|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.
Excerpt from Chapter 14
It was only when the whole ham was spoiled that it came into the department of Elzbieta. Cut up by the two-thousand-revolutions-a-minute flyers, and mixed with half a ton of other meat, no odor that ever was in a ham could make any difference. There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white--it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats.
These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one--there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water--and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public's breakfast. Some of it they would make into "smoked" sausage--but as the smoking took time, and was therefore expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department, and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatine to make it brown. All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it they would stamp some of it "special," and for this they would charge two cents more a pound.
Such were the new surroundings in which Elizbieta was placed, and such was the work she was compelled to do.