The Jungle was published in 1906, three years after Upton Sinclair’s failed first novel, and it became an immediate success. Sinclair based the novel on the American meatpacking industry, an industry that had received scrutiny in the decade before the novel’s publication by journalists and social critics. For years before Sinclair began his work, these groups of writers and journalists had documented the abuses of the industry and the plight of immigrant workers who suffered under terrible working conditions. Sinclair’s novel succeeded where others failed, however, not only because it captured the facts of living conditions in the stockyards of Chicago, but also because it made these facts real in people’s imaginations.
Sinclair began researching the novel in 1904. He told associates that his goal was to write the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Labor Movement. In the same way that Beecher Stowe’s novel about the abuses of slavery catalyzed the abolitionist movement in the 1850’s, so too did Sinclair hope to create a work of art that would turn public opinion and sentiment towards the thousands of immigrants and laborers who risked their lives in the unsafe working conditions of America’s factories and manufacturing plants.
Though the novel was a detailed exposé of the food industry in the early twentieth century, the meatpacking industry was arguably just a setting that Sinclair used to promote his own vision of socialist politics. Sinclair used the food industry because he believed it was an industry that touched the lives of all Americans. If people could become outraged at the process that brought meat to their tables, Sinclair assumed, their outrage would subsequently affect the working conditions of laborers. The villains of the novel are the giant meatpacking facilities, a thinly disguised version of real companies that had risen to prominence in the late nineteenth century. While much of America saw these companies, and their chief executives, as a marvel of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship, Sinclair saw the enterprise as an example of capitalism’s worst abuses.
The novel follows the story of Jurgis and Ona Rudkus, Lithuanian immigrants, and the family and friends bound together with them. Jurgis and Ona undergo incredible hardships. Jurgis turns to drinking and is thrown in jail after beating a factory foreman who rapes his wife. Ona dies in childbirth and Jurgis retreats to the countryside. When he returns to the city, he finds salvation in the Socialist Party, which advocates for all workers of the world to unite for the common good. The novel ends with a call for revolution and with Jurgis finding new power for his continued journey. Throughout the novel, gory descriptions of the food making process intertwine with the horrors and hardships of immigrant life in the slums of Chicago.
Sinclair had many problems getting The Jungle published. Sinclair’s first publisher rejected the novel because of its excessive amount of violence and gore. Sinclair attempted to publish the novel himself before Doubleday, a prestigious publishing house, finally picked it up. By the end of 1906, the novel had sold over 100,000 copies, and Sinclair had become a household name. President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House, and their discussions led to investigations of the food industry. Roosevelt later became dismayed by Sinclair’s boisterous calls for reform and, in a 1906 speech to the Senate, he coined the term “muckraker” for those that sought to turn up trouble without giving concrete solutions for the problems they raised.
Although his novel did lead to large government reforms of the food industry, including the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, Sinclair was disappointed that the novel did not arouse more sympathy for workers. Sinclair had become a rich man from the sale of his books, but he concluded that his novel’s main purpose had failed. The Jungle, however, would be considered by critics to be one of the first and best examples of the confluence of journalism and fiction in American literature. Sinclair’s novel was as stylistically important for American fiction as it was politically important for the reform of the food industry.