Welcome to The Jungle

Does Upton Sinclair’s famous novel hold up?

Upton Sinclair

One of the more memorable images from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is that of men being turned into lard:

 … and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, 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!

Sinclair’s book is one of those syllabus all-stars, renowned for its social impact more than for its qualities as a novel. I first read it because it was assigned in high school, and what I remembered best, before reading it again recently, was that gruesome image of men falling into vats (a story Sinclair had heard while researching the book but that later couldn’t be verified), as well as the sense of unrelenting cold and misery that plagues the immigrant characters—and for that matter, immigrant characters, who didn’t figure largely in my pre-11 th-grade assigned reading. This year marks the 100 th anniversary of the novel’s publication, and Penguin Classics has issued a hip-looking paperback edition of The Jungle complete with a Charles Burns drawing of a dead cow’s head on the cover. But for all its packaging, the book still carries a whiff of homework, and if we already dutifully absorbed the idea that the turn-of-century meat industry was brutal and exploitative as adolescents, what’s to be gained from reading it again?

For one thing, the book has a seething energy that sweeps you along. Sinclair was a self-important moralist and a glutton for work, as Anthony Arthur relates in a new biography, Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, and his outsized drive to put words on paper seems to have preceded any other ambition. At 19 he was turning out 8,000 words a day, writing dime novels about West Point cadets under a pseudonym; after resolving to become a literary author, he wrote four novels, none of which were terribly successful. He was 26 and a recent convert to socialism when, on commission from a Socialist weekly, he went to Chicago to report on conditions in the stockyards, hoping to produce the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the labor movement. Written in a few short months of “tears and anguish,” the novel still feels poured onto the page: In it, Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, arrives in America with his family in tow, full of brawn and hope, only to be ground down by the working and living conditions in Chicago’s Packingtown. Once the opening chapter’s long wedding scene is over, the narrative rarely lingers in any one setting for long, instead surging from one miserable place to the next, offering a dark, brutal picture of the city based on the sort of reportorial research practiced nowadays by Tom Wolfe and Richard Price. The writing is often sentimental, but its pace and panoramic quality keep the pages turning.

In The Jungle, Sinclair aimed to harness his literary ambitions to his newly minted social conscience; he didn’t just want to write a book about how a pig becomes a ham. Although at the time some muckrakers did traffic strictly in fact, the audience for fiction was much larger than that for exposés. And so, believing that only a novel could extend an emotional appeal to a mass audience, Sinclair cast about for a story to give his facts more weight. “Who can thrill the reader with the tale of a man-hunt in which the hunted is a lousy and ignorant foreigner, and the hunters are the germs of consumption, diptheria and typhoid?” he fretted.

With the novel’s publication, Sinclair achieved one of his goals: The Jungle was wildly successful. He failed to get his point across, though. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair famously complained after the book was published, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Shocked by his lurid descriptions of what went on inside the factories, his readers were more worried about the possibility that there might be rats in their sausage than about the plight of the immigrant laborer. A comic writer named Finley Peter Dunne imagined President Roosevelt’s reaction in just that vein: “Anyhow, Tiddy was toying with a light breakfast an’ idly turnin’ over th’ pages iv th’ new book with both hands. Suddenly he rose fr’m th’ table, an’ cryin’: “I’m pizened,’ began throwin’ sausages out iv th’ window. … Since thin th’ Prisideint, like th’ rest iv us, has become a viggytaryan …”

That misreading was partly attributable to Sinclair’s readers; then, as now, it’s much easier to interest people in contaminated hamburgers than in injured workers. But in part the book invites this misreading. As a Socialist novel it’s unconvincing: The ending, in which Jurgis Rudkus converts to socialism, is the worst part of the book. (Even Sinclair ultimately disavowed it.) And in the pages preceding it, Jurgis encounters a gallery of characters so venal and ruthless it’s hard to imagine that these same humans might ever band together for the good of the collective.

Meanwhile, The Jungle depicts the meatpacking world in painstaking and lurid detail, so that it’s small wonder that those sections made the strongest impression. Sinclair was a meticulous reporter and a vivid explainer, not just of the industry but of the interlocking worlds of factory and slum and political machine. He describes how, for instance, pigs are attached to slaughter chains, then makes the connection between such mechanical minutiae and the lives of his characters—who, like meatpacking workers today, are at great risk for injury because of the speed of the chain. His descriptions of the human costs are most gripping when he avoids sentiment in favor of flatly reported horror: “One bitter morning in February, the little boy who worked at the lard machine with Stanisolvas came about an hour late, and screaming with pain. They unwrapped him, and a man began vigorously rubbing his ears; and as they were frozen stiff, it took only two or three rubs to break them short off.”

The Jungle is not a great novel. For all his Dickensian energies, Sinclair couldn’t invest his characters with the sort of human particularity Dickens did (and as Alfred Kazin once noted, he wrote “one page with great power … another with astonishing self-indulgence and sentimental melodrama”). But it is a great work of journalism. And whether or not his readers got the message he wanted them to get, they understood it the novel as a work of social realism: as describing actual conditions in the real world, not simply in a fictional one. Appearing first as a serial in a Socialist weekly, The Jungle became a best seller once it was published in book form, and Roosevelt ordered two investigations of conditions in the plants. Lard vats aside, many of Sinclair’s assertions about the industry were eventually confirmed, and Roosevelt took advantage of the publicity around The Jungle to get two new food safety laws passed.

In the century since The Jungle’s publication, the American novel hasn’t thrived as a political instrument. Psychological acuity and attention to style have trumped social criticism in most literary novels, while contemporary writers inclined toward muckraking mostly choose to write nonfiction. Today it’s Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation that, like The Jungle, documents the problems of the meat industry, but without depending on a dramatic narrative. We now prefer our exposés to come with figures and footnotes, not melodrama—Schlosser’s book still weaves in moving human stories to illustrate the impact of industrial development, but as nonfiction it has a rigor and range that The Jungle lacks. Sinclair’s heirs today are writers of literary nonfiction, who derive their drama from facts. It almost seems a shame that Sinclair couldn’t have written that way, for the story of the actual family whose wedding inspired his opening scene would probably have contained more surprises and more nuance than his ideologically driven plot.

But it wouldn’t have been as popular. In the way that Sinclair used fiction to get his facts across to a broad audience, The Jungle’s closest contemporary counterparts are films like Dead Man Walking or Maria Full of Grace, whose stories illuminate aspects of the death penalty or drug running for audiences much larger than any equivalent book could be expected to have. (And now that Fast Food Nation has been made into a narrative movie, it’s likely to do the same for the meat industry.) Meanwhile, surely The Jungle has endured in large part because it’s a novel. How many high-school English teachers assign Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company or Lincoln Steffens’ The Shame of Our Cities, nonfiction works by Sinclair’s muckraking contemporaries? Judged for its style or insight into character The Jungle may leave something to be desired. But it lays bare a place and a time and an industry, registering injustices which, as Schlosser notes in a foreword to the Penguin Classics edition, we have yet to fully remedy. So, go ahead, read The Jungle for its documentary power—just be warned that, as with Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard, the label is a little misleading.