Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)
Contributing Editor: James C. Wilson
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students generally respond to Sinclair's portrait of the unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing industry. They tend to be interested in the history of The Jungle --how it was written, the federal legislation that was passed because of the public reaction to it, etc. The most difficult problem in teaching The Jungle is how to approach a text in which literary qualities are subordinated to political purpose. The Jungle does not lend itself to the kinds of literary discussions that most of us are accustomed to. Its literary shortcomings are obvious.
One way to begin discussing The Jungle would be to approach it as a political novel. Work with your students to define the genre of the political novel. Compare The Jungle to other political novels the students might have read. Discuss the criteria by which we evaluate--or should evaluate--a political novel. Should our criteria include social and/or political considerations? (It might be useful here to draw a parallel between a political novel and a postmodern novel, for example, in which ideas overshadow the other ingredients of the fiction.)
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Any discussion of The Jungle should mention the unsanitary conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry at the turn of the century and the federal legislation that Congress passed as a result of the national furor that Sinclair's muckraking novel created. However, it is equally important to emphasize that The Jungle was--and is--primarily an indictment of wage slavery. Sinclair's purpose in writing the novel was to document the inhumane treatment of working men and women in industrial capitalism and to argue that socialism provided the only solution to the problem.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Questions of style and form often seem irrelevant to The Jungle. However, it is possible to discuss the primitive, at times brutal, prose of the novel as an appropriate vehicle to convey the quality of human life that Sinclair found in the stockyards of Chicago: working men and women reduced to the level of the dumb beasts they were butchering on the killing fields.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The Jungle should be considered in the context of three separate but related literary movements in America. First, the novel comes out of the muckraking era. The Muckrakers--so named by Theodore Roosevelt because they, like the Man with the Muckrake in Pilgrim's Progress, looked down at the filth and ignored the celestial crown--exposed and attempted to correct graft and corruption in both government and business. The most famous of the Muckrakers, in addition to Sinclair, were Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, whose major works, The Shame of the Cities and History of the Standard Oil Company respectively, appeared in 1901.
The Jungle also has its roots in American naturalism, with its first twenty-one chapters conforming, in both form and content, to the typical naturalistic novel of that period. For example, both style and psychological complexity are subordinated to the necessary machinations of the plot--the inevitable movement toward chaos and disintegration. Jurgis and his family, like the heroines of Stephen Crane's Maggie, Frank Norris's McTeague, and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, are victims of hereditary, environmental, social, and economic forces beyond their control--forces that shape their lives in an impersonal, mechanistic way.
Of course, what distinguishes The Jungle from these other examples of American naturalism is the turn toward socialism in the last four chapters, which allows Sinclair to end his novel on an optimistic note. The fact that Sinclair was a socialist, and that he used his writing as a vehicle to express his socialism, identifies him with the group of radical writers and artists that was centered in Greenwich Village (where the radical socialist magazine The Masses was published) and that included Floyd Dell, Randolph Bourne, Lincoln Steffens, Max Eastman, and John Reed. Sinclair, like these other socialist writers of the Progressive Era, understood that journalism and fiction could be used as political tools. Sinclair's critique of American capitalism has much in common with his fellow socialists in the pre-World War I period.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Discuss The Jungle as an indictment of wage slavery and compare it to other works of literature that attack antebellum slavery (e.g., Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin ).
(b) Discuss Sinclair's portrait of industrial capitalism in The Jungle. Look at the connection between the meat-packing industry and the other institutions represented in the novel. Look at the function of money and the false sense of security it promises. Look at Jurgis's response to hardship: "I will work harder."
(c) Discuss Sinclair's portrait of European immigrants in The Jungle. Discuss his portrait of the American city at the beginning of the twentieth century and compare it to other treatments of the American city in similar novels.
2. (a) Examine one or more of the major works of other American writers referred to as Muckrakers (especially Lincoln Steffens's The Shame of the Cities and Ida Tarbell's History of the Standard Oil Company). Compare these works to The Jungle. What common values and assumptions do all of these works share?
(b) Explore Sinclair's connection with the radical writers who wrote for The Masses (1911-17). Read Sinclair's novel King Coal (1917) and compare its treatment of the Colorado mine wars of 1913-14 with Max Eastman's in "Class War in Colorado" (The Masses, June 1914) and John Reed's treatment of the famous Patterson, New Jersey, textile strike in "War in Patterson" (The Masses, June 1913).
(c) Examine Sinclair's theory of literature in Mammonart (1925) and an early essay entitled "Our Bourgeoisie Literature-- The Reason and the Remedy," published in the October 8, 1904, issue of Collier's.
Especially helpful are the chapters on The Jungle in the following critical works:
Bloodworth, William A., Jr. Upton Sinclair. Boston: Twayne, 1971.
Harris, Leon. Upton Sinclair: American Rebel. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.
Herms, Dieter, ed. Upton Sinclair: Literature and Social Reform. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1990.
Mookerjee, R.N. Art For Social Justice: The Major Novels of Upton Sinclair. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1988.
Also, Harvey Swandos's article, "The World of Upton Sinclair" ( Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1961, pp. 96-102), contains an important discussion of The Jungle as an historical document.