The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged. Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.
For decades, American students have studied muckraking and yellow journalism in social studies lessons about the industrial revolution, with The Jungle headlining the unit. And yet, the dangerous and purportedly socialist views expressed in the book and Sinclair’s Oil led to its being banned in Yugoslavia, East Germany, South Korea and Boston. Good job Boston!
Upton Sinclair was born on September 20, 1878, in Baltimore, Maryland. His family had once belonged to the southern aristocracy but, at Sinclair’s birth, the family hovered near poverty. Sinclair graduated from high school early and enrolled in the City College of New York at the age of fourteen. When he was fifteen, he began writing to support himself and help pay his college expenses. During his college years, Sinclair encountered socialist philosophy, the influence of which is evident in his writing throughout his life, and became an avid supporter of the Socialist Party. After he graduated from college, he enrolled in Columbia University as a graduate student in 1897.
Sinclair published five novels between 1901 and 1906, but none of them generated much income. Late in 1904, the editors of the popular socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason sent Sinclair to Chicago to examine the lives of stockyard workers. He spent seven weeks in the city’s meatpacking plants, learning every detail about the work itself, the home lives of workers, and the structure of the business. The Jungle was born from this research and was first published in serial form in Appeal to Reason. The first few publishers whom Sinclair approached told him that his novel was too shocking, and he financed a first publication of the book himself. Eventually, however, Sinclair did find a willing commercial publisher, and in 1906, The Jungle was published in its entirety.
With the instant success of The Jungle, Sinclair took his place in the ranks of the “muckrakers,” a term that Theodore Roosevelt coined in 1906 to refer to a group of journalists who devoted themselves to exposing the ills of industrialization. The Jungle raised a public outcry against the unhealthy standards in the meatpacking industry and provoked the passage of The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. No novel since Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first published in 1851, had made such a social impact. The novel’s success satisfied Sinclair’s financial concerns but not his political motivations for writing it. Sinclair had intended the novel to elicit sympathy for the working class and build support for the Socialist movement. His readership, however, was more moved by the threat of tainted beef than the plight of the worker. Sinclair tried to translate the success of The Jungle into large-scale social change by building a utopian colony in New Jersey with the profits from the novel, but the colony burned down four months after its inception.
In 1911, Sinclair divorced his first wife and married Mary Craig Kimbrough, a writer. They moved to California, where Sinclair continued to write in support of socialism. During the Great Depression, Sinclair organized the End Poverty in California movement. In 1934, he ran as a democrat in an unsuccessful campaign to become California’s governor. During the 1940s, he returned to writing fiction. He enjoyed a revival in popularity and won a Pulitzer Prize for Dragon’s Teeth, a novel dealing with Nazism in Germany.
Sinclair and his wife moved to a small town in Arizona in the 1950s. After Kimbrough died in 1961, Sinclair married again. His third wife died in 1967, and Sinclair died in 1968. Though he published more than eighty books after The Jungle, he is most remembered for this novel. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, and the Berlin Wall, the novel’s idealistic glorification of socialism may seem naïve, but the novel remains an important social record of the psychology of American capitalism in the early twentieth century.