10 Things You Should Know About Upton Sinclair's The Jungle

Getty Images
Getty Images

Upton Sinclair conceived The Jungle as a political game-changer, a book that would get people talking and instigate some 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. IT 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’d 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 $13,200 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. SINCLAIR DID SEVEN WEEKS’ WORTH OF RESEARCH ON LOCATION.

Right from the get-go, Sinclair believed that The Jungle was destined to change history. He 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 writes that these 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 these 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 making plans to self-publish The Jungle, however, Doubleday finally made him an offer on it. Their edition was released in 1906.

Calling the book a bestseller feels like an understatement. Doubleday sold 5500 copies in a single day, and in the first six weeks after its release, that number shot up to 25,000. 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. SINCLAIR NEVER LIKED THE ENDING.

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 the lion’s share of the novel in his company, following this man’s 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. Financially, this 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 ITS AUTHOR 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. This 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 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. Roosevelt was now forming a second team and asked if Sinclair would consider joining it. The novelist declined.

6. IT 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 BOOK’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 really 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. SINCLAIR BELIEVED THAT MOST READERS TOOK THE WRONG LESSONS FROM HIS BOOK.

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 hit it in the stomach.”

9. PROCEEDS FROM THE NOVEL WERE USED TO KICKSTART A “UTOPIAN COLONY.”

Ultimately, The Jungle made Sinclair $30,000 richer. With some of this hard-earned cash, he purchased Helicon Hall, an abandoned boy’s school in Englewood, New Jersey. Sinclair envisioned it as a utopian colony, populated by a live-in community of artists, writers, and assorted intellectuals. In total, there were roughly 46 adult residents, as well as 15 children who were to be raised by members of the community. Originally, this group was also going to divide all of its cooking and housekeeping-related jobs up between its own members and a group of college interns (one of whom, by the way, was a young Sinclair Lewis). 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 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. Since then, David Schwimmer of Friends fame has expressed an interest in remaking The Jungle, but he seems to have dropped that project.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

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Amazon

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on November 29, 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. Here are 10 facts about the celebrated author.

1. Louisa May Alcott had many famous friends.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller.

Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. Louisa May Alcott's first nom de plume was Flora Fairfield.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. Louisa May Alcott secretly wrote pulp fiction.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. Louisa May Alcott wrote about her experience as a Civil War nurse.

In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. Louisa May Alcott suffered from mercury poisoning.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women to help her father.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. Louisa May Alcott was an early suffragette.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in an 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. Louisa May Alcott pretended to be her own servant to trick her fans.

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. Louisa May Alcott never had children, but she cared for her niece.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she had named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. Fans can visit Louisa May Alcott's home in Concord, Massachusetts.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women . Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.