One hundred years ago, a book was published that changed history. It was called The Jungle. Its author was a twenty-something socialist. And its message was simple: America’s meat industry was corrupt, exploiting its workers and churning out food that shouldn’t be eaten.
The novel focused on overworked immigrants, but readers fixated on details about meat production. Upton Sinclair described men falling into vats and then being turned into food. He documented rats scurrying onto piles of diseased meat. “Rats, bread and meat would go into the hoppers together,” winding up on dining tables. This was muckraking at its best, ripping aside the veil for Americans to see what might otherwise be ignored.
Sinclair was summoned to the White House by Teddy Roosevelt. While the President slammed his fist on the table and condemned corruption, he also made it clear something would be done to address The Jungle. Sinclair had successfully turned literary celebrity into political clout. And on June 30, 1906, the Meat Inspection Act passed, “the most pronounced extension of federal power ever enacted,” its chief proponent declared.
It’s easy, looking back, to remember The Jungle as a great book, written by a great hero of the American left. Think of it: A writer uncovers injustices, publishes a book and presto, progressive legislation follows. But The Jungle did not cause the Meat Inspection Act any more than Edward R. Murrow caused the downfall of Senator Joe McCarthy. History is more complex than that.
Numerous things were in place before The Jungle: nutritional studies that explained the dangers of tainted food, previous legislation aimed at regulating meatpacking, a “progressive” President intent on taming unregulated capitalism. Other critics had already attacked the meat industry for charging high prices to consumers while underpaying cattle suppliers and workers. The Jungle helped push public opinion where it was already heading.
If we shouldn’t overvalue it, how should we remember the novel?
Not as great literature. The novel is overwrought and overwritten. It’s easy to believe the bad things documented in the book could happen, but it’s hard to believe that everything bad happens the way it does to the central character, Jurgis: practically every woman in his life becomes a prostitute, his only kid drowns in the city’s streets, and he loses his house and countless jobs. Then he converts to socialism and experiences an epiphany that seems downright goofy, with the “sky” splitting “above him” and “all the pillars of his soul” falling in.
What’s more, while Sinclair did use his fame for the cause, he allowed himself to become the center of publicity. Pursuing celebrity status, he tried to push his books more than push a movement.