February 25: On this day in 1905, a year before book publication, the first installment of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle appeared in The Appeal to Reason. The socialist newspaper had commissioned the work, hoping to get what Sinclair delivered — a sensational exposé novel about life on the meatpacking “disassembly line.” There was a public outcry over the reports of sausages made from diseased meat, of dead rats and the poison that killed them being swept into the processing vats, of immigrant workers falling in too, to be “overlooked for days,” tells Sinclair’s hero, “till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Beef Lard.” Before the year was out, the Pure Food and Drugs Act, and the Meat Inspection Act were in force across the country.
With his money, Sinclair was able to start a commune for left-wing writers, and go on to a series of investigative novels — on coal mining, on Rockefeller oil, on the Sacco-Vanzetti case. He became, said Edmund Wilson, practically the only writer of his generation “to put to the American public the fundamental questions raised by capitalism in such a way that they could not escape them.”
Sinclair himself came to different conclusions, and despite its commercial success, the novel became for him a bitter failure and a difficult political lesson. He had dedicated his book to “the workingmen of America” and he had hoped to do something for them. He would not have minded the poor marks he got from the literary critics of the day, nor those he got from the socialists for his political innocence — “Sinclair is a socialist of the emotions,” wrote Lenin, “without any theoretical training.” His lifelong regret, Sinclair later said, was that “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Instead of sympathy for the downtrodden, for the faceless “wage-slaves” who fell into the vats or deeper poverty, he got consumers worried about the meat that came out, headed for their table. If anything, the new Food laws made things worse: what was supposed to bring reform to workers’ lives brought McBurgers and McJobs instead.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.