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“The Jungle” written by Upton Sinclair in 1906 is a novel which provides an incite to the lives of lower class, early industrial era workers. The story recants horrific and graphic depictions of the meat packing industry in industrializing Chicago. Sinclair wrote the novel in response to the failed workers strike simultaneously delivering its socialist message and due to the books success called major attention nation-wide to the deplorable conditions and otherwise unacceptable corruption in the industry. Although the book has become a staple in literature from the time, the accuracy of its accounts and the truth behind the story has been called into question. By understanding critical reviews of the book, historical sources, and statements from those who lived through the actual slaughterhouses of Chicago we can begin to understand where fiction meets reality in this classic piece of American literature.
Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. was born September 20, 1878 in Baltimore, Maryland. He wrote hundreds of short stories and novels, none of which amounted the level of fame as his muckraking bestseller “The Jungle.” Sinclair, himself considered to be a muckraker actually spent several months disguised as a meat plant worker in order to write the novel while working for a Chicago newspaper. This in a way pays him a credit against those who disregard the book as overdramatized and inaccurate. However to insure sales and an otherwise interesting plot, no doubt he took some liberties to enhance the horrors of what he witnessed while he was in the stockyards. We know for a fact that there must be some inherent discrepancy in the book as the Neill-Reynolds report overseen by president Roosevelt praised the meat chilling and packing industry. Throughout hearings on the matter in 1906 Sinclair was criticized for his writing with statements such as “three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods.” Many would even argue that the piece is a complete fiction and that Sinclair was little more than a propagandist for socialism.
Workers who struggled in the meat plants have made statements against the credulity of the story and like wise a study of American immigrants of the time attested that few people lived lives as traumatic as Sinclair’s protagonist Rudkus. Sinclairs morose inspiration came likely in part from his upbringing by his alcoholic father with whom Sinclair sifted from boarding house to boarding house dependent on what his family could afford. In response to the graphic nature of the book and the inspiration there in, Sinclair said that the blatant horrors were there “to drive home to the dullest reader.”
The nefarious “Packingtown” where the story takes place was likely not the cesspool of crime, violence, and ardent corruption that Sinclair would have his readers digest. The novel itself not meant to call attention to the gore but was supposed to be more of a socialist promotional short. Sinclair having said how he aimed for the nations heart and landed in its stomach. The corrupt foreman and the bosses of the meat packing centers are depicted as corrupt capitalist monsters. The bosses often exploiting the workers, acting as omnipotent puppeteers, turning worker against worker, and allowing their foremen to have free reign over the women who are freely exploited as sex objects. However, if approached from a historical standpoint; industrializing America was at large, hardly such a place. The entire nation was growing and turning from small business and private farms to large assembly lines in all areas. Chicago’s location proved that it was to be a center hub in the nation to export frozen meats by railroad all over the nation. In fact by the year 1900 due to widespread mistrust of the quality of livestock and health concerns over the frozen meat it was implemented that in the largest 149 packinghouses federal meat inspectors had to review the product being exported. To the microscopic level meat was checked for diseases and impurities that could spread health hazards. Sinclair’s novel can in many ways be seen as the original “Food Inc.” a 2008 documentary that gives an “unflattering look inside America’s corporate controlled food industry” (IMDB) and details some of the most unpleasant facts about processed meat. Though the film is factual, it was designed as an advertisement for shock value and attempts to sicken viewers with the most horrific material in order to generate a public outcry in reaction.
Even down to Sinclair’s description of the living conditions in the novel, how they were crowded, poorly lit, and filthy, there are reports from the time stating the exact opposite. So was Sinclair’s muckraking journalism a true statement of American life in Chicago? No, given all the creditable evidence provided in the article by Louise Carroll Wade, Sinclair’s “Great American Novel” is far from factual and hardly an accurate look into the packinghouses nor the communities of industrial Chicago.
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