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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Upton Sinclair

A savage indictment of wage slavery and of the unsanitary and harrowing conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, as well as a call for socialism as the only means by which to end the exploitation of the working class in an industrial society, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle has been one of the most widely read of American novels. In its own day it was responsible for federal legislation to correct some of the worst abuses in the meatpacking industry, and since then, widely translated, it has offered an image of America that other cultures have found profoundly significant.

Sinclair was born in Baltimore and raised in New York City, where he attended City College of New York and Columbia University. Before he was twenty he had begun supporting himself by selling juvenile fiction to various magazines and newspapers, and by 1900 he had given up his academic study to become a full-time writer. His first four novels were sentimental and immature, but in 1904 he published Manassas, a neo-abolitionist novel about the Civil War that marked an important step in Sinclair's development as a writer—his shift to the historical novel. In the summer of 1904 Sinclair became an official member of the Socialist Party of America, then in the decade of its greatest success. Later that same year Fred D. Warren, the editor of Appeal to Reason, a weekly socialist journal published in Kansas, challenged Sinclair to write a novel dealing with contemporary wage slavery as opposed to the antebellum slavery he had written about in Manassas. Sinclair accepted the challenge, and a $500 offer for the serial rights to his new novel, then traveled to the stockyards of Chicago, where he lived for seven weeks in November and December of 1904 while he investigated the conditions of the men and women who lived and worked in Packingtown. When The Jungle was released in book form on January 25, 1906, its impact was immediate. Meat sales sharply declined, and President Theodore Roosevelt, after inviting Sinclair to the White House, ordered an investigation of the meatpacking industry that in turn led Congress to pass the Beef Inspection Act and the nation's first Pure Food and Drug Act. Ironically, readers of the novel tended to focus on the vivid, often gruesome descriptions of the meatpacking industry rather than on the plea for socialism that Sinclair included in his final chapters. "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach," Sinclair observed. This, despite the fact that Sinclair cut the original version of the novel, which had appeared in serial form in a socialist journal in 1905, by one-third in order to make it more palatable to a mass audience.

The Jungle follows the shifting fortunes of Jurgis Rudkus and his family, Lithuanian peasants who immigrate to Chicago and find employment in Packingtown. The novel describes the horrifying working conditions in the industries in Packingtown and the family's gradual disintegration, including Jurgis's imprisonment for attacking a man who seduces his wife, the family's loss of their house, the deaths of Jurgis's wife and son, and his own impoverished and hopeless drifting from city to city. In the novel's final chapters, however, Sinclair introduces Jurgis to socialism, and through his involvement with the socialist movement Jurgis becomes a "new man," who finds himself at long last "delivered from the thralldom of despair." The famous last line of The Jungle—"CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!"—refers to the widespread socialist gains in the 1904 elections.

The Jungle's flaws are obvious; it is openly didactic; its plot is melodramatic; its characters often lack psychological complexity; and its style is heavy and redundant with detail. However, as a muck-raking novel that documented and exposed working conditions in the Chicago stockyards, and as a political novel that illustrated the industrial exploitation of immigrants like the Rudkus family, The Jungle possesses a raw emotional power that is undiminished in the ninety years since its publication. Sinclair's other major novels, all written in the form he referred to as the "contemporary historical novel," possess the same strengths and weaknesses as The Jungle. King Coal (1917) concerns the Colorado mine wars of 1913-1914; Oil (1927) the Teapot Dome Scandal; and Boston (1928) the Sacco and Vanzetti executions. His "Lanny Budd" series, 1940-1949, for one volume of which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946, was his personal interpretation of the two World Wars. The historical fictions of later American writers, especially John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos, show the influence of Sinclair.

Throughout his long career, Sinclair remained a passionate critic of the social and political inequities of modern capitalism. His political efforts often extended outside the realm of literature, as, for instance, when in 1906 he founded Helicon Hall, an experiment in cooperative living, and when in 1934 he ran as the Democratic candidate for governor of California on his EPIC ("End Poverty in California") platform. By the time Sinclair died in 1968 at the age of ninety, he had published over fifty novels and twenty books of nonfiction.

James C. Wilson
University of Cincinnati

In the Heath Anthology
from The Jungle
      from Chapter II (1906)
      from Chapter IX (1906)
      from Chapter XI (1906)
      from Chapter XII (1906)
      from Chapter XIV (1906)

Other Works
King Coal (1917)
the Profits of Religion (1918)
The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism (1919)
Oil (1927)
Boston (1928)

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Merriam-Sinclair Battle Outstanding in National Political Scene
From the Museum of the City of San Francisco archives; check related items.

"The Consequences of Land Speculation are Tenantry and Debt on the Farms . . . "
An essay from the site EarthSharing.

The Profits of Religion
Sinclair's essay, A Study of Supernaturalism as a Source of Income and a Shield to Privilege.

Literature at SunSITE
Correspondence between Sinclair and Jack London.

Upton Sinclair and the EPIC Plan
Describes Sinclair's political work, including a link to his 1934 EPIC plan.

Secondary Sources

John Ahouse, Upton Sinclair: A Descriptive Annotated Bibliography, 1994

Leon Harris, Upton Sinclair: American Rebel, 1975

Dieter Herms, ed., Upton Sinclair: Literature and Social Reform, 1990

R.N. Mookerjee, Art for Social Justice: The Major Novels of Upton Sinclair, 1988

Ivan Scott, Upton Sinclair, The Forgotten Socialist, 1997