American History / Upton Sinclair And The Chicago Meat-Packing Industry

Upton Sinclair And The Chicago Meat-Packing Industry

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Autor:  anton  14 December 2010
Tags:  Sinclair,  Chicago,  packing,  Industry
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Upton Sinclair and the Chicago Meat-packing Industry

In 1900, there were over 1.6 million people living in Chicago, the country’s second largest city. Of those 1.6 million, nearly 30% were immigrants. Most immigrants came to the United States with little or no money at all, in hope of making a better life for themselves. A city like Chicago offered these people jobs that required no skill. However, the working and living conditions were hazardous and the pay was barely enough to survive on. This is the bases for Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle.

Sinclair agreed to “investigate working conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants,” for the Socialist journal, Appeal to Reason, in 1904. The Jungle, published in 1906, is Sinclair’s most popular and influential work. It is also his first of many “muckraker” pieces. In order to improve society, muckrakers wanted to expose any injustice on human rights or well-being. Therefore, it was Sinclair’s goal to expose the harsh treatment of factory workers through The Jungle. The improvement on society, that he hoped would follow, was the reformation of labor.

After seven weeks in Chicago, Sinclair was ready to start writing. He channeled the information that he gathered and represented it through the experiences of a fictitious family of Lithuanian immigrants. This family comes to America with the hope of prosperity and because “rich and poor, a man was free, it was said.” However, when they arrive in Chicago, they discover that they must sell themselves into “wage slavery” just to survive. The term “wage slavery” was used because the poor treatment of the migrant workers was similar to that of blacks in the South, prior to the Civil War. Also, note that “wage slaves [were] kept from a meaningful community life by the struggle for mere existence.”

The owners of the factories couldn’t continuously oppress their workers through sheer capitalism alone. They needed help from the government and local community. In other words, “machine politics.” Politicians played an important role in the political machine. In order to maintain this role, they received substantial kickbacks from the owners of the factories. They would recruit people to help the immigrants become citizens of the United States, and then pay the immigrants to vote for a specific candidate, often several times. Before the Progressive Party materialized, there were just the Democrats and the Republicans, “and the one got the office which bought the most votes.”

Readers were not concerned with the treatment of workers, as portrayed by The Jungle, because they really didn’t care for the working class, or more specifically, immigrants. However, readers were shocked when they discovered exactly how their meat was processed and prepared. Sinclair used just as much, if not more, gruesome detail in describing the products the American public was consuming, as he did when describing the workplace, living conditions, politics, society and Chicago’s scenery. In a futile attempt to build up the readers’ sympathy toward the wage-slaves, Sinclair also details the process in which foods not related to the meat-packing industry are prepared. For example, he writes, “their pale blue milk...was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde.”

The controversy over food preparations was so great, that it made The Jungle an instant success and thrust Upton Sinclair into the limelight as a muckraker journalist. The passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act by Congress in 1906 was a direct result of the novel and Sinclair’s correspondence with President Theodore Roosevelt.

Despite its popularity, The Jungle has always been seen as a documentation of history, rather than a piece of literature. Critics view Sinclair “as a muckraker, a talented progressive journalist and reformer with no literary technique whatsoever.” Although Sinclair’s accurate descriptions were amazing, he fell short in his character development and plot.

The main character, Jurgis Rudkus, went through an implausible number of extreme changes in the period of time the story takes place. He morphs from a pure-hearted family man, to an alcoholic tramp, a beggar, a criminal, a player in machine politics, and finally a sober, hard-core member of the Socialist Party. The other characters are hardly worth mentioning. Readers really don’t care much about them because they are so under-developed.

Much like the main character, the plot is all over the place, yet it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. There is no hope for the characters in The Jungle. Anytime things start to get better for them, something else comes along to bring them back down. It’s a constant rollercoaster ride between death and existence.

The problem with the plot is most noticeable in the last four chapters of the book. Sinclair was writing this book for a Socialist publication, but hadn’t said much about socialism up to this point and didn’t really know how to end the book. Therefore, these last four chapters are dedicated to the Socialist cause. Sinclair switches from describing actual events, to describing the theoretical possibilities, if socialism caught on. In the last chapter, during a heated debate on socialism, one character comments on his idea of a Socialist utopia by saying, “after the abolition of privilege and exploitation, any one would be able to support himself by an hour’s work a day.” Some very good points were made in these last chapters, in regards to socialism, but a lot of it was too far-fetched, especially the fact that, “as soon as Jurgis discovers socialism, everything goes magically right for him.”

Although he was unable to attain his goal of labor reform through his book The Jungle, Upton Sinclair was able to show the world “how the system of graft and patronage functions, how the bosses, the politicians, the contractors, the criminals, the magistrates, and the police work hand in glove.” He was also able to open the eyes of consumers and contribute to the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which proves this to be such an important piece of American literature.


Bloodworth, William A., Upton Sinclair. Boston: Twayne Publishers/G.K. Hall &

Co., 1977.

Bloom Harold, ed., Modern Critical Interpretations The Jungle. Philadelphia: Chelsea

House Publishers, 2002.

Henretta, James et al, America’s History, Volume Two, Since 1865. Boston:

Bedford/St. Martins, 2004.

Sinclair, Upton, The Jungle. With an introduction by Jane Jacobs. New York: Modern

Library, 2002.

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