In 1900, there were over 1.6 million people living in Chicago, the country's second largest city. Of those 1.6 million, nearly 30% were immigrants. Most immigrants came to the United States with little or no money at all, in hope of making a better life for themselves. A city like Chicago offered these people jobs that required no skill. However, the working and living conditions were hazardous and the pay was barely enough to survive on. This is the bases for Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle.
Sinclair agreed to "investigate working conditions in Chicago's meatpacking plants," for the Socialist journal, Appeal to Reason, in 1904. The Jungle, published in 1906, is Sinclair's most popular and influential work. It is also his first of many "muckraker" pieces. In order to improve society, muckrakers wanted to expose any injustice on human rights or well-being. Therefore, it was Sinclair's goal to expose the harsh treatment of factory workers through The Jungle. The improvement on society, that he hoped would follow, was the reformation of labor.
After seven weeks in Chicago, Sinclair was ready to start writing. He channeled the information that he gathered and represented it through the experiences of a fictitious family of Lithuanian immigrants. This family comes to America with the hope of prosperity and because "rich and poor, a man was free, it was said." However, when they arrive in Chicago, they discover that they must sell themselves into "wage slavery" just to survive. The term "wage slavery" was used because the poor treatment of the migrant workers was similar to that of blacks in the South, prior to the Civil War. Also, note that "wage slaves [were] kept from a meaningful community life by the struggle for mere existence."
The owners of the factories couldn't continuously oppress their workers through sheer capitalism alone. They needed help from the government and local community. In other words, "machine politics." Politicians played an important role in the political machine. In order to maintain this role, they received substantial kickbacks from the owners of the factories. They would recruit people to help the immigrants become citizens of the United States, and then pay the immigrants to vote for a specific candidate, often several times. Before the Progressive Party materialized, there were just the Democrats and the Republicans, "and the one got the office which bought the most votes."
Readers were not concerned with the treatment of workers, as portrayed by The Jungle, because they really didn't care for the working class, or more specifically, immigrants. However, readers were shocked when they discovered exactly how their meat was processed and prepared. Sinclair used just as much, if not more, gruesome detail in describing the products the American public was consuming, as he did when describing the workplace, living conditions, politics, society and Chicago's scenery. In a futile attempt to build up the readers' sympathy toward the wage-slaves, Sinclair also details the process in which foods not related to the meat-packing industry are prepared. For example, he writes, "their pale blue milk...was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde."
The controversy over food preparations was so great, that it made The Jungle an instant success and thrust Upton Sinclair into the limelight as a muckraker journalist. The passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act by Congress in 1906 was a direct result of the novel and Sinclair's correspondence with President Theodore Roosevelt.
Despite its popularity, The Jungle has always been seen as a documentation of history, rather than a piece of literature. Critics view Sinclair "as a muckraker, a talented progressive journalist and reformer with no literary technique whatsoever." Although Sinclair's accurate descriptions were amazing, he fell short in his character...