The Impact Of Upton Sinclair On Society With His Novel The Jungle

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

By the turn of the 20th century, a major progressive reform movement had emerged in the United States. Spearheading the consumer protection movement, although not intending to do so, was author Upton Sinclair. His bestselling novel, The Jungle, was the catalyst for enacting change. It was a searing portrait of the lives of immigrant families who worked in the Chicago stockyards; its vivid detail about meat contamination in the slaughterhouses led to major reforms. Its grotesque descriptions of conditions endured by workers and livestock, and the contaminated food that came of them, triggered the public’s fear and fury. Fueled by other recent exposés, the novel became one of the greatest muckraking works of the Progressive Era. In 1906, within only six months of its release, Upton Sinclair had been personally invited to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt, and new federal food safety laws had been passed through Congress. Sinclair’s The Jungle had two primary impacts: his description of rotten and contaminated meat led to a new age of regulation in the food industry, and his detailing of the appalling working conditions in the meat-packing industry shocked the public, alerting them to the evils of unchecked capitalism.

Sinclair’s descriptions of diseased and contaminated food were the impetus for federal regulation of the American food industry. Consumers were outraged by the stories contained within his novel, which many considered too appalling to reflect reality. Specifically, Sinclair wrote of rats running through the factory, killed by traps with poisoned bread. Rather than removing the rats into the trash, they were scooped into a hopper along with food remnants and sold to unsuspecting consumers. Additionally, Sinclair described large, open vats into which workers fell and lost their lives. Overlooked for days, the remains of the men were not worth removing and ended up being sold in a lard food product. Invoking a highly disconcerting image, Sinclair reinforced the reality of the circumstances in the same passage by stating that “this is no fairy story and no joke”. This exposé, although in the form of a fictional novel, appalled both the public and government officials, who used Sinclair’s tale to legislate and modify long-overdue regulations. After reading The Jungle, President Roosevelt invited Sinclair to the White House to discuss it, as he was skeptical of the book’s truthfulness. Roosevelt appointed a special commission to investigate Chicago’s slaughterhouses, and their report confirmed nearly all of the novel’s horrors. For example, the commissioners bore witness to a slaughtered hog falling into a toilet, whereupon the workers placed the carcass back on a hook with the others on the assembly line. In response to the report, President Roosevelt sent a letter to Congress demanding “radical change” and “immediate action” to allow inspections to occur at every stage of the processing of meat. Within the month, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, authorizing inspectors from the USDA to prevent the commerce of spoiled or mislabeled meat. Roosevelt also signed a more general law regulating foods and drugs on the same day: The Pure Food and Drug Act. It prohibited misleading labeling of food and drugs while placing reasonable restrictions on questionable food additives. In turn, this law prompted the formation of the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These laws, spurred by Sinclair’s muckraking literature, have allowed for significantly greater consumer confidence in everyday consumption of goods. Furthermore, they set a precedent for the expansion of federal regulation in other industries, a progressive goal which served to undercut the power of large corporations and aid the working class.

Although Sinclair effectively became the father of the consumer protection movement in America, he had originally intended the novel to be an argument against capitalist society — denouncing concentrations of great corporate power and wealth, political corruption, the media, and the allegiance of legislators to corporate interests. The Jungle depicts the meatpacking world in deliberate and painstaking detail; Sinclair was a meticulous reporter and a vivid explainer, not just of the industry but of the interlocking worlds of the factory, slum, and political machine. He describes how, for instance, pigs are attached to slaughter chains, and he draws parallels between the mechanized slaughter of the animals and the systematic crushing of the human workers’ will to live. His horrific yet flatly reported descriptions of the human costs are most gripping: “One bitter morning in February, the little boy who worked at the lard machine … came about an hour late, and screaming with pain. … A man began vigorously rubbing his ears; and as they were frozen stiff, it took only two or three rubs to break them short off”. Sinclair was dismayed when the public ignored this plight of the workers while reacting with outrage over the malpractices in meat production. He famously stated that he had “aimed at the public’s heart and by accident … hit it in the stomach” (Kantor). However, with time, Sinclair’s original message began to resonate with the public. At the beginning of his presidency, Roosevelt had sided with large-scale enterprises by declaring “the corporation is here to stay”. However, upon reading Sinclair’s work, President Roosevelt stated that “radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist,” solidifying his intent to strengthen the position of the American worker. As a result of the novel, and as apart of Roosevelt’s ‘Square Deal’, the government took a more proactive, if still reluctant, role in protecting consumers. The regulatory role of the government became more legitimate, undercutting the previously upheld doctrine of laissez-faire. For example, Roosevelt made use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to dismantle trusts — dissolving monopolies and promoting the state of the American worker. The Jungle helped to shed a much-needed light on the inhumane conditions that workers and immigrants endured, and its descriptions brought about great change. In its depiction of the economic and social struggle of American workers, the novel, by raising questions about the potential dangers of capitalism, incurred significant social and cultural impact.

As evidenced by its rapid and far-reaching political and social impacts, The Jungle is a highly influential piece of literature. This novel is responsible for precipitating the first substantial legislation in the overall timeline of food safety and consumer protection, and its presence in American life has been unwavering ever since. In 1967, the year before Sinclair’s death, the novel’s perennial legacy in food regulation was once more acknowledged formally: President Lyndon B. Johnson invited Sinclair to witness the signing of the Wholesome Meat Act. This act served as a tightening and strengthening of the bills Sinclair’s work had produced over 60 years prior. It symbolically tied together the circularity of his life’s efforts, and it solidified his influence in the consumer protection movement. The Jungle is now widely considered to be required reading for college and high school students across the United States — a testament to the quality of the writing but more so to the place it held in history as perhaps the most directly and rapidly influential literature since the nation’s inception. Without this novel, efforts to expose Chicago’s bleak working conditions would have been far less successful; the consumer protection movement as a whole would have gained considerably less momentum and been granted far less weight in legislation. Although it is likely the workers’ unrest would have eventually grown so intense as to prompt similar strides and investigative journalism, Sinclair’s novel greatly accelerated these events — bringing about effectual change and relief for many.

The Jungle, and the campaign that Sinclair waged after its publication, led directly to passage of the first landmark federal food safety laws. It awakened a nation not just to the dangers in the food supply, but also to the role the government should have in ensuring its safety. It called attention to the plight of immigrant workers, who — subsisting in a corrupt and capitalist system — were at enormous risk and disadvantage. As a result of Sinclair’s work, Congress passed the Food and Drug Act, which had previously been blocked by the special interests of industry. By early 1907, consistent and harsh federal inspections began; quality was monitored at a much higher standard while food was required to be labeled and the contents to be truthfully marketed. The novel set the standard for future laws as well, which would expand on this newly declared government responsibility to ensure the safety of the consumer and the nation’s food supply. It is difficult to suggest another book in American literature that led to major legislation within such a very short period — less than 6 months. The Jungle, in chronicling the miseries of the immigrant and the poor, highlighted the unsanitary food manufacturing practices of the time, instantly catapulting forward the nation into a new era of safety and awareness and empowering the American worker for centuries to come.

Works Cited

  1. Block, Melissa. ‘Impact of Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ on Food Safety.’ NPR. NPR, 02 Jan. 2004. Web. 29 Apr. 2019.
  2. Cohen, Adam. ‘Upton Sinclair, Whose Muckraking Changed the Meat Industry.’ The New York Times. The New York Times, 2 Jan. 2007. Web. 29 Apr. 2019.
  3. Hendricks, Beth. ‘Impact of The Jungle on Government Policy.’ Study.com. N.p., 2013. Web. 29 Apr. 2019.
  4. J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College & Lumen Learning. ‘American Literature II.’ Lumen. N.p., 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2019.
  5. Kantor, A F. “Upton Sinclair and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 66 (1976): 1202-5.
  6. Kennedy, David M., and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. Wadsworth, 2016.
  7. Olsson, Karen. ‘Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.’ Slate Magazine. Slate, 07 July 2006. Web. 29 Apr. 2019.
  8. Pickavance, Jason. ‘Gastronomic Realism: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, The Fight For Pure Food, and The Magic of Mastication.’ Taylor & Francis. N.p., 24 June 2010. Web. 29 Apr. 2019.
  9. Roosevelt, Theodore. ‘June 4, 1906: Message Regarding Meatpacking Plants.’ Miller Center. N.p., 23 Feb. 2017. Web. 29 Apr. 2019.
  10. Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. N.p.: n.p., 1906. Print.
  11. ‘Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: Muckraking the Meat-Packing Industry.’ Constitutional Rights Foundation. N.p., 2008. Web. 29 Apr. 2019.
  12. Young, James Harvey. “The Pig That Fill Unto The Privy: Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle and The Meat Inspection Amendments of 1906.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 59, no. 4, 1985, pp. 467–480. JSTOR.


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