Written by Ajay Harish
“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” – Upton Sinclair
The Jungle was written during a very delicate period of time – one of incredible political, social, and cultural change in America. With mass immigration into the country, coupled with US military expansion and technological revolution, the problems addressed in the novel were but an afterthought to most of the American population. Upton Sinclair’s journalistic narrative served as the catalyst for even greater cultural and social change within the country, with the meatpacking industry as its centerpiece. Most of the well-known effects of The Jungle involve political changes, the most notable of which was the formation of the FDA. Sinclair's work helped lead to these accomplishments by aiming to shed light on the working conditions of immigrants and propose a solution to these atrocities.
Immigrants and Factory WorkersEdit
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a large influx of immigrants into the US seeking freedom and basic rights. But what they found was not what they expected. Sinclair exposedhow poorly these factory workers were being treated – mentioning workers who were extremely ill due to the poor protocol for handling machinery and food, but would not dare miss a day of work, for the consequences were too great. Finding a job in itself was a difficult task for such workers, and missing a day of work would most likely get them fired. Being jobless in a foreign land with little to no support was simply not an option. With the publication of The Jungle, this issue was brought to the attention of the public. Although no specific labor laws were passed as a direct result of Sinclair’s novel, it highlighted the necessity for labor unions in American society. At the time of the publication of The Jungle, the only prominent union in America was The American Federation of Labor. This was a conglomeration of workers with all sorts of skills. This labor union had difficulty earning rights for its workers, since lobbying for steel workers would conflict with the interests of coal miners. It disbanded when its leader, Samuel Gompers, died in 1924. Sinclair was able to highlight the poor working conditions of the lower class to the American public and show why there was a need for representation of the common worker in government. However, it would take another global war to finally spur labor unions into action, fighting to secure safe and acceptable conditions for poor, immigrant, factory workers. Despite the lack of politcal action on the front of labor rights, The Jungle mobilized the public into action. If it weren't for the constant letters the White House received as a response to what Sinclair was publishing, the president probably would not have further investigated the issue, and the landmark legislation would not have been passed in 1906. Sinclair brought the issue right into the forefront of public consciousness, Every major newspaper was discussing and publicizing it. Eventually, the federation would go on to join the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of labor unions that organized workers in the US and Canada, becoming the largest trade union center in the US.
Socialism and CapitalismEdit
The end of The Jungle contained some socialist themes that took even President Theodore Roosevelt aback. Sinclair was a known socialist muckraker, calling for fundamental changes in the way things were done in America. A reading of the novel allowed President Roosevelt to gain perspective on Sinclair’s claims, as he is quoted as saying, “radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.” Even those who blindly dismissed Sinclair’s more socialist claims were able to see worth in what he was saying. The main character of the novel, Jurgis Rudkis, found comfort in socialist lectures and rallies, implying that the American capitalist system may be flawed. Numerous groups of people rallied against the privately-owned businesses and corporations, afraid that the concentration of wealth in such a small number of people “at the top” would leave the common man under their mercy. Sinclair was ultimately unhappy with how the situation was handled, considering all the legislative changes made “an unjustified boon to large meat packers” since the common man would have to bear the burden of inspection costs (in the form of tax dollars). He would have rathered the meat-packing plants be run publicly by cities like in Europe.