As Upton Sinclair famously declared, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It was this lack of understanding Sinclair spent his entire career attempting to bring to the forefront of the American psyche. It was a lofty goal for a young man from Baltimore who survived a tumultuous upbringing. Sinclair’s father was an alcoholic and his mother’s suffocating strictness pushed him away at an early age. He was fortunate to have wealthy maternal grandparents, so he was able to experience the disparities between the lives of the rich and the poor, which would significantly influence the books he would write. In his career as a writer, it was Sinclair’s goal to bring down the corruption of capitalism, a view that was spurred by his staunchly socialist beliefs. Upton Sinclair positively influenced the United States both economically and journalistically, as reflected in the literature of the Progressive Era.
Upton Sinclair contributed greatly to the economic viability of the United States in his involvement in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. When Upton Sinclair moved to Chicago, his goal was to become an established author, and he was approached by the “leading socialist weekly in the country, The Appeal to Reason, who offered him $500 (equivalent to about $11,500 in 2008) to prepare an exposé on the meatpacking industry” (Cherny). Sinclair had seen other authors become widely-known with this form of undercover journalism, and this is what prompted him to work for seven weeks posing as an employee in Packingtown, Chicago. The publication of The Jungle turned many people’s focus towards the meatpacking industry’s horrendous work environment and products, even the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt conducted his own investigation, discovered the atrocities Sinclair uncovered to be accurate, and pushed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act through Congress less than six months after The Jungle was published (Cherny). After so much attention was given to the susceptibility of corruption of United States’ products, economists began to worry about possible adverse reactions to this negative publicity. “After all, if American goods were less popular or even banned, other nations' meat industries stood to gain at U.S. expense” (Hussey). This fear of the United States losing the upper hand as a dominant economic force, which was evoked by Sinclair’s novel, resulted in the enactment of a law that ultimately benefitted the health of all Americans. Although Sinclair’s main objective, to expose the corruption and greed indicative of a capitalistic system, went unnoticed by the masses, he still managed to advance the United States by ensuring its economic sustainability.
After gaining notoriety with his publication of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair continued to impact the United States by instigating the establishment of a code of ethics for journalists.
Disturbed by the unethical practices of his colleagues, Sinclair turned his focus to the yellow journalism of the Progressive Era. In his novel, The Brass Check, “Sinclair drew an analogy between journalists and prostitutes, beholden to the agenda, ideology, and policies of the monied elites that owned and controlled the press” (Scott and McChesney). This comparison suggested a system in which information was allotted to the highest bidder and favored the sensational over the socially responsible. As Scott and McChesney reveal, Sinclair’s “media criticism was always part of a broader commitment to social justice.” Just as he had cleaned up the stockyard with The Jungle, Sinclair cleaned up the newsroom by sparking a debate that led to greater objectivity in the American Press. Four years after the publication of his muckraking novel, the Code of Ethics or Canons of Journalism was created. This document most notably guarantees: independence from the promotion of private interest that may be contrary to the general welfare, impartiality of expression and opinion in an effort to avoid bias, and fair play to guard against slander and libel (American Society of Newspaper Editors). This code brought a dignity and respect to the profession of journalism, due in part to Upton Sinclair standing up against the status quo. Americans would no longer be at the mercy of the privileged corporations that owned and controlled the newspapers and could censor information. Sinclair took it as his duty to criticize capitalism for the greater good, which he accomplished through his literature.
Upton Sinclair’s contributions to the United States were most prominent through his novel, The Jungle, as this was the primary means in which his accusations against capitalism reached the heart of Americans. The Jungle chronicles the lives of the Jurgis family as they attempt to survive working and living in the deplorable conditions of Packingtown, Chicago. In their pursuit of the American Dream, their lives are ultimately shattered by the wage slavery and oppression of capitalism. Sinclair’s realistic depiction of the conditions in the meatpacking industry shocked readers. In chapter nine, he describes one of the rivers near the packing plants: “’Bubbly Creek’ is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the yards: all the drainage of the square mile of packing houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide” (Sinclair). This claim, that companies were dumping raw sewage into a main source of drinking water was merely one of the shocking details Sinclair exposes in The Jungle. He goes on to accuse, in chapter fourteen that contaminated meat was dressed up with baking soda and sold to be eaten on free-lunch counters (Sinclair). Employees were forced to do whatever was necessary to turn a profit, or risk being fired, left without income to provide for their families. Such was the case for the Jurgis family, whose patriarch eventually abandons the family and turns to a life of crime as a result of being crushed by capitalism. Ultimately, critics observed that “The Jungle reveals the strengths that were to mark Sinclair’s work for the rest of his career” (McEwen). This can easily be seen in the way that not only was The Jungle influential to the United States, but also his later novel, The Brass Check. Upton Sinclair was a vital part of fighting against capitalism and oppression, which would be his definitive legacy.
Upton Sinclair served a vital purpose in the Progressive Era, promoting the economic and journalistic success of the United States. His exposé of the meatpacking industry lead to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and his later accusation against unethical practices in journalism initiated the establishment of the first code of ethics for that field. Even though his socialistic beliefs were perpendicular to the majority of society, he continued to pursue his lifestyle by publishing many subsequent novels and even founding a “utopian” colony in New Jersey. He attained the highest honor as a writer by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1943 and continued to steadily write in various genres until his death in 1968. Inspiring the future generation of muckraking journalists would be Upton Sinclair’s legacy, which effectually continues to protect Americans today.
American Society of Newspaper Editors. Code of Ethics or Canons of Journalism. 1923. Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at IIT. http://ethics.iit.edu/ecodes/node/4457. 30 Jan. 2015.
Cherny, Robert W. “The Jungle and The Progressive Era.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/politics-reform/essays/jungle-and-progressive-era. 23 Jan. 2015.
Hussey, Michael. "Global muckraking: the international impact of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle." Teaching History: A Journal of Methods Spring 2009: 29+. U.S. History in Context. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.
McEwen, Fred. "Upton Sinclair: Overview." Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers. Ed. Laura Standley Berger. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Twentieth-Century Writers Series. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Feb. 2015.
Scott, Ben and Robert W. McChesney. “Upton Sinclair and the Contradictions of Capitalistic Journalism.” Monthly Review. http://monthlyreview.org/2002/05/01/upton-sinclair-and-the-contradictions-of-capitalist-journalism/. 27 Jan. 2015.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Bantam Books, 1906.