The world at this moment produces enough food to feed the world’s population.
And one million more…
Upton Sinclair was a desperately poor young socialist hoping to remake the world when he settled down in a tar-paper shack in Princeton Township and penned his Great American Novel.
He called it The Jungle, filled it with page after page of nauseating detail he had researched about the meat-packing industry, and dropped it on an astonished nation in 1906.
An instant best-seller, Sinclair’s book reeked with the stink of the Chicago stockyards. He told how dead rats were shoveled into sausage-grinding machines; how bribed inspectors looked the other way when diseased cows were slaughtered for beef, and how filth and guts were swept off the floor and packaged as “potted ham.” And then there is the story of a stockyard worker who fell into a vat of lard, and was processed with it.
Within months, the aroused — and gagging — public demanded sweeping reforms in the meat industry.
President Theodore Roosevelt was sickened after reading an advance copy. He called upon Congress to pass a law establishing the Food and Drug Administration and, for the first time, setting up federal inspection standards for meat.
“It seemed to me that the walls of the mighty fortress of greed were on the point of cracking,” Sinclair wrote.
Upton Beall Sinclair was, for all his socialist thought, the very model of the all-American kid. He grew up in New York City, the son of poor but proud parents. Barely into his teens, he became a freelancer, writing boys’ adventure tales. He eventually pounded out 30,000 words of dime-novel drama every week, even while he attended City College of New York.
Sinclair aspired to be a great writer of serious books, but he admitted that all his hack work led him to use too many clichés and exaggerations.
“It’s not what I would consider great literature,” said his biographer. “There isn’t much character development in his works or subtlety. What he was good at was descriptions … of turning real-life situations into fiction.”
The young writer had been searching for something to give him hope in life, and he found it in the revolutionary doctrine of socialism. He had read of a meat-packing strike in Chicago, and knew he had a good plot for the first great socialist novel.
For two months in 1904, Sinclair wandered the Chicago stockyards – a place he would write of as “Packingtown.” He mingled with the foreign-born “wage slaves” in their tenements and heard how they’d been mistreated and ripped off. He saw for himself the sloppy and dangerous practices in the packing houses and the mind-numbing, 12-hour-a-day schedule.
The Jungle tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant working in Packingtown.
Jurgis sees his American dream of a decent life dissolve into nightmare as his job hauling steer carcasses in the stockyards leaves him bone-weary and unable to support his family.
He loses his job when he beats up his boss, furious at discovering the cad seduced his wife; then he loses the wife to disease and his son to drowning.
But Jurgis finds rebirth upon joining the socialist movement, and the book closes with a socialist orator shouting: “Organize! Organize! Organize! … CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!”
It was stirring, melodramatic stuff, but five publishers found it too politically hot to handle and turned the novel down. Sinclair persisted and got Doubleday to publish it in February 1906.
The Jungle, in all its sordid detail, was soon acclaimed as the most revolutionary piece of fiction of the age. In London, future Prime Minister Winston Churchill said the book “pierces the thickest skull and most leathery heart.”
Mostly, however, the politicians ignored the anti-capitalist plot of the book and focused on eight pages describing the sickening standards of meat packing. Roosevelt sent his own agents to Chicago to investigate whether meat packing was as bad as Sinclair described. The conditions were actually a hundred times worse, the agents reported back.
The president invited Sinclair to the White House and solicited his advice on how to make inspections safer. By June 30, Congress had passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, cracking down on unsafe food and patent medicines, and the Meat Inspection Act. To this day, our hamburgers, chicken patties and other meats are safeguarded by the same law.
Yet Sinclair considered his triumph empty. He complained that the tragedy of industrial life and his socialist preaching were being lost in the meat controversy.
“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he said.