“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Upton Sinclair famously wrote of his novel, The Jungle.
The quote, taken from his essay “What Life Means to Me” for Cosmopolitan Magazine, has come to be understood as Sinclair bemoaning The Jungle’s failure to galvanize a socialist revolution in the United States. Instead, the novel ignited a national controversy over the unsanitary practices of the meatpacking industry. Within a year of the novel’s publication in 1906, Congress passed both the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, establishing the agency that would later become the Food and Drug Administration.
But aside from being the muckraking novel that led to the creation of the FDA or a socialist call to arms that went largely unheard, The Jungle is a story of how U.S. society exploits immigrants. This reading is often overlooked, yet it is worth remembering that sympathy for and solidarity with immigrants is at the heart of this seminal work of literature — especially amid the xenophobic atmosphere of the United States today, where the president has shut down the government over a border wall with Mexico, detention facilities hold untold numbers of immigrants, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stalk communities across the country. It’s been more than a century since the publication of The Jungle, yet the predation described by Sinclair still persists.
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While The Jungle is a novel, it is not entirely a work of fiction. As Anthony Arthur explains in Radical Innocent, his biography of Sinclair, The Jungle is based on two months Sinclair spent living and conducting research in Packingtown, the Chicago neighborhood at the heart of the U.S. meatpacking industry in the early 1900s. There, Sinclair toured stockyards and meatpacking plants both openly and undercover, interviewing everyone from laborers to foremen, social workers to chemists, priests to police officers.
Distilling all of this reporting into a fictional narrative was not unusual for the time; what mattered was that Sinclair’s claims stood up to scrutiny. The meatpacking industry denied everything, but investigators dispatched by then-President Theodore Roosevelt after he read The Jungle found that, as the president relayed, “the Chicago stock yards are revolting.”
Yet very little of The Jungle has to do with unsanitary meatpacking practices. Depending on the edition, the novel runs between 300 and 500 pages, and “perhaps thirty in all” describe meatpacking, according to Arthur. Dedicated to “The Workingmen of America,” The Jungle was openly meant to bring attention to the plight of working people at large.
If it were not for the immigrants at the center of The Jungle, Sinclair would not have had a narrative on which to hang his facts. The author struggled to connect everything he had witnessed in the meatpacking plants to what he wanted to say about socialism until stumbling across, and being invited into, a Lithuanian wedding in Packingtown. As Sinclair later wrote in his autobiography, “There were my characters … I watched them one after another, fitted them into my story.” The Lithuanian wedding thus provided the entire framework of The Jungle: A tale of immigrants searching for a better life but finding only exploitation and misery.
The Jungle focuses on Jurgis Rudkus, a young Lithuanian man who comes to the United States with his extended family. He is easily a stand-in for all the immigrant workers of Packingtown. As Sinclair has long-time local resident Grandmother Majauszkiene explain in the novel, Packingtown was always home to immigrants working in the meatpacking industry — first German, then Irish, Czech, Polish, Lithuanian and, increasingly, Slovak. Each new group was brought in by the employing “packers” to undercut the previous workers; the most recent immigrants were paid lower wages and treated worse until an even more desperate group could be found. “Who there was poorer and more miserable than the Slovaks, Grandmother Majauszkiene had no idea,” writes Sinclair, “but the packers would find them, never fear.”
Similarly, the trials that Rudkus and his family endure are the trials of each successive wave of immigrants. They abandon prospectless Lithuania for the promise of rewarding work in the United States. Hearing rumors of a fellow Lithuanian making it rich in Chicago, they head to the Windy City, where Jurgis finds work in a meatpacking plant, marries his wife Ona, and purchases a home for the entire family.
The journey was not idyllic, and it only gets worse. Buffeted by unemployment, dangerous working conditions, alcoholism, violence and systemic corruption, the family is driven further and further into abject poverty as almost every aspect of society — employers, landlords, politicians, police, merchants — preys upon them. Following the sudden deaths of his wife and his son, Jurgis’ downward spiral is halted only by his discovery of socialism.
Just as The Jungle accidentally caused a nationwide furor over the meatpacking industry, Sinclair may have accidentally produced a lasting portrait of immigrant exploitation; he was aiming to describe every workers’ struggle, but he most squarely hit upon the immigrant workers’ experience. A key difference, though, is that the “meat-graft” was addressed with reforms that are still in force today. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act established the Bureau of Chemistry, which would become the FDA in 1930, and the Federal Meat Inspection Act tasked the U.S. Department of Agriculture with monitoring meatpacking plants, a task for which it is still responsible.
The same commitment to reform has not been applied to immigrant workers. Upon arriving in the United States today, immigrants face wage gaps that last for decades, with earnings remaining 10 to 23 percent less than comparably educated and experienced native workers, even after 20 years of residence. Immigrants are also more likely to work more dangerous jobs, and undocumented immigrants are often victimized by employers, with 37 percent paid below minimum wage and 84 percent denied overtime. In fact, so little has changed since Sinclair penned The Jungle that immigrants still make up much of the Midwestern meatpacking industry’s workforce, filling dangerous, poorly paid jobs with little security. The stockyards of Packingtown closed in 1971, but they still haven’t gone away.