The Jungle at 100

Against the Current, No. 115, March/April 2005

Christopher Phelps

[Editors’ note: Upton Sinclair’s classic novel about an exploited immigrant meatpacking worker in Chicago, The Jungle, began serial publication exactly one hundred years ago (in February 1905) in the pages of the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. The following year, The Jungle was published in book form and became a bestseller, prompting the reform of food inspection law. Against the Current advisory editor Christopher Phelps is the editor of a new edition of The Jungle to be published this year by the Bedford imprint of St. Martin’s Press. It will be the first edition of the novel to include the full text of the report delivered to President Theodore Roosevelt by the independent agents he sent to Chicago to investigate Sinclair’s claims. We are pleased to present the following excerpt from Phelps’ introduction.]

WHEN IT WAS first published as a book in 1906, The Jungle’s graphic revelations about the American meatpacking industry, combined with its compelling story of an immigrant worker’s brutal degradation, made it an immediate sensation.

Upton Sinclair was an obscure writer, twenty-eight years old. He intended the novel not merely as a catalyst for reform but as a trumpet call for the social imagination. The book’s title conveyed his view that capitalist society, by favoring profits over people, had reverted to a raw state of nature.

As a metaphor, “jungle” denoted the ferocity of dog-eat-dog competition, the barbarity of exploitative work, the wilderness of urban life, the savagery of poverty, the crudity of political corruption, and the primitiveness of the doctrine of survival of the fittest, which led people to the slaughter as surely as cattle. This animalistic jungle, Sinclair held, should be replaced by a more humane, civilized, cooperative society. Socialism was the answer to modern-day barbarism.(1)

Sinclair’s point may have been appreciated by his working-class readers, but the primary response of middle-class readers of The Jungle was not sustained political sympathy for immigrants or solidarity with the working class. Rather, they were shocked and appalled by what might be in their food.

The novel’s tales of rat feces ground up in sausages, gangrenous cattle butchered and sold, and preservatives and dyes used to disguise malodorous decomposition in tinned meat prompted a general outcry. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair remarked, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”(2)

Domestic meat consumption fell, and Europeans — their revulsion fanned by their own meat producers — promptly stopped consuming American meat. With sales plummeting, and fear rising that proponents of nationalization of the meatpacking industry might gain from the scandal, American packing companies and the government were compelled to act.

Congress quickly passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act in June of 1906. These measures inspired by The Jungle protected consumers but did not address conditions for workers at the point of production. Reform, not revolution, was the novel’s consequence.(3)

The Jungle’s effect and reach, however, were substantial. It was an instantaneous bestseller, selling 25,000 copies in its first month and a half alone. Translations were issued in numerous languages, making The Jungle the most widely recognized American novel in the world between its publication and the 1930s.(4)

A book that put workers’ daily struggles to exist and their most radical aspirations front and center was, paradoxically, taken by world culture to be emblematic of an America that was on the whole apolitical, individualistic, nationalistic and business-saturated.

The success of Sinclair’s social realism can be attributed in large part to his familiarity with the techniques of mass fiction. The Jungle’s accessible style, stunning claims, and lively plot engage the reader, from the opening portrayal of a traditional Lithuanian wedding ceremony pervaded by New World financial anxieties through every consequent agony of Jurgis Rudkus and his family.

The Jungle was a feat of genre inversion. It turned upside-down the popular “rags to riches” tales of Horatio Alger, in which material success springs automatically from moral virtue. Sinclair’s protagonist is every bit as devoted to honest, persistent effort as Alger’s best-known hero, Ragged Dick. Their fates, however, are altogether different. “I will work harder,” Jurgis resolves time and again, while sinking ever deeper into hopelessness.

Momentarily, Sinclair impressed an otherwise individualistic culture with a novel positing that hard work and good intentions, while honorable, do not in themselves provide an escape from class subjugation. Ragged Dick had met his match: Ragged Jurgis.(5)

Into The Jungle

In autumn 1904, Upton Sinclair arrived in Chicago, Illinois. A young Socialist Party member, Sinclair had been commissioned to write a serial novel to be published in weekly installments in The Appeal to Reason, the most important American socialist paper in an age when there were dozens.

The setting would be Chicago’s Packingtown district — where giant slaughterhouses owned by the biggest national meat companies towered above immense stockyard pens for cattle, sheep, and hogs — and the surrounding working-class neighborhood, known as “back of the yards” because it lay behind the stockyards if approached from downtown Chicago.

If Washington, D.C., was the nation’s political capital, and New York City its commercial-financial nerve center, Chicago embodied its industrial heart. Described by poet Carl Sandburg as “Hog Butcher for the World,” the city was a smokestack metropolis where railways crisscrossed between the densely populated manufacturing East and the agrarian West, with cattle and hogs transported one way and refrigerated meat the other.(6)

Notorious for labor clashes at Haymarket Square in 1886 and against the Pullman Sleeping Car Company in 1894, Chicago was seen by socialists, in the words of Jack London, as “industrialism incarnate, the storm-center of the conflict between capital and labor, a city of street battles and blood ….”(7)

Just before Sinclair’s arrival, a massive stockyards strike had been crushed. Beginning in 1900, unions had taken root in Packingtown, formed by workers for the purpose of advancing members’ wages, conditions, dignity and power. More than twenty different locals of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America (part of the American Federation of Labor), were organized under the leadership of an Irish sheep butcher, Michael Donnelly.

To avoid the divisions that helped destroy earlier strikes and organizing efforts, this drive permitted African Americans, women, and workers of all skill levels to join the union. Through a series of limited strikes, the Amalgamated pushed up workers’ wages and addressed many grievances. In May 1904, the union declared its aim of an industry-wide minimum wage of 18.5 cents for unskilled labor.

Employers, bent on destroying a union that had frequently challenged management control, responded by slashing unskilled pay to 16 cents (slightly more than $3 today — an unlivable wage). In July, at least 25,000 packinghouse workers in Chicago walked out. Even skilled workers struck, knowing that erosion of wages for the unskilled would, in the long run, undermine their own position.

By September, the strike was broken as employers brought in substitute workers: skilled butchers from Cleveland, Greeks and Italians straight from the immigration center at Ellis Island in New York, and African Americans from the Deep South. The unions were all but ruined, and Donnelly was blacklisted for life.(8)

That September, having read about the meatpackers’ strike, Sinclair had sent an unsolicited article to the Appeal to Reason titled “You Have Lost the Strike! And Now What Are You Going to Do About It?”(9)

The article urged the defeated strikers to advance their economic aims by political methods by casting ballots for the Socialist presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs. Debs was a hero to Chicago workers because he had been president of the valiant American Railway Union broken in the 1894 Pullman strike.

Thirty thousand copies of Sinclair’s plea were distributed in Packingtown. Appeal editor Fred Warren was further impressed when he read Sinclair’s novel about the Civil War, Manassas (1904). He provided an advance of $500 ($9,500 in today’s dollars) for Sinclair to travel to Chicago to write “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery” — a work that would expose the exploitation of labor as powerfully as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous 1853 novel had condemned chattel slavery.

Sinclair obtained an additional $500 advance from Macmillan, a leading New York publisher, for book rights to follow serial publication in the Appeal.(10)

Sinclair’s method was investigative. Upon arriving in Chicago, he took a small room at a hotel in the stockyards district and arranged to take his meals at the University of Chicago Settlement run by reformer Mary McDowell, a middle-class supporter of Packingtown labor.(11)

Living in the workers’ district, Sinclair soaked up the conditions and struggles of the urban immigrant poor. He interviewed a physician, a dentist, a health official, and a real estate agent, writing their statements in a notebook and cross-checking each claim against the others. At a worker’s suggestion, he dressed in worn clothes and went into the vast meatpacking concerns carrying a lunch box, as if he belonged there. “My main source of information was, of course, the strike leaders and rebel workers,” he later wrote:

“I would be invited to their homes, and there would be half a dozen men and women, ready to pour out their hearts while I sat and made notes, hour after hour. I talked with the men who worked on the ‘killing-beds’ and on the lard vats, where they sometimes slipped and fell in; workers in the fertilizer rooms where the acids destroyed the soles of their feet — and so on through innumerable horrors. I stayed on the job for seven weeks and accumulated well-filled notebooks, which I shipped home by registered mail.”

In the end, Sinclair concluded that the condition of Chicago’s stockyards “was moral, spiritual, and physical degradation, a ‘jungle’ in which humans lived barely above the level of animals.’”(12)

Returning in the depths of winter to a barebones one-room cabin near Princeton, New Jersey, Sinclair began to write. Moved by what he had witnessed, he sometimes cried as he composed. Emotions welled for self as well as topic. As Sinclair later reflected, “Externally the story had to do with a family of stockyard workers, but internally it was the story of my own family.” His own experience coincided just enough with Jurgis’s to give him unusual empathy with his protagonist.(13)

Gentility had not insulated the young Upton Sinclair from poverty. His paternal lineage was Southern, Anglo-Saxon and Episcopalian. The men were nautical officers who served sequentially in the British, American, and Confederate navies. After the Civil War, however, the family fell from grace. His salesman father’s turn to drink brought destitution and shame, and Sinclair grew up a “poor relation” reliant on patronizing relatives.

His pious, proud mother, Methodist in background, shuttled the family between shabby boarding houses in New York and her wealthy relatives in Baltimore. The stark differences Sinclair witnessed are reflected in the divergent class worlds that collide in The Jungle. Sinclair’s luckless boyhood struggles to stop the magnetic pull of liquor upon his father, who died in delirium tremens, also shaped his political outlook.

He drew a line of connection between the bars, breweries, liquor companies, police and political system, and concluded that government was corrupt — arranged for private profit and the wealthy, not decency or reason. His closeness to his mother, in whose bed he slept as a boy, led him to idealize women, leaving him open to feminism but puritanical in sexual matters.(14)

Poverty was not just a distant childhood memory for Upton Sinclair in 1904. At a very young age, he had impulsively married the attractive but troubled Meta Fuller, daughter of one of his mother’s close friends. Their baby boy was born in 1901, and Sinclair’s income was insufficient to support his family adequately.

By 1904, he was in debt as a result of acquiring a New Jersey farm so that they could leave behind the leaky shack they had inhabited. Sinclair’s heroes, like Jurgis, were often martyrs, and Sinclair fancied himself an ascetic sacrificing all to art. Penury, privation, exposure to the extremities of weather, and his strained marriage made him believe that although he was not an industrial worker or immigrant, he could view the world as would someone like Jurgis.

“I, too, had been poor,” he later said. “I, too, had lived under miserable circumstances with a wife and baby. I had known what it was to be cold in winter and hot in summer.”(15)

Sinclair was far from the first to decry Chicago meatpacking. Many socialist writers, including Algie Martin Simons, Ernest Poole, Ernest Untermann, Charles Edward Russell and Charles Kerr, had written on the giant packing companies and the wretchedness of Packingtown between 1899 and 1905.(16)

Sinclair’s strength was his ability to take a set of problems already of great interest and compress them into the service of a compelling plot. After he started writing in December 1904, serialization of The Jungle began in the Appeal to Reason in February 1905, and he produced the rest of the book through the spring and summer.

Uncertain how to end it, exhausted, he took a break to create the Intercollegiate Socialist Society with Jack London presiding to bring socialism to college campuses.
Sinclair finished the writing in September 1905.

When The Jungle appeared in its pages, the Appeal to Reason had a national circulation of almost 300,000 paid subscribers, with many more copies printed of special editions. A populist-socialist paper, the Appeal was published in Kansas by J. A. Wayland, who favored plain prose and short paragraphs, surely an influence on Sinclair’s style. The Appeal’s masthead slogan read “For the Ownership of the Earth and the Fullness Thereof by All the People and not by Part of the People.”(17)

A statistical analysis of the five hundred leading sellers in the Appeal’s volunteer subscription army found that a majority of them were American-born, working-class males living in mid-sized industrial towns.(18) It seems reasonable to conclude that the serialized version of The Jungle, with its appeal for class consciousness and toleration of immigrant labor, reached a sizable segment of the native-born working class.

As it was translated into other languages, The Jungle quickly reached the immigrant working class as well. In Chicago, for example, a Lithuanian edition appeared within a year.(19)

The book’s road to a wider, predominantly middle-class audience was not a smooth one. George Brett, president of Macmillan and owner of the book rights, declined to publish The Jungle, stating that it contained details too horrible for the public to accept. He urged Sinclair to drop the “blood and guts.” Sinclair refused, though he made excisions at the end of the novel to streamline the text.

Four additional publishers rejected the book. Undaunted, Sinclair planned to self-publish a “sustainer’s edition,” subsidized by advance orders from Appeal readers.(20)

At the last minute, the firm of Doubleday, Page agreed to publish The Jungle so long as its claims about the meatpacking industry could be verified. Doubleday hired a young New York lawyer who traveled to Chicago and witnessed ulcerous, choleric hogs being chopped up and made into lard for public consumption.

Additional substantiation came from other authorities. The former chief stockyards inspector for the city of Chicago attested that stamps reading “government inspected” were meaningless:

“Immediately following the passing of the meat by the government inspector, the beef trimmers cut off all unsightly portions, bruised or injured places, enlarged glands or abscesses. I asked the inspector what was done with these trimmings. ‘Sausage,’ was his laconic reply.”

A writer in the British medical journal Lancet blasted Chicago’s “foul and abominable” slaughterhouses. Another medical doctor published a report that working-class families back of the yards suffered from overcrowded housing, high rates of tuberculosis and child mortality, industrial pollution, and inadequate sewage. Finally, Sinclair could point to numerous state governments’ chemical analyses that found borax, boric acid, sulphite, dyes, and starch additives in Armour & Co.’s tinned meat and sausages.(21)

As a result of these substantiations, two hardcover editions of The Jungle were published simultaneously in April 1906: Sinclair’s private edition and a much larger run by Doubleday printed from nearly identical plates. Although the packing companies attempted to discredit the book, the press covered its allegations, and the public believed them. The resulting outcry over meatpacking abuses grew deafening.


  1. The socialist intellectual culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth century cast history in evolutionary terms while challenging classical liberal assumptions that identified progress and civilization with capitalism. Instead, socialists posited, capitalism meant barbarism. Rosa Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings, ed. Dick Howard (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971): 322-335; Mark Pittenger, American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993).
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  2. Sinclair, “What Life Means to Me,” Cosmopolitan 41 (October 1906): 594.
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  3. On passage of the reform legislation, see especially John Braemen, “The Square Deal in Action: A Case Study in the Growth of the ‘National Police Power,’” in Change and Continuity in Twentieth-Century America, ed. John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner, and Everett Walters (Columbus: Ohio State University, 1964): 35-80.
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  4. Leon Harris, Upton Sinclair: American Rebel (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975), 136.
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  5. Like most youngsters of the time, Sinclair read Horatio Alger stories avidly as a boy; Gary Scharnhorst with Jack Bales, The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985): 156. See also Carol Nackenoff, The Fictional Republic: Horatio Alger and American Political Discourse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
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  6. Carl Sandburg, “Chicago,” in Chicago Poems (New York: Henry Holt, 1916): 3-4; Louise Carroll Wade, Chicago’s Pride: The Stockyards, Packingtown, and Environs in the Nineteenth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: Norton, 1991).
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  7. London, renowned for his nature and adventure tales, was at this time one of the top American writers — and a Socialist. London’s review of The Jungle in Wilshire’s Magazine in 1906 is most easily obtained in Jack London: American Rebel, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: Citadel, 1947): 517-524.
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  8. Ernest Poole, “The Meat Strike,” The Independent 57 (28 July 1904): 179-184; John R. Commons, “Labor Conditions in Meat Packing and the Recent Strike,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 19 (Nov. 1904): 1- 32; Allen F. Davis, Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967): 112-119; David Brody, The Butcher Workmen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964): 34-74; James R. Barrett, Work and Community in the Jungle (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987): 118-187.
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  9. Sinclair published three articles in the Appeal to Reason that autumn: “You Have Lost the Strike! And Now What Are You Going to Do About It?” (17 Sept. 1904): 1; “The Spirit That Wins” (24 Sept. 1904): 3; “Farmers of America, Unite!” (15 Oct. 1904): 2-3.
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  10. The phrase “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery” was later echoed by Jack London in promotional material for The Jungle and is almost always attributed to him, but Warren used it first in commissioning the novel in 1904. Warren quoted in Elliott Shore, Talkin’ Socialism: J. A. Wayland and the Role of the Press in American Radicalism, 1890-1912 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1988): 168. See also “The Little Old Appeal by Fred D. Warren assisted by Upton Sinclair,” unpublished mss. (Upton Sinclair Manuscripts, Writings Box 39, Lilly Library, Indiana University).
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  11. Upton Sinclair, “Introduction to the Viking Press Edition 1946,” in The Jungle (New York: Harper, 1951): vii.
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  12. Upton Sinclair, “Foreword,” The Jungle (New York: The Heritage Press, 1965): vi; Upton Sinclair, “Introduction to the Viking Press Edition,” The Jungle (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946): viii.
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  13. Upton Sinclair, American Outpost (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1932): 158.
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  14. Sinclair, American Outpost, 140; Harris, Upton Sinclair, passim; Frederick Boyd Stevenson, “Sinclair, the Beef Trust Griller,” Wilshire’s Magazine 10 (August 1906): 12.
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  15. Interview of Upton Sinclair by Ronald Gottesman conducted in 1963 and 1964 (Upton Sinclair Manuscripts, Writings Box 36, Lilly Library, Indiana University).
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  16. Charles Edward Russell, The Greatest Trust in the World (New York: Ridgway- Thayer, 1905); Ernest Poole, “From Lithuania to the Chicago Stockyards — An Autobiography,” The Independent 57 (4 August 1904): 241-248; A.M. Simons, Packingtown 1899 (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1902). See also the anonymous book The Dark Side of the Beef Trust (Jamestown, NY: Theodore Z. Root, 1905).
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  17. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the serial version of The Jungle actually concluded in the magazine One-Hoss Philosophy, also published by Wayland. On Wayland, see Shore, Talkin’ Socialism; Graham, John, ed. “Yours for the Revolution”: The Appeal to Reason, 1895-1922 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1990).
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  18. James R. Green, “The ‘Salesmen-Soldiers’ of the ‘Appeal Army’: A Profile of Rank and File Socialist Agitators,” in Socialism and the Cities, ed. Bruce M. Stave (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1975): 13-40.
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  19. At the turn of the century, there were many foreign-language newspapers in the United States serving immigrant readerships, including socialist papers. The serial version of The Jungle was almost certainly translated into many languages, but the U.S. foreign-language publication of The Jungle has not yet been adequately traced. Lithuanian edition: Upton Sinclair, Raistas, trans. Jonas Naujokas (Chicago: Spauda “Lietuvos,” 1908).
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  20. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1962): 115.
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  21. Meatpacking giant J. Ogden Armour immediately issued a defense (ghostwritten, surely) in The Saturday Evening Post, later collected as The Packers, the Private Car Lines, and the People (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1906). Sinclair replied by inviting Armour to sue him for libel: “The Condemned Meat Industry,” Everybody’s Magazine 14 (May 1906): 608-616. Sinclair wrote several further defenses of his position, and his account was substantiated by three reports published in the Doubleday, Page magazine World’s Work 12 (May 1906): W. K. Jaques, M.D., “A Picture of Meat Inspection,” 7491-7505; Caroline Hedger, M.D., “The Unhealthfulness of Packingtown,” 7507-7510; and Thomas H. McKee, “The Failure of Government Inspection,” 7510-7514. The series in The Lancet was by Adolph Smith; all appear in vol. 165 (1905): “The Stockyards and Packing Town; Insanitary Condition of the World’s Largest Meat Market” (7 Jan.): 49-52; “Chicago: The Dark and Insanitary Premises Used for the Slaughtering of Cattle and Hogs — the Government Inspection” (14 Jan.): 120-123; “Chicago: Tuberculosis Among the Stockyard Workers — Sanitation in Packingtown — The Police and the Dumping of Refuse — Vital Statistics” (21 Jan.): 183-185; “Chicago: Unhealthy Work in the Stockyards — Shameless Indifference to the Insanitary Condition of the Buildings and the Cattle Pens — Pollution of the Subsoil — the Need for Legislative Interference. (From Our Special Sanitary Commissioner)” (28 Jan.): 258-260.
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ATC 115, March-April 2005