Sinclair Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Upton Sinclair’s novel about labor exploitation and unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry shocked the American public and expedited governmental reforms.

Summary of Event

In the early years of the twentieth century, the combination of laissez-faire capitalism and the Industrial Revolution was creating monopolistic industries in the United States and generating huge fortunes for those who controlled them. The captains of industry sincerely believed that mass production would benefit humanity by making consumer goods cheap and abundant. They believed that business competition was a good thing because it stimulated innovation and efficiency. Their aim was to get the maximum production from the minimum investment in labor and raw material. The theory of social Darwinism Social Darwinism appealed to their needs precisely. This is a theory that the struggle for existence improves the human species because the stronger thrive while the weaker perish. The extrapolation from Charles Darwin’s theories regarding the evolution of plant and animal life seemed to justify driving workers to the limits of human endurance, encouraging unrestricted immigration to swell the labor pool, and using corporate profits to control federal, state, and local governments and make it virtually impossible for workers to put up any organized resistance. Jungle, The (Sinclair, U.) Meatpacking industry [kw]Sinclair Publishes The Jungle (Feb., 1906) [kw]Publishes The Jungle, Sinclair (Feb., 1906) [kw]Jungle, Sinclair Publishes The (Feb., 1906) Jungle, The (Sinclair, U.) Meatpacking industry [g]United States;Feb., 1906: Sinclair Publishes The Jungle[01590] [c]Literature;Feb., 1906: Sinclair Publishes The Jungle[01590] [c]Business and labor;Feb., 1906: Sinclair Publishes The Jungle[01590] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb., 1906: Sinclair Publishes The Jungle[01590] Sinclair, Upton

Big business interests also controlled public opinion through their control of newspapers and magazines. Many of these publications were owned outright by powerful capitalists; most others were dependent on advertising revenue derived from business interests and did not dare to offend them. The attitude of the money barons of the period is succinctly expressed by a character in the motion picture Citizen Kane (1941). The film’s fictional protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, owner of vast financial interests, including a chain of newspapers, declares, “The public will think what I tell them to think.”

Mechanization and mass-production methods tended to replace skilled labor and resulted in a tremendous demand for unskilled workers who could be taught to do repetitive tasks. Employers hired efficiency experts Efficiency experts Time-and-motion studies[Time and motion studies] to study their operations and break down the entire production process into the simplest possible components. The essence of the system was that the worker was not free to move around the factory but had the product conveyed to him or her by mechanical apparatus. The great comedian and movie producer Charles Chaplin satirized this dehumanizing procedure in his classic film Modern Times (1936), a work modeled on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

The general public tended to believe in the system because it seemed to represent progress: It was producing an abundance of cheap goods that seemed to be raising everyone’s standard of living. An example was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T, Model T automobile which was making it possible for the average American to own an automobile, a wonderful machine that opened up the world for recreation and exploration, a machine that formerly had been a symbol of upper-class status. The newly developing art form of advertising presented only the positive aspects of modern industrial production and ignored what went on behind the scenes.

The demand for labor attracted illiterate, impoverished immigrants from all over Europe. They came to the United States with the dream of attaining a quality of life that was unthinkable in their native countries. Most of them were absorbed by the factory system, where they found themselves working even harder than they had in their homelands. They tried to organize unions, but there were many problems: religious differences, a variety of languages, competition from the influx of immigrant workers, and political corruption. Employers often had politicians and police on their side. Strikes were broken up by “goons” (hired thugs) and “scabs” (strikebreakers), aided and abetted by the police. Labor organizers were jailed on trumped-up charges. Worst of all, the flood of immigration created such relentless competition for jobs that workers were deprived of bargaining power. This naturally created a considerable amount of hostility among the various ethnic groups, making it difficult for workers to organize effectively.

Inspired by his discovery of socialism, the idealistic young author Upton Sinclair selected the meatpacking industry as an example of capitalistic exploitation of human labor. He spent two months investigating working and living conditions in and around the Chicago packinghouses and presented his findings in the form of a novel, focusing on the career of a single immigrant laborer named Jurgis Rudkus. What happens to Jurgis is intended to symbolize what happens to working people generally under laissez-faire capitalism.

Jurgis begins his working career as a powerful young man full of optimism and ambition. He and his young wife believe in the American Dream—the dream of acquiring their own home and living a comfortable life through hard work, honesty, and thrift. Jurgis is gradually broken down by the excruciating work in the slaughterhouse. He also becomes disgusted by the greed and corruption that destroy human lives and result in incredibly filthy methods of handling of meat. Diseased animals and putrefying meat are regularly sold to the American public and exported all over the world. The packinghouses are infested with rats, which often get mixed in with the sausage meat. Sinclair piles one horrible detail on top of another. His most memorable example combines the exploitation of labor by big business and its disregard for the consumer in the pursuit of profit: Some workers, exhausted by the long hours and speeded-up tempo dictated by the merciless machinery of mass production, actually fall into cooking vats and become part of the product that is sold to the public as “pure leaf lard.”

Jurgis works hard and continues to cling to the American Dream until he injures himself on the job. After recuperating for two months, he finds that he has been replaced by younger, stronger men and can only get a job in a fertilizer plant, where he works under the most appalling conditions. His career continues on a downhill course. He becomes addicted to alcohol, is thrown in jail, is blacklisted, drifts from one temporary job to another, and becomes a strong-arm robber and a strikebreaker. His wife, son, and father all die tragically. Finally, all alone and in despair, Jurgis happens to attend a meeting where he hears a brilliant socialist speak on the evils of capitalism. Jurgis’s whole life is turned around by the realization that he is not really alone—rather, he shares the same problems as millions of other workers. Socialism becomes a substitute for religious faith. Sinclair hoped that his prescription would be accepted by the masses.

Sinclair had started his literary career as a hack writer of fiction for young people. This experience taught him how to write in simple language. The Jungle became famous because it was easy to read and easy to understand. Almost immediately, other writers began to publish novels exposing other branches of American business. The exposé novel became and remained a popular genre of fiction.


The most immediate effect of The Jungle was that it expedited the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) of 1906, which prohibited the shipment of adulterated foods and drugs in interstate commerce and required honest labeling. The Meat Inspection Act Meat Inspection Act (1906) was passed in the same year. Enforcement of these acts led to the creation in 1930 of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. an agency that gradually acquired more and more supervisory control over production and sale of consumer goods. This legislation helped to establish a precedent for further government control of business operations.

Government control of business had a strong, usually positive, effect on consumer rights. The nation’s health was better, and consumers felt less anxious about what they were eating and feeding their children. It would be hard to imagine living in a civilized society without such safeguards. This, however, was not the effect Sinclair had tried to achieve. In his autobiography, he wrote, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” The public was much more concerned about the food it ate than about the plight of the workers who produced it. What people remembered about the book was “rats in the sausage.”

The history of The Jungle symbolizes the main problem of socialism as a solution to the world’s problems. Human nature is arguably more selfish than cooperative. It is impossible to get an entire population to work hard for an ideal: People want tangible personal rewards, and these are the things that capitalism has provided more effectively than has socialism. The unrest in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s demonstrated that socialistic dictatorships may start off with idealistic principles but are forced to resort to guns and concentration camps to motivate their constituents to produce. Sinclair himself lost his zest for socialism in his old age and changed his credo to “social justice.” As applied to big business, this might be translated into the modern term “corporate responsibility.”

In the long run, The Jungle was most important in the influence it had on other artists. The book was a best seller in the United States and Great Britain and made Sinclair famous. He went on to write influential propagandistic fiction and nonfiction for sixty years. His works were translated into at least forty-seven languages in thirty-nine countries. He showed how complex economic and political ideas can be presented effectively in dramatic form to appeal directly to the masses.

In Sinclair’s model, a viewpoint character is broken by an oppressive system and finally comes to realize the need for political action. The reader identifies with the viewpoint character and thereby shares in that character’s conversion to an ideology. Variations of The Jungle have appeared throughout the world because the novel proved to be such a valuable propaganda tool. Because Sinclair’s model can be used just as effectively to arouse public anger against socialistic bureaucracy as against capitalistic megalopoly, novelists in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe have attacked the evils of socialism with the same tool that Sinclair forged to promote it. In Mammonart (1925), Mammonart (Sinclair, U.) a nonfiction work, Sinclair’s thesis is that all art is propaganda, that it cannot help but be propaganda, and that modern artists should not feel squeamish about using their work as propaganda to agitate for the betterment of humankind.

The most important effect of The Jungle and its many imitations was that they undermined the popular belief that the ambitious individual can find happiness and financial success through hard work and thrift—the so-called American Dream. Instead, these works helped to promote a mass consciousness of the need for joint action to effect improvement in human affairs. Jungle, The (Sinclair, U.) Meatpacking industry

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Agee, James. “A Mother’s Tale.” In James Agee: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” “A Death in the Family,” Shorter Fiction, edited by Michael Sragow. New York: Library of America, 2005. Intriguing and highly unusual short story describes the whole process of raising and butchering cattle from the point of view of an animal who managed to escape from a slaughterhouse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arthur, Anthony. Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair. New York: Random House, 2006. Biography emphasizes Sinclair’s interest in social reform, including his political ambitions. Provides interesting coverage of the author’s life after publication of The Jungle. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asch, Peter. Consumer Safety Regulation: Putting a Price on Life and Limb. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Analysis of the major arguments advanced for consumer protection laws by an economist concerned with regulation. Argues that consumer protection laws often have perverse consequences, although the right to safety must also be considered. Includes discussion of the effect of publication of The Jungle in promoting disclosure laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloodworth, William A., Jr. Upton Sinclair. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Brief volume addresses Sinclair’s career as an idealistic writer and reformer. Focuses on Sinclair’s place in American social and literary history, with special emphasis on his significance as a voice in pre-World War I reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dell, Floyd. Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest. 1927. Reprint. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2005. Brief but balanced survey of Sinclair’s life from his youth to his late forties. Includes a brief discussion of The Jungle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, Lorine Swainston. The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999. Survey of the history of lobbyists and elected officials who fought for legislation to protect the public from dangerous food and drug products.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Leon. Upton Sinclair: American Rebel. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975. Biography relies heavily on Sinclair’s extensive correspondence as well as on numerous interviews with individuals who knew him. Devotes two chapters to discussion of The Jungle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilts, Philip J. Protecting America’s Health: The FDA, Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Documents the history of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from its establishment during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Emphasizes the FDA’s regulatory role and its battles against entrenched business interests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mookerjee, R. N. Art for Social Justice: The Major Novels of Upton Sinclair. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1988. Intelligent overview of Sinclair’s career devotes a chapter to The Jungle. Includes extensive footnotes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinclair, Upton. The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. Provides the best introduction to Sinclair’s philosophy and his unique personality. Includes a great deal of information about the writing of The Jungle and describes many of the famous people the author came to know during his lifetime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Jungle. 1906. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 2002. The novel that brought corrupt food industry practices to international attention is one of the first major media exposés in U.S. history.

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Categories: History