobile and packing house products for its revenue.

Following its publication in book form by Doubleday in February 1906, "The Jungle" then "created a sensation almost immediately and shook the entire nation in a way few books have," according to R.N. Mookerjee’s "Art for Social Justice" book. Mookerjee recalled that Sinclair’s best-selling novel produced the following results:

"The consumer was horrified to know that what was sold as `pure beef’ was in fact diseased meat unfit for human consumption…So strong was the shock and protest that President Theodore Roosevelt had to take note of these revelations…The president…signed the Federal Food and Drugs Act (popularly known as the `Pure Food Law’), which became effective on June 30, 1906…"The Jungle" brought about an important piece of legislation."

Despite the dramatic impact on public opinion and the resulting legislation produced by Sinclair’s novel, however, the Beef Trust used its special influence to neutralize both the impact on public opinion and the effectiveness of the resulting legislation. A series of articles appeared in the Saturday Evening Post magazine (which was edited by a former employee of the Armours) signed by the head of the Armour meat-packing firm (but actually written by a staff member of the Saturday Evening Post) that again questioned the truth of Sinclair’s portrayal of this meat-packing firm.

After reading these ghostwritten articles, Sinclair wrote an answering article, titled "The Condemned Meat Industry," which was published in the May 1906 issue of Everybody’s Magazine. Sinclair’s article "gave the affidavits of men whom the Armours had employed to take condemned meat out of the destructors and sell it in Chicago," "told the story of how the Armours had bribed these men to retract their confession" and "gave the reports of State health authorities who showed how the Armours had pleaded guilty to adulterating foods," Sinclair recalled in a later book, "The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism."

But in "The Brass Check", Sinclair also noted that this follow-up article made little impact on public opinion because most U.S. newspapers did not wish to crusade anymore against the abuses of the Beef Trust, despite the popularity of "The Jungle" novel:

"It was my first complete test of American Journalism…I had expected that every newspaper which boasts of public spirit would take up these charges, and at least report them, but instead of that, there was silence–silence almost complete!…Of all the newspapers in America, not one in two hundred went so far as to mention `The Condemned Meat Industry."

Sinclair also observed that the packers paid $500 to an advertising writer named Elbert Hubbard to write an attack on "The Jungle", which was then "reprinted by the Chicago packers and mailed out to the extent of a million copies" and "to every clergyman and every physician in the country."

Although Sinclair remained "determined to get something done about the Condemned Meat Industry" and "was determined to get something done about the atrocious conditions under which men, women and children were working in the Chicago stockyards," he felt he was unable to accomplish too much. The reason, Sinclair maintained in "The Brass Check" book was that he "was like an animal in a cage" whose "bars" were "newspapers, which stood between me and the public."

A direct appeal by Sinclair to President Theodore Roosevelt helped lead to passage of the Federal Food & Drug Act. Sinclair later minimized the significance of this reform law on the U.S. meatpacking industry’s practices, because he felt "the lobbyists of the packers had their way in Washington" and "the meat inspection bill was deprived of all its sharpest teeth." Sinclair also argued in "The Brass Check" that although the publication of his novel "caused the whitewashing of some packing-house walls," the "wage-slaves" still remained "in those huge brick packing-boxes exactly where they were before."

Sinclair thus concluded that no real improvement in either the way the Beef Trust treated its workers or in the cleanliness of the meat it packed for consumers was achieved as a result of what he exposed by his muckraking. Instead, Sinclair argued that "the public had been fooled into believing that there had been reforms in Packingtown," although "the public was continuing to eat tubercular beef-steaks" and "the wage-slaves of Packingtown were still being sweated and bled."

Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based U.S. anti-war Movement writer-activist. Portions of this article originally appeared in the April 1997 edition of the alternative newspaper Shadow.