"I aimed for the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." Upton Sinclair used those words to describe the reaction his novel, The Jungle, received upon its initial publication. Sinclair intended to illustrate the plight of immigrants in Chicago at the turn of the century; providing details and examples of abuses in the meatpacking industry merely as a means of demonstrating their troubles. Instead of being one example of many hardships, those examples, revealed in fewer than twelve pages, became both the rallying cry for industrial abuse and the public perception of the entire thematic nature of the novel.
Originally, The Jungle appeared in serial form in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason in 1905. Sinclair was hired to write an exposé about labor conditions in the Chicago stockyards. Sinclair's novel had mass appeal and led to an outcry against the meatpacking industry.
The harsh realities and controversial topics of The Jungle made finding a publisher for a bound edition difficult. Only after investigating the allegations in Sinclair's book did Doubleday, Page, and Company agree to print the book in 1906.
While publishers debated printing The Jungle, the public demanded government intervention against the atrocities. This public outcry led to the 1906 Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. It also, however, led to a report issued the same year by the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal Husbandry that refuted the worst of Sinclair's allegations. The public's perception at this time was that the meatpacking industry feared these Acts. What was unrecognized, however, was the fact that meatpackers knew they were viewed with contempt, and facing substantial losses, the industry actually supported the Acts. They just did not want to be the ones to pay for the implementation. These Acts allayed most fears, and ironically, actually favored big business, which was the opposite of Sinclair's intention.
No one knows exactly the extent of what is fact and what is fiction in The Jungle. Abuse in business and government most certainly existed, for graft was a way of life. In all probability, The Jungle illustrates a world that was not too far removed from the reality of the day; however, the extreme examples of abuse are most likely the result of Sinclair's imagination.
Sinclair needed to include these extreme examples because he had a particular agenda when writing The Jungle. After following the famous meat cutters' strike of 1904, Sinclair wrote an essay challenging the union to do something after it had lost its protest. The editor of Appeal to Reason answered Sinclair's challenge, hiring him to write the exposé. Sinclair visited Chicago and used the real-life situations at the stockyards to discredit the American economic system — capitalism — and to show the working men that the answer to their troubles was socialism. In fact, he dedicated his novel to the working men of America, and many editions of The Jungle still carry that dedication.
When writing his book, Sinclair used a variety of styles and influences to create essentially a new type of novel. Elements of naturalism exist throughout most of the text. Naturalism, as a type of literature, attempts to apply scientific principles and detachment when studying humans. The characters created in naturalistic fiction are "human beasts" who can be studied by examining their surroundings. Emile Zola provided the classical definition and application of naturalism. When Sinclair was taking copious notes about his experiences in Chicago, he was being a naturalist practitioner.
The literary components of character, setting, and theme are three areas where The Jungle exemplifies naturalistic fiction tendencies. Characters in this genre typically are lower-class people who struggle against forces beyond their control. The setting tends to be urban, and the details and examples used to show a slice of life often end up being a chronicle of despair. It is extremely important that harsh realities be portrayed as such, no matter how unsavory they may be. Only when novelists present all the facts do they finally reveal the truth. Finally, two themes dominate naturalistic novels: survival and futile attempts to exercise free will. These themes are apparent throughout The Jungle.
The Jungle, however, is not pure naturalism. Sinclair incorporates just enough of it to suit his rhetorical purpose. Unlike pure Zolaism (another name for naturalism), Sinclair's The Jungle is lacking in objectivity: Sinclair clearly sympathizes with the working class. Sinclair also saves Jurgis, the protagonist, from destruction. This totally undermines the pessimistic naturalistic belief in futility.
In addition to elements of naturalism, Sinclair incorporates a variety of muckraking techniques. The muckrakers were writers who used non-fiction — particularly facts, figures, and laws — to support their beliefs and reveal abuses in business and government in their publications. Muckraking novels, also known as social protest novels, exist to expose conditions that need to be changed. When muckraking novels move from exposing faults to advocating a particular method as the only means for change, they're considered propaganda. Although most critics regard The Jungle as propaganda, it differs from most propaganda novels whose authors readily concede bias. Sinclair considers his work more than just a means to an end; that is, he felt he was creating quality literature that simultaneously served as propaganda promoting socialism. Sinclair's political views and portrayal of life in the slums alienated many readers who were uncomfortable reading about the realities of being poor, yet only in the final four chapters of The Jungle does Sinclair's socialist propaganda take control of his narrative. Critics who routinely dismiss The Jungle as propaganda are as guilty of misreading Sinclair's work as those who consider it only a muckraking novel about the meatpacking industry.
Granted, the ending of The Jungle reads as a treatise for socialism (it did first appear in a socialist newspaper), and scholars often dismiss Sinclair and his work instead of trying to determine his place in American literature. Very few contemporary critics consider The Jungle as favorably as Sinclair's socialist contemporary Jack London, who claimed that "what Uncle Tom's Cabin did for black slaves, The Jungle has a large chance to do for the wage slaves of today." The comparison to Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous book remains, and many critics think these two works deserve special consideration, not so much for their literary merit, but for the impact they had on the American public.
Still other critics recognize The Jungle as an early work, sort of a work in progress, for a future Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, embracing the positive aspects and forgetting the rest. Even the lukewarm responses praise Sinclair's incredible imagery and brutal realism. Thematically — the notion that industry is a jungle and the law of the jungle is survival of the fittest — Sinclair's book is as relevant at the turn of the next century as it was 100 years ago.
Contemporary critics who regard Sinclair and The Jungle favorably note that capitalism often times does encourage greed and ruthless competition and that many writers who state that the American dream is a myth are routinely embraced by those who reject Sinclair.
Sinclair had no models or traditions to follow, so The Jungle became, as critic William A. Bloodworth, Jr. states, "a flawed but strenuous effort" to create a new type of novel. Those in Sinclair's corner also claim that social indignation is a legitimate aspiration for any novelist. The Jungle and Sinclair have endured, not for any one particular reason, but rather, for a variety of reasons.