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In 1906, Upton Sinclair's Book The Jungle was published in book form; it had previously been published as a newspaper serial in 1905. Few works of literature have changed history in the United States so much as The Jungle did when it was published. It has been said that the book led to the direct passage of the "Pure Food and Drug Act" of 1906 (Dickstein) and that it lead to a decades long decline in meat consumption is the United States.
The book is set in the early 1900's in Chicago; a time when true industrialization had come to the United States, and immigrant populations soared (numbersusa.com). The story begins with the traditional Lithuanian wedding of Jurgis and his sixteen year old bride, Ona. The wedding is one that they can barely afford, and sets the backdrop for the changes that they are just beginning to encounter in their new country. Immigrants with peasant backgrounds had begun to arrive in the United States en masse during the late 1890's from places such as Ireland, Poland, Italy, and Lithuania (numbersusa.com). These people were ill equipped to deal with the harsh realities of urban living in America at the time. In his book Sinclair shows how capitalism creates pressures that undermine the traditional family life, cultural ties, and moral values that these immigrants had brought with them. With "literally not a month's wages between them and starvation" workingmen are under pressure to abandon their families, woman must sometimes choose between starvation and prostitution. Children are forced to work rather then attend school, just to keep starvation away for one more day.
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The Socialist Party of America was founded in 1901, and for over a decade after that saw enormous growth, by 1912 they had over 1,200 elected public officials in the country, and during the election of that year had very good election results by their candidate Eugene Debs for President (Dickstein). The growth of the Socialist movement primarily took place in the vast heartland of the United States, as it was undergoing the strains of industrialization.
The roots of this movement were based on reforms to the social and economic systems that were keeping the immigrants enslaved by the current systems that were in place. The 19th century saw rapid industrial expansion in America. Between 1800 and 1900 the per capita income rose from $200 to more then $1200 (numbersusa.com). However, the distribution of wealth was uneven, 1% of the population owned 54% of the wealth. It is in the background that socialism flourished. Socialism was a message of hope, when the workers could see no hope for their lives.
During the early 20th century, working conditions were basically unregulated. The workers were at the mercy of the industrialists and how they felt they should treat their workers. The growing immigrant population assured them that they would always have a large labor pool willing to work for low wages. If a worker complained or was injured, there were many others waiting in line to take the job. In 1886 workers united in Chicago, during the famous Haymarket Riots. Workers went on strike for an 8-hour work day and better working conditions. Workers at the time were required to work twelve to fourteen hour days, six days a week, often in dangerous conditions. There was no government oversight, so employers were free to make up the rules as they went along. The riots started after two strikers were killed by police, supposedly at the request of factory owners, causing outrage among the working class in the city. A rally was called for at Haymarket Square to protest the killings, the rally turned violent when the police were called in to disperse the crowds. During the Haymarket riots eleven people were killed and dozens wounded when police, at the request of factory owners, opened fire on the crowd. In retaliation, the demonstrators tossed a bomb near the police line, killing several officers. This was the foundation for the socialist movement among the workers in the American Heartland (Conlin). This was a rallying cry to those that felt powerless, and disenfranchised. Over the next several years as workers tried to make gains in the workplace, their attempts fell mostly on deaf ears, as there were more people willing to take the jobs at the low wages and dangerous conditions then were workers willing to sacrifice for the good of all. It is in these conditions that The Jungle is set.
As Sinclair reveals the poverty and hopelessness, of urban life, he sets his argument for socialism. How under a classless society, with the factories regulated, and workers compensated fairly for their toil, life for the immigrants would be better. The fear of injury and starvation would be eliminated, workers would be united in their common goal to produce for the factory because they benefited directly from their labor as a cooperative.
The immigrants came to America in search of a better life, a life they thought capitalism would bring them. As it turned out for many of them, life was harder here, then in their home country. There at least they had family support, they knew they values and morals they were to live by and they knew the language and culture, capitalism was not the utopia they that it would be. The stories of the immigrant who made good, were too few compared to the numbers of people came looking for that dream. Capitalism, enslaved them, by low wages, dangerous working conditions, the fear of injury, the constant threat of job loose, the "use them up and toss them away" (Conlin) attitude, and the reality of never being able to get ahead.
Conlin, Joseph Robert. (1969) Big Bill Haywood and the Radical Union Movement.
Syracuse, N.Y. Syracuse University Press
Dickstein, Morris . "On Sinclair" The Chronicle Review May 2002
Volume 48, Issue 32, Page B12
31 March 2006
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Random House, 1979