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The Jungle

The JungleUpton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1905) is perhaps most famous for pushing President Theodore Roosevelt to back the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Progressive Era law that created the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).  Sinclair’s novel is a gripping indictment of the food processing industry of the day, a heart-rending tale about the abuses that immigrants suffered through, and a thinly disguised socialist manifesto.  In short, it is the most famous and enduring piece of muckraking.  Sinclair chose to attack the “beef trust” as a glaring example of one of the many forms of corruption.  Ida Tarbell had exposed Standard Oil, and Lincoln Steffens had surveyed civic corruption, but Sinclair had become interested in the conditions of meat packers during a violent Chicago strike in 1904, following his indoctrination into socialist theory.  The Jungle would incorporate these ideas with Sinclair’s first hand knowledge of living and working conditions for these people.

Oddly enough, The Jungle opens with a wedding.  Sinclair is using a literary device to set up the downfall that the main characters will experience.  A wedding is the start of a new phase of life, and it parallels the immigrant experience that Sinclair will detail later in the book, how Jurgis and his family first come to Chicago:

They were on a street which seemed to run on forever, mile after mile—thirty-four of them, if they had known it—and each slide of it one uninterrupted row of wretched little two-story frame buildings.  Down every side street they could see it was the same—never a hill and never a hollow, but always the same endless vista of ugly and dirty little wooden buildings…here and there would be a great factory, a dingy building with innumerable windows in it, and immense volumes of smoke pouring from the chimneys, darkening the air above and making filthy the earth beneath.

Sinclair is indicting the system that perpetuates the near-slavery of innocent lives.  Jurgis’ entire family is ground down: he becomes a hobo (a later socialist agitator), his sister becomes a prostitute, and his wife and children beg to survive.  In addition to the fact that these people have come to a strange land where they do not speak the language, they are taken advantage of in every conceivable way: at work, in the real estate market, in the court system.

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