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LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION
Several English novels have documented real-life class and racial exploitation in dramatic form. These include Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke (1850), which dealt with the chartist movement, an attempt by British workers to obtain political and economic reforms, Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil or The Two Nations (1845), which detailed the wretched lives of the masses in the county town of Marne, and Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855) which depicted the lives of factory workers. These novels of dissent or reformation drew their inspiration from mid-nineteenth century battles waged by the English masses. In America, this tradition was carried on the shoulders of writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) highlighted the inhuman practice of slavery, and Helen Hunt Jackson, whose Ramona (1884) took up the cause of the Indians. As a novel of social protest, The Jungle recalls these works.
The early 1900s were a time when the American press was seeking to develop a national image and also engaging in investigative journalism. This era of journalism is pejoratively known as the era of "muckrakers." The muckrakers focused their early attention on the meat packaging and patent medicines industries and were influential in getting the Pure Food and Drug Bill entered in the Senate in 1902. Although the bill was kept in cold storage, it was reintroduced in 1905 after a series of articles in The Ladies Home Journal and Collier's. Press exposes revealing that meat was not government inspected, as was the popular belief, created a furor. President Theodore Roosevelt was compelled to appoint a commission of inquiry against the meat industry. The commission, however, gave the packers a clean chit.
In 1904, Sinclair was commissioned by the Socialist weekly, the Appeal to Reason to investigate into and document the living and working conditions in Chicago's stockyards. He was paid a subsidy of $500 for the work. Sinclair stayed in the stockyards for seven weeks to gather his material. The Jungle was published serially in the Appeal to Reason in 1905. Despite the work's popularity, Sinclair almost found it impossible to get The Jungle published in book form. Publishers were unwilling to touch it without censoring the manuscript, even though demands for back issues of the newspaper containing the novel ran high. Ultimately Doubleday, Page and Company published the book in 1906, after checking that the facts in it were true.
The public reaction to the book was not what Sinclair expected. His main aim had been to highlight the plight of the workers and present Socialism as an alternative to capitalism's ills. However these aspects were overshadowed by the uproar over the unsanitary manufacturing practices in the meat industry. Lamented Sinclair, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
The Jungle was instrumental in forcing the Pure Food and Drug Bill out of a House committee. President Theodore Roosevelt was also forced into reacting. After the first investigating committee exonerated the packers, Roosevelt, due to increased public pressure, including Sinclair's own personal appeal, appointed the Neill-Reynolds Commission. A Beef Inspection Act was also placed in the Senate.
The meat industry, meanwhile, launched a counter-propaganda campaign in the press. Although the Neill-Reynolds report corroborated Sinclair's description of the packinghouses, only toothless versions of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Beef Inspection Act were passed, thanks to the advertising and lobbying power of the packers.
Sinclair's place in literary history is an ambiguous one and despite the continued significance of works such as The Jungle, he is considered by many critics to be a relatively minor figure in comparison to his contemporaries. This is a debatable viewpoint, one that may, in no small measure, be influenced by the fact that Sinclair was the quintessential anti-establishment man. The Jungle reveals Sinclair's own thinking. For instance, his staunchly anti- liquor stance in the novel is most likely a product of his unhappiness with a drunkard father. Having faced poverty in childhood, Sinclair is able to write with great empathy about the privations of penury.
Most importantly, his Socialist ideology colors the novel. The Jungle is not just a story or an artistic creation; it is openly and blatantly propaganda. Clearly, the novel's aim is to propagate socialism as a solution to the misery and corruption of capitalism. In this regard, Sinclair was disappointed, because the problems dear to his heart were completely overshadowed. As for propaganda, it was the meat industry that finally won the day. But the very fact that the book caused such a stir is testimony to the power of Sinclair's pen and the poignancy of his message.