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Impure Literature

April 28, 2005

The publication, 100 years ago, of  The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, in the popular American socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason had an enormous effect -- if not quite the one that its author intended. "I aimed at the public’s heart," Sinclair later said, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Drawing on interviews with workers in Chicago and his own covert explorations of the city’s meat-processing factories, Sinclair intended the novel to be an expose of brutal working conditions. By the time it appeared as a book the following year, The Jungle’s nauseating revelations were the catalyst for a reform movement culminating in the Pure Food and Drug Act. In portraying the life and struggles of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, Sinclair wanted to write (as he put it), “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery,” thereby ushering in an age of proletarian emancipation. Instead, he obliged the bourgeoisie to regulate itself -- if only to keep from feeling disgust at its breakfast sausages.

In his introduction to a new edition of The Jungle, just published by Bedford/St. Martin’s, Christopher Phelps traces the origins and effects of Sinclair’s novel. Phelps, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University in Mansfield, is currently on a Fulbright fellowship in Poland, where he occupies a distinguished chair in American studies and literature at the University of Lodz. The following is the transcript of an e-mail interview conducted this month.

Q: At one of the major chain bookstores the other day, I noticed at least four editions of The Jungle on the shelf.  Yours wasn’t one of them. Presumably it's just a matter of time. What’s the need, or the added value, of your edition? Some of the versions available are pretty cheap, after all. The book is now in the public domain.

A:  Yes, it’s even available for free online these days, if all you want is the text. This new edition is for readers seeking context. It has a number of unique aspects. I’m pleased about the appendix, a report written by the inspectors President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched to Chicago to investigate Upton Sinclair’s claims about the meatpacking industry. In one workplace, they watch as a pig slides off the line into a latrine, only to be returned to the hook, unwashed, for processing. No other version of The Jungle includes this report, which before now had lapsed into obscurity. The new edition also features an introduction in which I survey the scholarship on the novel and provide findings from my research in Sinclair’s papers held by the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Finally, there are a lot of features aimed at students, including a cartoon, a map, several photographs, a bibliography, a chronology of Sinclair’s life, and a list of questions for discussion. So it doubles as scholarly edition and teaching edition.

Q: Let me ask about teaching the book, then. How does The Jungle go over in the classroom?

A:  Extremely well. Students love it. The challenge of teaching history, especially the survey, is to get students who think history is boring to imagine the past so that it comes alive for them. The Jungle has a compelling story line that captures readers’ attention from its very first scene, a wedding celebration shaded in financial anxiety and doubts about whether Old World cultural traditions can survive in America. From then on, students just want to learn what will befall Jurgis and his family. Along the way, of course, Sinclair injects so much social commentary and description that teachers can easily use students’ interest in the narrative as a point of departure for raising a whole range of issues about the period historians call the Progressive Era.

Q:  As you've said, the new edition includes a government report that appeared in the wake of the novel, confirming the nauseating details. What are the grounds for reading and studying Sinclair's fiction, rather than the government report?

A:  Well, Teddy Roosevelt’s inspectors had the singular mission of determining whether the industry’s slaughtering and processing practices were wholesome. Sinclair, for his part, had many other concerns. What drew him to write about the meatpacking industry in the first place was the crushing of a massive strike of tens of thousands of workers led by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America in 1904. In other words, he wanted to advance the cause of labor by exposing the degradation of work and exploitation of the immigrant poor.

When The Jungle became a bestseller, Sinclair was frustrated that the public furor centered almost exclusively on whether the companies were grinding up rats into sausage or disguising malodorous tinned beef with dyes. These were real concerns, but Sinclair cared most of all about the grinding up of workers. I included this government report, therefore, not only because it confirms Sinclair’s portrait of unsanitary meat processing, but because it exemplifies the constriction of Sinclair’s panorama of concerns to the worries of the middle-class consumer.

It further shows how Sinclair’s socialist proposal of public ownership was set aside in favor of regulatory measures like the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act of 1906. Of course, that did not surprise Sinclair. He was proud, rightly so, of having been a catalyst for reform. Now, just as the report must be read with this kind of critical eye, so too the novel ought not be taken literally.

Q:  Right. All kinds of problems come from taking any work of literature, even the most intentionally documentary, as giving the reader direct access to history.

A: Nowadays The Jungle is much more likely to be assigned in history courses than in literature courses, and yet it is a work of fiction. You point to a major problem, which we might call the construction of realism. I devote a good deal of attention to literary form and genre in my introduction, because I think they are crucial and should not be shunted aside. I note the influence upon The Jungle of the sentimentalism of Harriet Beecher Stowe, of naturalist and realist writers like William Dean Howells and Frank Norris, and of the popular dime novels of Horatio Alger. Sinclair was writing a novel, not a government report. He fancied himself an American Zola, the Stowe of wage slavery.

A good teacher ought to be able to take into account this status of the text as a work of creative literature while still drawing out its historical value. We might consider Jurgis, for example, as the personification of a class. He receives far more lumps in life than any single worker would in 1906, but the problems he encounters, such as on-the-job injury or the compulsion to make one’s children work, were in fact dilemmas for the working class of the time.

In my introduction, I contrast the novel with what historians now think about immigrant enclaves, the labor process, gender relations, and race. There is no determinant answer to the question of how well The Jungle represented such social realities. Many things it depicted extremely well, others abominably, race being in the latter category. If we keep in mind that realism is literary, fabricated, we can see that Sinclair’s background afforded him a discerning view of many social developments, making him a visionary, even while he was blind in other ways. Those failings are themselves revelatory of phenomena of the period, such as the racism then commonplace among white liberals, socialists, and labor activists. It’s important that we read the novel on all these levels.

Q: Sinclair wrote quite a few other novels, most of them less memorable than The Jungle. Well, OK, to be frank,  what I've heard is that they were, for the most part, awful. Is that an unfair judgment? Was The Jungle a case of the right author handling the right subject at the right time?

A:  That's precisely it, I think. Sinclair was uniquely inspired at the moment of writing The Jungle. I've been reading a lot of his other books, and although some have their moments, they sure can give you a headache. Many of them read like failed attempts to recapture that past moment of glory. He lived to be ninety and cranked out a book for every year of his life, so it's a cautionary tale about allowing prolixity to outpace quality. The book of his that I like best after The Jungle is his 1962 autobiography, a book that is wry and whimsical in a surprising and attractive, even disarming, way.

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

 

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