In 1906, a book was published that remains controversial in some circles more than one hundred years later. "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair was a journalist's fictionalized account of worker conditions in the meatpacking industry and slums of Chicago. The book was supposed to be about how laborers as a whole were victimized by ruthless bosses and an uncaring government, but it became about the meatpacking industry to many. Although the plight of laborers was seen, many who read the book were more outraged by how meat was processed. Thus, Sinclair was able to get his book published, eventually, but people did not see the real message. This essay covers the main thrusts of the book, criticism of the work, and whether present conditions have changed to any great extent.
One of the most interesting stories surrounding the book is how difficult it was to find a publisher. This was due to the fact that the book's main critics were the publishers it was sent to. Based on the time in which this book would have been published, it was a legitimate criticism for publishers to think that it was too graphic for the public. The public in general was not ready for some of the details that Sinclair provided because it was a more guarded populace. In today's media, if conditions in the meatpacking industry were as bad as they were then, it would be in the news every day. However, people relied on local papers that were sometimes months behind, and word of mouth from local neighbors. It was a much more agrarian society that was not close to a news source since computers, television and radio did not really exist. Few people even had access to a telephone.
Even in the cities, there was not a consistent news source besides newspapers that were often owned by the very people Sinclair was writing about -- or at the very least their rich cronies. The news was filtered, and it did not include many stories that would speak of atrocities. There were some yellow journalists, but they were largely panned by the larger newspaper companies.
A second point of contention from the many publishers who rejected the book was that Sinclair hated the rich rather than really wanting to help the poor. This could have been a legitimate criticism also. His stated goal was to raise the laborers above their impoverished and dangerous conditions, but, as a socialist, the author would have had disdain for the rich. The irony of that statement is that Sinclair was by no means poor himself. He may not have had the wealth of a Rockefeller or Carnegie, but he did have some amount of wealth because he originally self-published "The Jungle."
The main goal of the book was defeated because much of the story dealt with the conditions in the meatpacking industry. Sinclair wanted readers to see the plight of workers in general, and he wanted people to rise up against the failed schemes of government and the rich. However, when people read the book all that they focused on was the atrocities in the meatpacking plants themselves. Though this was not the original goal of the book, it became the focus.
Sinclair related that people were forced to work in a dark packing plant where the conditions were so bad that it was dangerous to even go to work. Jurgis, the protagonist of the story, works hard, but since there is no guarantee for the worker if something happens, he loses his job in the plant because he hurts himself. The workers at the plant work extremely hard for very low wages and in deadly conditions.
How did the workers cope with the difficulties they faced both at work and at home?
There was a large community of immigrants in the community where Jurgis and his family lived. The way that they coped with the harsh conditions at first was by having hope that things would get better. The people worked hard, tried to save some money, and they dreamed of what they would have when they finally had enough money to get something better. The reality was slow to come, but eventually it did. Another way that they coped is that they relied on family to survive. The primary family in the book was relatively close and they were able to help each other. The family eventually fell apart because they were beset with swindlers, bosses who did not care about them, and other problems that they could not deal with.
But, the book tried to be positive toward the end. At the time there were many burgeoning unions, but there were few that had a strong foothold. That does not mean that change would take place solely due to union involvement, but much of the legislation passed since that time to assist laborers has been because of the advocacy of unions. Since there were industries such as coal miners and steel workers in the Appalachian mountain range, farm workers in California, and textile workers in the Northeast who had always suffered under adverse conditions, there was a need across the country for reform.
In Sinclair's, the main thrust was the meatpacking industry because that is where Sinclair worked undercover. However, he wanted to see changes happen for workers in industry across the country. He believed that general conditions among large industries across the country were bad because labor had no real say. The people who performed the work that was required were no better than animals much of the time as far as the owners were concerned because the shareholders were only interested in the capital the work provided them. There was no government agency such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to protect workers from poor work environments, so owners had no incentive to provide a safe work environment. Therefore, it seems that the problems that were written about in the book were occurring throughout the nation.
But even with this realization, there was a lot of controversy engendered by the book. First the publishers were not ready for such a book because they did not think that it would sell. This was during the period before publishers were willing to accept books in experimental fiction because they were too drastically different than what had been published previously. The publishing world is notoriously behind what the current trend is. They wanted to play it safe, and the major publishers did not believe that the public would buy the book.
As far as the public was concerned, the book had already been read in serial form by many prominent progressives and socialists, but the general public had not read anything so shocking. The main controversy came from a media that did not believe the claims of Sinclair were legitimate. Since the book was one of supposed fiction, albeit with a very real subject matter, many people wrote it off as fiction. Even when it was found that many of the scenes in the book were, in fact, reality, critics believed that it was too harsh for the general public.
Another reason for the controversy that the book caused was many people were starting to look to social causes as legitimate, and the book became a sort of marching orders. It caused distress among young people who are always the first to follow a radical cause, and it alienated them from the older generations. Some people, even in the working class, did not believe that such a graphic book was needed.
But even if people did not think that the book was needed, it definitely had an effect on the way people thought about the American labor class. A positive change wrought by the book was that labor unions gained more of a voice, and conditions began to change. Negatively, some owners saw this as a battle cry and many hired strike breakers and adopted other negative means of quieting their workers.
On the positive side, people who read the book originally were mainly socialist activists who were looking for a manifesto of change. It was a difficult sell to many average Americans who believed that hard work was how a person bettered themselves. Even if the people were not bettered, they believed that a single person can neither make a difference or should rock the boat. Change was not something that people thought could happen. With the writing of this book, a wider American audience started to see just how bad it really was in the United States for many people. Some could have said that these were immigrants and turned a blind eye, but many reformers rallied to the cry of freeing the workers. The fact that unionization of many industries was started by people who originally read books like Sinclair's, shows that it was important in a positive way.
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