SOURCE: Homberger, Eric. “Upton Sinclair.” In American Writers and Radical Politics, 1900-39: Equivocal Commitments, pp. 34-58.New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Homberger analyzes The Jungle as Sinclair's first novel after his conversion to socialism.]
‘American literature today’, wrote Gertrude Atherton in 1904, ‘is the most timid, the most anaemic, the most lacking in individualities, the most bourgeois that any country has ever known.’1 A modestly successful and highly industrious lady scribbler, with over fifty books under her belt in a career which continued for a half-century from 1892, Mrs Atherton waved the banner of a high and serious art. She advised her contemporaries to abandon the snug and the conventional; writers must learn to ‘fight unceasingly’ for literature, and face the prospect of having ‘to stand absolutely alone’. Cynics, as is their wont, quickly pointed out how much easier it was for Mrs Atherton at forty-seven, the widow of a wealthy and socially prominent San Francisco landowner, to preach such austere integrity than it was for young writers like Upton Sinclair and Jack London, who had to support themselves by their writing. But Mrs Atherton had a splendid case to make, and her analysis of American culture at the turn of the century (echoed by Martin Eden: ‘The bourgeois is cowardly’) anticipates the attitudes of figures such as Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford and Matthew Josephson in the 1920s. She answered her question, ‘Why Is American Literature Bourgeois?’, through a scathing analysis of the domination of ‘magazine taste’ in America. In her opinion, the magazines of the day rejected originality in the subject-matter of the stories they printed, and wanted only acceptable subjects treated in conventional ways. They allowed only a censored view of human nature which, among other things, excluded adult sexuality.2 Editors preferred works which lacked either vitality or audacity; their magazines were contemptuous of the intellect. Their ideal story was one which would not disturb those with delicate nerves. The American bourgeoisie was basically responsible for this situation: ‘magazine taste’ was, Mrs Atherton felt, ‘the expression of that bourgeoisie which is afraid of doing the wrong thing, not of the indifferent aristocrat; of that element which dares not use slang, shrinks from audacity, rarely utters a bold sentiment and as rarely feels one’. The appearance of Kate Douglas Wiggins's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Gene Stratton-Porter's Freckles on the bestseller lists in 1903-4 would have been greeted by Mrs Atherton with a disdainful nod. These were the sorts of books the editors wanted. But the appearance of The Call of the Wild, The Pit, The Sea-Wolf and The Jungle on American bestseller lists for 1903-6 suggests she was making a partial case.3 She seems to have been unaware of the challenge which realistic and naturalistic novels were offering to contemporary taste.
Among the flurry of replies to Mrs Atherton's article, easily the most passionate was by Upton Sinclair in Collier's Weekly of 8 October 1904. Sinclair was then twenty-six, and had published four undistinguished novels. His contempt for the bourgeoisie was no less real than Mrs Atherton's, but it lacked her haughty and aristocratic disdain. The bourgeois, he wrote,
is well fed himself, his wife is stout, and his children are fine and vigorous. He lives in a big house, and wears the latest thing in clothes; his civilization furnishes these to everyone—at least to everyone who amounts to anything; and beyond that he understands nothing—save only the desire to be entertained. It is for entertainment that he buys books, and as entertainment that he regards them; and hence another characteristic of the bourgeois literature is its lack of seriousness. The bourgeois writer has a certain kind of seriousness, of course—the seriousness of a hungry man seeking his dinner; but the seriousness of the artist he does not know. He will roar you as gently as any suckling dove, he will also wring tears from your eyes or thrill you with terror, according as the fashion of the hour suggests; but he knows exactly why he does these things, and he can do them between chats at his club. If you expected him to act like his heroes, he would think that you were mad.4
Sinclair's argument in ‘Our Bourgeois Literature: The Reason and the Remedy’ attributed bourgeois timidity to the knowledge of the possibility of revolution. A ‘mighty revolution’ was coming in America from the ‘under-world of the poor’, but was not yet grasped by Americans, because socialism, as they observed it, had not yet impinged upon culture. In Europe there was a substantial socialist literature (though the figures mentioned by Sinclair were in most cases not socialists at all: Bjørnsen, Maeterlinck, Sudermann, Hauptmann, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Zola and Gorky are paraded as examples), but writers in America who were socialists were generally forced to send their socialistic writings to ‘some obscure Socialist paper that you never heard of’ because the editors of bourgeois magazines were hostile to their message. The writers he mentions (Bliss Carman, Richard LeGallienne and Jack London) were, with the exception of London, established men of letters, hardly likely to threaten the social order, and London's most important socialist writings had not yet appeared. Where Mrs Atherton blamed bourgeois timidity, Sinclair argued that Americans have a capitalist culture, obedient to the interests of capital. The very idea that great art, or a high civilization, could be nourished by an unjust and exploitative society, brings forth from him a moral cry of indignation. Sinclair was an idealist in matters of culture. The arts belonged to a higher and purer realm of human endeavour than money-grubbing capitalism; but a corrupt society dragged down its highest impulses and cultural ideals:
there can be among us neither political virtue, nor social refinement, nor true religion, nor vital art, so long as men, women, and little children are chained up to toil for us in mines and factories and sweatshops, are penned in filthy slums, and fed upon offal, and doomed to rot and perish in soul-sickening and horror.
In 1904 Sinclair was a recent convert to socialism, and showed all the convert's passionate conviction. There was little in his background to suggest the likelihood of such a conversion: he grew up in Virginia and New York, where he was a student at City College in the 1890s.5 Sinclair's father was a wholesale whisky salesman, and appeared to his wife and son mainly as a troublesome drunk. Sinclair describes his mother as a long-suffering, puritanical woman who scrupulously avoided artificial stimulants like coffee, tea or alcohol. Brewers and saloon-keepers were the source of unmitigated evil to the young Sinclair, but while at City College he was exposed to other kinds of corruption:
I can remember speculating at the age of sixteen whether it could be true that women did actually sell their bodies. I decided in the negative and held to that idea until I summoned the courage to question one of my classmates in college.
The truth, finally made clear, shocked me deeply, and played a great part in the making of my political revolt. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty I explored the situation in New York, and made discoveries that for me were epoch-making. The saloonkeeper, who had been the villain of my childhood melodrama, was merely a tool and victim of the big liquor interests and politicians and police. The twin bases of the political power of Tammany Hall were saloon graft and the sale of women. So it was that, in my young soul, love for my father and love for my mother were transmuted into political rage, and I sallied forth at the age of twenty, a young reformer armed for battle.6
By 1902 Sinclair had written a vast quantity of popular ephemeral literature (stories, articles, serials, thousands of jokes, etc.), and three novels, two of which had been published. He described himself as being ‘in revolt against Mammon’. ‘… I was intellectually a perfect little snob and Tory. I despised modern books without having read them, and I expected social evils to be remedied by cultured and well-mannered gentlemen who had been to college and acquired noble ideals.’7 In the autumn of 1902, while calling upon the offices of the Literary Digest, Sinclair met ‘a tall, soft-voiced, and gentle-souled youth’ by the name of Leonard D. Abbott. He was soon impressed by the sincerity of Abbott's socialist beliefs, and took away several pamphlets and magazines to read. Abbott brought Sinclair along to meet John Spargo, editor of the International Socialist Review, and the young writer was soon drawn into the party. The effect of meeting socialists seems to have been electrifying: their doctrine, he discovered, was very congenial to his own; socialists also gave Sinclair the possibility of becoming part of a community, a brethren of fellow-believers:
It was like the falling down of prison walls about my mind; the amazing discovery, after all those years, that I did not have to carry the whole burden of humanity's future upon my two frail shoulders! There were actually others who understood; who saw what had gradually become clear to me, that the heart and centre of evil lay in leaving the social treasure, which nature had created and which every man has to have in order to live, to become the object of a scramble in the market place, a delirium of speculation. The principal fact the socialists had to teach me was that they themselves existed.8
One of the tracts which Abbott gave Sinclair was by George D. Herron, the Indiana congregational minister and socialist writer whose sensational divorce and remarriage to Carrie Rand in 1901 had ended his career in the ministry.9 Herron was a leading proponent of Christian Socialism, and his criticism of the damaging effects of money upon organized Christianity, in his famous sermon ‘The Message of Jesus to Men of Wealth’, delivered in Minneapolis in 1890, was likely to receive a sympathetic hearing from Sinclair, still strongly influenced by his mother's Episcopalian piety. ‘In no nation on the earth is there such abject submission to mere money in both church and state as there is in America’: which might just as easily have come from Sinclair in 1904 as it did from Herron a decade earlier.10 Herron's new wife had money, and he was able to help Sinclair throughout 1903, when he was writing Manassas, a heavily-researched novel about the Civil War. Herron made Sinclair a cash gift of several hundred dollars, and a small sum each month until the project was completed. It enabled Sinclair to keep afloat as a writer, and relieved him of the hack work by which he had supported himself in the past. Manassas did not reflect Sinclair's conversion to socialism, but his next book, The Jungle, became the most famous and influential novel written by a socialist in America.
The idea for a study of wage slavery came from the editor of a right-wing socialist weekly, The Appeal to Reason. The paper would stake Sinclair for ＄500 in return for serial rights to the book. Sinclair would be free to make his own arrangements for book publication, translation and foreign rights. He set out for Chicago in October 1904, where he spent seven weeks talking to workers, walking around the plants where butchery had been developed into an industrial technique. The simple act of carrying a lunchpail seemed to grant him unrestricted access to the stockyards. One of the first people he spoke to was Algie M. Simons, who knew Chicago in great detail and who had written about conditions in the canning factories.11 The stockyards had been for two decades the scene of intense labour struggles, but Sinclair seems to have known nothing of the background of the situation in 1904. There had been two general strikes. One, in 1886, was led by the Knights of Labor and resulted in the complete destruction of the union movement in the stockyards and packing houses. For fifteen years union members were hounded and eliminated from the industry. The second major strike, in 1894, was spontaneous and unorganized. The unions began to return to the stockyards by the turn of the century, and in 1904 the skilled butchers went on strike on behalf of the unskilled labourers, specifically over a claim for a combined scale of pay for all departments and classes of labour. This was a remarkable show of class consciousness and solidarity, particularly since the skilled workers were mainly immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Bohemia, whereas the unskilled were Lithuanians, Slovaks, Poles and Blacks. The strike lasted from May to September 1904, under the leadership of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmens' union. It was finally defeated when men were brought in from the five major packers' other factories, and when Greeks and Blacks were brought in for the unskilled jobs.12 When Sinclair arrived in Chicago the strike was fresh enough to have suggested that a ‘strike novel’ could have been quickly put together. In 1914 Sinclair travelled to Colorado with a similar purpose. But Sinclair seems to have preferred to take a long-term view of the stockyards, and particularly of the substitution of ethnic groups which had led, by the turn of the century, to the arrival of great numbers of Lithuanians in Chicago to work in the stockyards. It was from the most recent immigrants that Sinclair chose his characters, and their experiences in Chicago constitute his story. All that survives in The Jungle of the 1904 strike is told through Jurgis's eyes at a time when he was a strike-breaker and agent provocateur; neither the specific issues nor the history of the struggle of the workers appear in his novel. Sinclair was, however, highly impressed by racist accounts of the behaviour of black strike-breakers, and described ‘black bucks’ going wild.
The most complete account of his activities in Chicago appeared in an interview he gave to Frederick Boyd Stevenson in Wilshire's Magazine in August 1906. ‘I went to Chicago and spent seven weeks studying the stockyards and the conditions there’, he explained:
I really had no need to study the lives of the people, for the poverty of the characters in the book are the experiences of my own life, only metamorphosed. Three times I went through the packinghouses. The first time I went through with ordinary visitors and saw just what the proprietors cared to show us. On the next occasion I went through with the correspondent of the London Lancet [Adolph Smith], who is an expert sanitarian, and has been through the abattoirs of all the important cities of the world. He told me that never in all his life had he seen such abominations as he had witnessed in the Chicago slaughter houses. He said he would not believe that such horrible atrocities had existed since the Dark Ages. He afterwards wrote in the Lancet that these conditions in Packingtown were ‘a menace to the health of the civilized world’ … The people whom I talked with there were settlement workers, doctors, policemen, saloon keepers, workingmen and packers' representatives. But the key that opened the most doors to me was Socialism.
Representatives of the packing houses, and their interests, immediately attempted to discredit Sinclair's account of the unsanitary conditions. In reply, Sinclair prepared affidavits, eye-witness accounts, legal records and other circumstantial material. He defended The Jungle in terms of verifiable truth. In the Wilshire's interview Sinclair explained how he heard of some of the more gruesome details:
One night I sat in the kitchen of a Hungarian cattle-butcher whose hands were so slashed with deep knife-cuts that he could not use his thumbs, and he gave to me all the details of a man's daily life on the killing beds. And the next night I sat in the back room of a saloon and listened to the story of a man who had worked in the fertilizer mill where, in the month of November, out of 126 men, only six had been able to continue.
The claims he made for the book were unequivocal. The Jungle does not assert a ‘poetic’ or artistic truth, but a literal one: ‘Every statement of importance in the book is based on some actual occurrence, either something I myself saw or something that was told to me by eye-witnesses.’ Akin to the work of reforming journalists like Riis, Steffens and Tarbell, the ‘literary’ dimension of The Jungle was at the service of its documentary purpose. For many years Sinclair's novel was a model of what literature ought to be in the eyes of radicals. In the interview in Wilshire's he denied that there was anything imaginary or invented about the characters. He had seen them all at a Lithuanian wedding party in Chicago: ‘Now that is the story of The Jungle, and that is the way I created the people of The Jungle—in fact I did not create them at all, for they are real people.’
When Sinclair began work on his novel on Christmas day, 1904, the conditions in the stockyards were about to become an international concern. While in Chicago Sinclair met the ‘Special Sanitary Correspondent’ of the Lancet. This man, identified by Sinclair as Adolph Smith, was engaged in a similar exercise in investigative reporting. His reports in the Lancet for two years, beginning with the issue of 24 December 1904, were of such detail and seriousness that the United States government issued a formal reply (which Smith rebutted in the issues of 14 July and 29 December 1906). The Lancet could not be silenced or discredited in the fashion the meatpacking industry sought to do with Sinclair, and Smith's reports were believed to have resulted in legislation banning meat and especially pork imports from Chicago: they constitute a parallel effort, justifying Sinclair, but belonging to a higher level of ‘public health’ seriousness. Sinclair had the Lancet reports available to him while writing The Jungle, and in follow-up articles on 9 June and 29 December 1906, the Lancet referred to Sinclair's role as reinforcing their own, prior indictment. Smith's reports constitute an important and hitherto unnoticed ‘source’ for the novel.
But the Lancet was not the first to bring to public notice the conditions in the stockyards. Nor were Smith's reports, especially those published in January 1905, the only source available to Sinclair. In 1899 Algie M. Simons, who had been assigned the stockyard district by the Bureau of Charities in Chicago, published a propaganda tract, Packingtown, which may have suggested some aspects of Sinclair's approach. Simons discussed the stockyards as a visitor might experience them, and tried to explain the industrial process which they represented. (Simons defended The Jungle in the International Socialist Review in June 1906). Ernest Poole published a sketch of the experiences of a Lithuanian immigrant who settled in Chicago and worked in the stockyards (Independent, 4 August 1904). Sinclair, in fact, turns out not to have been the discoverer of the problem so much as a successful dramatizer of the issues. It would be unkind to suggest that he exploited the conditions in the stockyards, because the problems were of such magnitude that any definition of the public interest would accept the legitimacy of his interest.
The American public was selective and intermittent in its attention to the complaints of reformers and muckrakers. There was a major scandal during the Spanish-American War over the quality of tinned beef shipped to the army in Cuba. Shrewd bribery and effective public relations, though on a less scientific basis and on a smaller scale than that conducted on behalf of the Rockefeller interests (described in Chapter 3), kept the public profile of the meatpacking industry generally below the horizon of concern. Henry Demarest Lloyd did much to publicize the operation of the Beef Trust in his book Wealth Against Commonwealth (1894). The Trust was undoubtedly a mighty force in Chicago life, and, when Lloyd was writing, was becoming an increasingly potent factor in national politics. The industry was a comparatively new one, made possible by the invention of the refrigerator car in the 1870s. The ability to transport cut and trimmed or ‘dressed’ sides of meat across the country enabled butchery for the whole nation to be centralized in Chicago. The major packing houses arranged a cartel to push down the prices paid for the best grade of beef cattle. At the same time the Trust undermined competitors who continued to butcher their own cattle by undercutting prices, threatening to open rival businesses, and by the usual forms of intimidation employed by cartels. They negotiated preferential terms with the railroads which were denied to shippers of live cattle.13 The Trusts were a power in the land; by taking them on so boldly and so devastatingly, Sinclair came close to the real sources of power in the United States. But the idea that the packing houses were blankly hostile to inspection would seem to be incorrect. They saw the inspection of meat as a desirable protection against foreign competition, especially from Argentina; it was also to the advantage of the Beef Trust as against their smaller competitors within America. But inspection would cost money, and they were concerned that some of the cost was picked up by the government.14 The campaign to discredit The Jungle was an aspect of the attempt by the Beef Trust to sustain and extend its dominance in the industry. It would be too flattering to Sinclair to suggest that the novel was either responsible for the moves to reform the industry or to improve conditions. As with the elimination of flogging in the United States navy and the powerful anti-flogging case made by Herman Melville in White-Jacket (1850), the cause-and-effect relationship is elusive and probably unprovable. Which is not to deny that for many people Sinclair's novel had an overwhelming impact, and that the sentiment for President Roosevelt's reform legislation owed a great deal to the climate in part created by the novel.
At the heart of The Jungle, permeating the human reality of Packingtown, is the idea that sudden transformations of life were always possible. For the characters in the novel there are two major transformations. The first changes Jurgis and Ona from healthy, optimistic young immigrants into degraded ‘beasts’ destroyed by their work. The second phase begins after the death of Ona. Jurgis's picaresque career takes him from the life of an ex-convict and fertilizer worker to his later experiences as a smart thief, political operator and labour scab. He is saved from this corrupting life by the discovery of socialism. For Sinclair, socialism was embodied in the liberation and transformation of human nature. Solidarity was the goal of socialism, not its prerequisite. (Like Jurgis, Sinclair found community with the discovery of socialism.) The structure of the book, so often brutally criticized, becomes more comprehensible in view of Sinclair's vision of the possibilities of transforming human nature. The first part of the book is naturalistic, the second picaresque: an uneasy conjunction. But within the conditions of work in the slaughterhouses, how could the decline of Jurgis be reversed? How in those conditions could his health recover? How could he be made to gain a broader grasp of the way the system works, and thus be led to socialism? As Sinclair saw the matter, it was hardly possible for the slaughterhouses to reform themselves. He was sufficiently sceptical of Progressivism and reformism generally to doubt whether that sort of change was at all plausible in American conditions. But the book was locked into a Naturalism which seemed to point relentlessly towards Jurgis's defeat and death. Yet belief in the capacity for change, so much a central feature of the socialist imagination in America, kept Sinclair by main force from a Zolaesque conclusion. If Sinclair's belief that work and housing conditions could not, under capitalism, be meaningfully altered, then Jurgis's subsequent career makes a little more sense. The structural problem of the novel was solved by ideology and temperament: Sinclair was a deeply hopeful person. Jurgis's sudden conversion to socialism has often left critics dissatisfied, and in some respects did not please Sinclair himself. We live in a political climate more sceptical of such conversions, more cynical of their likely endurance; and for this reason find it harder to share fully the optimism of a novelist in 1905 about socialism and American politics, and about socialism as such. It is impossible to foresee a time when the gap between our own wizened realism and Sinclair's blazing hopefulness will ever be reduced.15
Analysis of The Jungle should begin with the long passage describing the butchery of hogs, the way they were hoisted by chains upon an iron wheel:
At the same instant the ear was assailed by a most terrifying shriek; the visitors started in alarm, the women turned pale and shrank back. The shriek was followed by another, louder and yet more agonizing—for once started upon that journey, the hog never came back; at the top of the wheel he was shunted off upon a trolley, and went sailing down the room. And meantime another was swung up, and then another, and...
Critical Analysis of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle Essay
2347 Words10 Pages
The Jungle is a novel that focuses on a family of immigrants who came to America looking for a better life. The novel was written by Upton Sinclair, who went into the Chicago stockyards to investigate what life was like for the people who worked there. The book was originally written with the intent of showing Socialism as a better option than Capitalism for the society. However, the details of the story ended up launching a government investigation of the meat packing plants, and ultimately regulation of food products. It gave an informative view of what life was like in America at the time. Important topics like immigration, working conditions and sanitation issues of the time were all addressed well in the novel.…show more content…
As they set out on the voyage to America, they were tricked by an officer into taking his passport, and another officer arresting him and charging him for it. They were also cheated out of their savings when they arrived in New York when an agent forced them to stay in his lodge that was much too expensive for them to afford (18). But when they reached the town, a stockyard called Packingtown where Meat Packing Plants were, it shows just how much advantage was taken of all these immigrants. Real Estate places would build houses out of poor material, then advertise the old houses as brand new for three times the cost it was to build them (69). The houses also had charges on interest, taxes, water and insurance that were not explained up front to the immigrants, who were unable to read and comprehend the deeds they would sign. All the jobs were paid at desperately low wages due to the high number of demand for work, since there were so many people that had immigrated and ended up homeless and poor, and needed a job to survive (83).
The working conditions for these immigrants at the meat packing plants were appalling and displayed how badly in need of a change they were. Workers in the factory that did unskilled labor would be paid only somewhere between a mere fifteen to twenty-five cents an hour. They would have to work from early in the morning until it was dark at night, with only a half hour break for lunch. They had no choice but to accept whatever position