Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published in 1905, is an indictment of the American Dream. This vivid, harrowing depiction of the Chicago stockyards at the turn of the century created an image of America vastly different from the commonly accepted Horatio Alger rags-to-riches success story. The immigrants of Sinclair’s novel were exploited, humiliated, forced to live and work in sub-human conditions. All the promises held out to them – that America was the land of opportunity, that if you worked hard you could succeed – were systematically destroyed by brutality and exploitation calculated to crush the spirits of these honest working people.
The hero of the story, Jurgis Rudkus, was a young Lithunian immigrant who came to America bursting with energy and dreams of a better life for himself and his family. He, like the millions of other immigrants who poured into this country in the late 1800s and early 1900s, viewed America as the land of opportunity where, with hard work, they could raise themselves out of poverty and achieve a decent standard of living. Uneducated and unskilled, Jurgis was naive in the ways of the new land: he expected fair wages and a decent place to live. What he got instead was back-breaking work for subsistence pay, squalid living conditions, and endless humiliation at the hand of the bosses and politicians. The opportunities to work his way out of this poverty and despair were non-existent; he and the other stockyard workers were victims of a systematic exploitation that treated them, not like human beings, but like replaceable cogs in a machine. They knew that if they complained or rocked the boat there were dozens of others waiting in line for their jobs, so they endured the sub-human conditions.
Jurgis’s first encounter with the reality of America came when he discovered “the cruel fact that it was also a land of high prices, and that in it the poor man was almost as poor as in any other corner of the earth; and so there vanished in a night all the wonderful dreams of wealth that had been haunting Jurgis” (31). The family was swindled into buying a house; the company fully expected them not to be able to make the monthly payments of $12 a month, at which point they would evict the family and “sell” it again. To make the interest payments, Jurgis’s wife Ona and son Stanislovas had to find jobs. Later, when Jurgis was injured and out of work, the other children had to leave school and find jobs, depriving them of an education.
A young man confident of his own strength, Jurgis firmly believed that by working hard he would be able to earn a decent wage and be treated fairly by the bosses. But once again he was to be disillusioned. Hard work was not rewarded by decent pay – if a worker was a minute late he was docked an hour’s pay, and if the work was finished before the end of the work day, no pay was given for that last hour. And the work itself was brutal and monotonous, done at a killing pace in the stench of the stockyard. Nor was there any sick pay or workers compensation for illness or injury; in the laissez-faire system the worker was expected to fend for himself.
The immigrant families struggled valiantly to cope with their deprivation, saving what little they could, working long, hard hours, but eventually the disease and despair got the better of them. Some of the men turned to alcohol and gambling for consolation; some took out their frustrations on their families; still others abandoned their families altogether, unable to cope with the hopelessness of their situation. Crime was another alternative, forced upon workers who could not earn a living wage by honest labor. The men turned to graft and stealing, and some of the young girls took up prostitution as an alternative to starving to death in the streets.
There were charitable organizations and settlement workers who tried to alleviate the plight of the immigrants. But these people, while well-meaning, were powerless against the forces that perpetuated the poverty. Their efforts were likened to “standing upon the brink of the pit of hell and throwing in snowballs to lower the temperature” (202). One settlement worker was able to find Jurgis a job in a steel mill, but the work was just as brutalizing and underpaid as that in the stockyards. Thus the isolated, sporadic efforts of “do-gooders,” while well meant, did little to relieve the systemic poverty of the immigrants.
Jurgis’s first experience in democracy was equally disillusioning. He was told that “the officials who ruled the [country], and got all the graft, had to be elected first; and so there were two rival sets of grafters, known as political parties, and the one got the office that bought the most votes” (95). The stockyards were in a Democratic district ruled by an Irish party boss who owned the dump and the brick factory and controlled all the graft; the city inspector, who was on his payroll, allowed diseased meat to be sold to an unsuspecting public: “There was said to be two thousand dollars a week hush money from the tubercular steers alone, and as much again from the hogs that had died of cholera on the trains . . . “(99).
This widespread graft and corruption helped to perpetuate the slum conditions and the misery of the workplace – everyone in a position to make changes for the better was on the payroll of the party bosses, and so they either looked the other way or openly exploited the workers’ misery for their own benefit. Democracy thus was perverted for the enrichment of the political bosses and their flunkies, and at the expense of the people who relied upon it to protect them from injustice and exploitation. Ironically, it became the path by which some immigrants were able to raise themselves out of poverty by performing the dirty work of the party bosses. It became the “ladder of advancement” for immigrants such as the Irishman Scully, who acquired wealth and power through graft and corruption. This alternative to poverty was scarcely legitimate, but it was the only path open to uneducated, unskilled immigrants such as Jurgis.
In the early 1900s, when Sinclair published his scathing indictment of the American Dream, the regulation of business was limited or non-existent. The nation’s economy was still governed by the principle of “laissez-faire,” which held that the marketplace is its own best regulator and should be allowed to operate free from government interference. The theoretical rationale for this notion of laissez-faire was provided by Adam Smith, a Scottish economist who in 1776 published his famous tract, The Wealth of Nations. In this book, Smith argued that the marketplace is governed by an “invisible hand,” an unseen force that guides buyers and sellers, in pursuit of enlightened self-interest, to seek the common good of all. Any government interference in this process would, according to Smith, produce more harm than good.
Smith and other laissez-faire economists had given their blessing to the unfettered pursuit of profit. The notion that pursuit of selfish interests would promote the general well-being of all appealed to the robber barons and industrialists of the 19th century, who had been given virtual carte blanche to use any means at their disposal in pursuing their “enlightened self-interest.” They resisted any attempt by the federal government to control and restrict their activities, arguing that they were merely exercising their God-given right to earn a fair return on their investment and hard work. Further, they argued, they were providing jobs and income for millions of people who otherwise would be penniless and out of work.
Had Smith lived to see the abuses of the Industrial Revolution, he might have modified his position somewhat. His argument in favor of laissez-faire was based on a pre-industrial economy dominated by small, local businesses. He was arguing for economic freedom and against the abusive power of the state. But Smith could not have anticipated the widespread changes ushered in by the Industrial Revolution – the growth of cities and urban slums, the creation of huge monopoly trusts, the springing up of factories and mills. Nor could he have foreseen the abuses that took place – the wretched living conditions in the slums, the exploitation of child labor, a wage scale for workers that provided for a bare subsistence standard of living, the poverty and disease and despair. Had Smith seen for himself the horrors described in Sinclair’s novel, he perhaps would have recognized that the unfettered marketplace does not always serve the interests of all parties, and that some protection from abuses is needed. While Smith would not have embraced Sinclair’s socialist theories, he may have allowed for some government regulation of the “invisible hand.”
The specific abuses that occurred in the unfettered pursuit of profit are vividly documented in Sinclair’s novel. The law of supply and demand proved to be a cruel one, allowing owners to extract a maximum amount of work for a minimum amount of pay. The supply of workers exceeded the number of available jobs, a fact fully known to both workers and owners. Therefore, workers became expendable commodities who could be cast off if they complained or failed to produce. Because they were not protected by health regulations, workers had to labor in hazardous, unsanitary conditions; if they became sick or injured, they did not receive any benefits. Providing this kind of protection for workers apparently was not in the “enlightened self-interest” of owners, who viewed such benefits as an unnecessary drain on profits. Nor was there any unemployment insurance or other forms of government assistance available to workers who had lost their jobs or couldn’t work.
The abuses of unregulated enterprise were not confined to the workplace. The companies also owned much of the slum housing rented out to workers. Again, the owners had the upper hand, for the workers had no alternative housing and no government protection. City inspectors and others who had the power to curb such abuses were frequently on the payroll of the owners or the political bosses, who themselves were enriched by the graft and corruption. Regulations did exist to protect consumers from contaminated meat products, but diseased animal parts frequently found their way into the lard and sausages, and the inspectors sent around to enforce the law were paid to look the other way.
One of the primary reasons that owners were able to acquire so much power was the formation of huge monopoly trusts such as the Steel Trust and the Beef Trust. The abuses resulting from these monopoly trusts were widespread, affecting both workers and consumers. Because they controlled the resources for a given industry, monopolists could set prices at levels higher than they could if there were competition; wages were suppressed below market levels for the same reasons. Trusts developed out of a desire to eliminate competition and prevent the labor unions from gaining power; they were maintained by the system of graft and corruption such as that encountered by Jurgis in Chicago.
There were other forms of trusts such as the Racing Trust, which according to Sinclair “owned the legislatures in every state in which it did business; it even owned some of the newspapers, and made public opinion” (253). This trust lured people into magnificent racing parks and then enticed them into gambling with promises of big purses. The owners made huge fortunes by rigging the races using scores of tricks and bribes. Pool was also an organized trust that garnered millions for the owners while bilking the working man, desperate for entertainment and a chance to make some money, out of his hard-earned wages.
The one bright hope for the working man seemed to rest with the unions. Yet many workers, including Jurgis when he first arrived, were suspicious of unions. Jurgis resisted joining the union at first, partly because he was unable to speak English and grasp their message, partly because of his own pride as a worker. He felt that with two strong arms and a willingness to work, he didn’t need the protection of the union. Yet Jurgis, like many others, came to discover that in their fellow workers they had “brothers in affliction, and allies. Their one chance for life was in the unions, and their struggle became a kind of crusade” (93). Their goals were modest – an end to “speeding up” and other abusive practices, and an improvement in working conditions, which were appalling.
The owners, fearful of the unions becoming too powerful, used a variety of techniques to discourage workers from joining. Unions were labeled as radical and destructive, and people who did join were subject to harassment. The union’s strength lay in the solidarity of its members, which is precisely what the owners sought to undermine. If a strike was called, strikebreakers were brought in to beat up picketers, and scabs were hired to replace the strikers on the assembly line. The scabs were themselves out of work and desperately in need of a job, even if it meant crossing the picket line and helping to break the back of the union. The law was frequently on the side of the owners, supplying police manpower to help the strikebreakers.
Some workers believed that the union movement was doomed to failure because of the entrenched strength of the owners, and that more radical changes were needed. Advocates of socialism were appearing in union halls, exhorting workers to reject their “wage slavery” and convert to the socialist cause. Competition, according to the socialist credo, forces “the masses of people to engage in a life-or-death struggle with poverty” (308). The workers would “remain at the mercy of their exploiters until they were organized – until they had become ‘class conscious'” (308). The party itself was organized at an international level, with democratically elected locals in every city and town. Their aim was to “the organizing of the working class for the revolution, which would take place worldwide.” [Socialism was] “a world movement, an organization of all mankind to establish liberty and fraternity” (310).
Sinclair viewed socialism as “the new religion of mankind,” as it implied “the literal application of all the teachings of Christ” (310). In this sense, it differed from communism, which rejected religion as “the opiate of the masses.” It may also have differed in means, as the socialists favored a peaceful, democratic overthrow of the existing system, while the communists advocated the violent overthrow of capitalist governments. According to Sinclair, socialists believed in “the common ownership and democratic management of the means of producing the necessities; and . . . the means by which this is to be brought about is the class-conscious political organization of the wage earners” (330).
Ironically, Sinclair’s impassioned plea for socialism was largely overlooked by his readers, who seemed less moved by his message than by his vivid descriptions of the diseased and poisoned meat that was being packed in the nation’s stockyards. Teddy Roosevelt, who was reading The Jungle while eating some sausages for breakfast, allegedly jumped up from the table, shouting, “I’ve been poisoned!” Millions of readers joined Roosevelt in demanding that the packers end these practices and clean up their facilities. Sinclair, disappointed in this response, remarked ruefully, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach” (349).
Sinclair may have missed the mark because of the unrelenting bitterness and despair of his novel, which readers may have found difficult to accept. Moreover, his impassioned argument for socialism undoubtedly was not well received by a majority of readers. Had his prose been more dispassionate, and his political views more temperate, he may have gained more sympathy for the working classes. Whatever its shortcomings as literature and as socialist propaganda, Sinclair’s novel did arouse public indignation and produce reforms in the meat-packing industry. The Pure Food and Drug Act was a direct outcome of Sinclair’s work, which helped to awaken the conscience of a nation and bring about badly needed reforms.