Upton Sinclair conceived The Jungle as a political game-changer, a book that would get people talking and instigate major reforms. The book certainly did both of those things—but for reasons that its author didn’t quite expect. Grab a barf bag and join us as we take a fresh look at Sinclair’s gut-wrenching magnum opus.
1. The Jungle was commissioned by a socialist newspaper editor.
Upton Sinclair, who was born in 1878, began his literary career as a teenager. While enrolled at the City College of New York, the future Pulitzer Prize-winner supported himself by writing jokes and short stories for assorted newspapers. Sinclair’s first novel—a romance titled Springtime and Harvest—was released in 1901. His politics veered leftward with age, and by 1903, he had become a socialist.
One year later, Sinclair established himself as a regular contributor to Appeal to Reason, America’s leading socialist newspaper. Its editor, Fred D. Warren, admired Sinclair’s fourth novel, Manassas, a historical epic set in the Civil War that was written as a salute to the abolitionist movement. In 1904, Warren gave Sinclair a $500 advance (the equivalent of about $14,000 in today’s dollars) to pen a similar novel about the problem of “wage slavery” in industrialized cities. Sinclair accepted the challenge, made tracks for the Chicago stockyards, and got to work.
2. Upton Sinclair did seven weeks’ worth of research on location.
Right from the get-go, Sinclair believed that The Jungle was destined to change history—and said as much when he met journalist Ernest Poole as he was starting his field research. “I’ve come here to write the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the labor movement,” the 26-year-old author told Poole.
Sinclair spent a total of seven weeks taking field notes in and around Chicago’s meatpacking district. To access local factories, he contacted Windy City socialists and union leaders, many of whom were familiar with his work in Appeal to Reason. In the 1975 book Upton Sinclair, American Rebel, biographer Leon Harris wrote that the men “took him into their homes and all over the slaughterhouses, where he proved he was a superb reporter.” Disguised in well-worn clothes, Sinclair blended right in. On top of checking out the stockyards, he also took a few peeks into Chicago’s big banks and the famous Jane Addams Hull House.
3. Five publishers rejected The Jungle.
In exchange for his $500 advance, Warren secured the right to publish The Jungle as a serial in Appeal to Reason, where it ran in (mostly) weekly installments from February to November 1905. Sinclair concurrently tried to get a shortened version published in book form—but it proved challenging. At first, Macmillan offered to put it out, but only if Sinclair made some huge changes to the text. Though the company gave him another $500 advance to implement the tweaks, the two parties never saw eye-to-eye and Macmillan eventually decided against publishing The Jungle. (Luckily for the cash-strapped Sinclair, they never asked him to return the money.)
Afterward, four other publishers turned down the book. Just as Sinclair was printing The Jungle himself, the publisher Doubleday, Page finally made him an offer on it. Their edition was released in 1906. (Sinclair also released his self-published version, called the “Sustainer’s Edition,” which was funded by donations. It was nearly identical to Doubleday’s version.)
Calling the book a bestseller feels like an understatement. Doubleday, Page sold 25,000 copies in six weeks—and in one day managed to move 5500. In the blink of an eye, The Jungle’s author had become a household name. “Not since [the British poet Lord Byron published Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage] has there been such an example of worldwide celebrity won in a day by a book as has come to Upton Sinclair,” reported the New York Evening World.
4. Upton Sinclair never liked the ending of The Jungle.
For the most part, The Jungle takes a “show, don’t tell” narrative approach. The story centers on Jurgis Rudkus, a luckless, Lithuanian immigrant who immigrates to America with his family. We spend most of the novel following his trials and tribulations across the stockyards, saloons, and prisons of Chicago. And yet, during the book’s final chapter, he basically fades into the background. Jurgis ends up in the employ of a kindly socialist who converts him to the cause; he then attends a socialist dinner party, where he passively listens to armchair intellectuals debate the movement’s finer points. The novel ends with some welcome news about increased Socialist vote totals in elections around the country.
Critics panned the ending, which was seen as preachy and patronizing. Sinclair later admitted in his autobiography that “The last chapters were not up to standard.” When the time came to write the novel’s final third, he found himself distracted by marital difficulties and political commitments. Sinclair had also managed to waste Macmillan’s $500 advance, which put him in a tight spot and thwarted his plans to revisit Chicago on a second fact-finding trip.
Desperate to wrap up his story on a satisfactory note, Sinclair explored every option he could think of. At one point, he approached Macmillan with a proposal to split the book into two volumes, with the first installment ending after the death of Ona—Jurgis’s wife—in Chapter 19. Sinclair hoped that this would buy him more time to cook up a conclusion for The Jungle, but Macmillan nixed the whole two-volume idea. So, with some help from Warren, Sinclair sat down and gave the novel its underwhelming finale. Five years later, an embittered Sinclair told one correspondent, “Think of my having had to ruin The Jungle with an ending so pitifully inadequate.”
5. The Jungle got Upton Sinclair invited to the White House.
It didn’t take long for The Jungle to trigger a massive public outcry. Readers were sickened by the book’s revolting asides about the unsanitary conditions at meatpacking factories, which had huge consequences for America’s food industry—according to one packer who testified before Congress, sales of U.S. meats went down by 50 percent after Sinclair’s book was published in 1906. (For the record, though, this statement is unprovable because national statistics on meat consumption did not yet exist.)
Multiple copies of the novel were sent to President Theodore Roosevelt, who also received hundreds of letters from angry citizens demanding that his administration regulate slaughterhouses more thoroughly. In response, the president asked Sinclair to come and visit him at the White House. On April 4, 1906, the author arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where he met up with Roosevelt in the study. The president informed Sinclair that although a team of investigators from the Agriculture Department had already been sent to Chicago to verify The Jungle’s claims, he was dissatisfied with their conclusions and was forming a second team.
6. The Jungle provoked an avalanche of legislation on Capitol Hill.
By the end of 1906, Congress had passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. The former mandated—among other things—that packing factories comply with new sanitation standards while also allowing the USDA to inspect all livestock animals before and after they were slaughtered. Meanwhile, the Pure Food and Drug Act banned “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors.”
Both were vigorously backed by Roosevelt, whose second team of investigators was able to confirm most of what Sinclair had written in his novel. Given this, and the degree to which it had shaped public opinion, historians credit The Jungle with helping to push the acts forward.
7. One of The Jungle’s most repulsive insinuations is (probably) baseless.
Roosevelt’s men found that Sinclair’s assessment of the workplace environment at American slaughterhouses was uncomfortably spot-on. As their 1906 report concluded, “The whole situation as we saw it in these huge establishments tends necessarily and inevitably to the moral degradation of thousands of workers who are forced to spend their working hours under conditions that are entirely unnecessary and unpardonable, and which are a constant menace not only to their own health, but to the health of those who use the food products prepared by them.”
In short, Sinclair did his homework. According to biographer Anthony Arthur, every claim in The Jungle, with “one notable exception,” has been backed up by “corroborating evidence or some sort of assurance that it was [at least] close to being true.” The lone outlier he noted was Sinclair’s suggestion that a few workers at lard factories may have fallen into vats and been converted into lard themselves. “[When] they were fished out,” Sinclair writes, “there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting—sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!” Arresting as this image is, it’s never been verified.
8. Upton Sinclair believed that most readers took the wrong lessons from The Jungle.
The Jungle is the rare activist novel that measurably changed our world. And yet, the effect it had on society was far removed from the author’s intentions. Remember, Sinclair set out to write an expose about the systemic exploitation of working-class people in industrialized cities. But instead, the public chose to fixate on his gruesome food-related anecdotes. In the process, most readers completely ignored Sinclair’s social pleas. As the author famously said in hindsight, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
9. Proceeds from The Jungle were used to start a “utopian community.”
Ultimately, The Jungle made Sinclair $30,000 richer. He bought Helicon Hall, an abandoned boy’s school in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1906. The Helicon Home Colony was “open to any white person of good moral character,” according to its application. There were roughly 40 adult residents—live-in artists, writers, and intellectuals—as well as around 15 children who were to be raised by members of the community. Originally, the group was also going to divide up all of its cooking and housekeeping-related jobs between its own members and a group of college interns (one of whom was a young Sinclair Lewis, future Nobel Prize-winning author of Arrowsmith). After a while, however, those menial tasks were handed off to paid servants. A fire burned down Helicon Hall in 1907, putting an end to Sinclair’s strange communal experiment.
10. A silent film version of The Jungle came out in 1914.
Produced by the All-Star Feature Corporation, this silent movie premiered in New York City on June 1, 1914. Unlike the novel, it had little impact on the general public—thanks partly to the meat industry, which used its influence to keep The Jungle far away from most urban theaters. The cast was reasonably well known, but there was one surprising actor: Upton Sinclair himself. In the film, Sinclair played Eugene Debs (or possibly a character inspired by Debs), a socialist icon who ran for president five times during the early 20th century. Unfortunately, his performance has been lost to the sands of time. No known copies of this movie exist, and it’s believed that the last print disappeared at some point in the 1930s.
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