Upton Sinclair described the site of Chicago's meatpacking industry, Packingtown, as "the greatest aggregation of labor and capital ever gathered in one place." The supreme achievement of American capitalism, Sinclair would undertake to reveal, was also its greatest disgrace. At the age of twenty-six, Sinclair set out to write The Jungle in the spirit of Saint George battling the dragon. His was an age of capitalist Titans, of magnates whose wealth, power, and hubris seemed unlimited: A single man owned a million acres of the Texas Panhandle, an American coal tycoon attempted to buy the Great Wall of China, and in the Midwest a combination known as the Beef Trust tightly controlled the production and sale of meat through pervasive wage and price fixing and the unrelenting exploitation of the stockyard workforce. Sinclair's was also an age when writers, both journalists and novelists, were experiencing a thrilling sense of their own efficacy. The investigative exposé-what President Theodore Roosevelt would unflatteringly dub "muckraking," after the character in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678, 1684) who could "look no way but downward, with a muckrake in his hands"-had taken the magazine and publishing world by storm, had grabbed hold of the popular reader, and was shining a bright light on the ever-darkening realms of child labor, prisons, insurance companies, and, foremost, American enterprise and its role in the creation of a new American class of impoverished industrial wage slaves.
With their tremendous descriptive and explanatory power, books such as Henry Demarest Lloyd's Wealth against Commonwealth (1894), a study of American business syndicates and trusts, Ida Tarbell's History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), and Lincoln Steffens's The Shame of the Cities (1904), an exposé of municipal corruption and the ties between government and business in six American cities, had a significant impact on public debate, turning uncertainty into indignation and despair into outrage. Combining rigorous research and firsthand reporting with moralistic rhetoric, these works revealed how the contemporary world worked, how businesses were being transformed into empires, and how these empires were bleeding the public in an exploitative relationship starkly delineated by Lloyd on the first page of Wealth against Commonwealth (see "For Further Reading"): "Holding back the riches of earth, sea, and sky from their fellows who famish and freeze in the dark, they [the syndicates and trusts] . . . assert the right, for their private profit, to regulate the consumption by the people of the necessaries of life, and to control production, not by the needs of humanity, but by the desires of few for dividends."
Energized by their sense of mission, these journalists also understood that at that moment, when magazines and books were reaching wider audiences than ever before, there was no more powerful means at their disposal than the written word. They had a confidence in the power of their medium that writers seldom experience today. Not yet competing with motion pictures, either dramatic or documentary, these writers seemed to understand that, for the moment at least, the written word was the document of truth. Even photographs could not vie with narrative for getting at what was real. Consider, in this regard, the reader's first exposure to the packing yards in The Jungle, when Jurgis and his family take a tour. As spectators, outsiders, what they see is an immensely impressive system; Jurgis himself is full of admiration; the family is "breathless with wonder" at the magnitude, the efficiency; "it seemed to them impossible of belief that anything so stupendous could have been devised by mortal man." This first impression, like a panoramic set of photographs, lacked narrative dimension. As the novel unfolds, we discover, along with Jurgis, that only through time and its unraveling- that is, through narrative-can the real meaning of these impressive images be disclosed and comprehended.
Given the great success of the muckraking journalists, and Sinclair's admiration for them (including his friend Lincoln Steffens), it is worth examining why Sinclair did not choose to write his Packingtown book as a journalistic exposé, especially considering that he had written a series of articles on the failed meatpackers strike of 1904. In choosing fiction over a journalistic account, Sinclair was responding to a moment when novelists were also taking on the real and exploring new techniques for storytelling, and as a consequence enjoying a heady period of reinvigoration and a renewed sense of their own persuasive power. Frank Norris, whose highly successful The Octopus (1901) was based on an actual clash in 1880 between farmers in California's San Joaquin valley and the Southern Pacific Railroad, wrote in a 1902 essay:If the novel were not one of the most important factors of modern life, . . . if its influence were not greater than all the pulpits, than all the newspapers between the oceans, it would not be so important that its message should be true. . . . [The people] look to-day as they never have looked before, as they never will look again, to the writer of fiction to give them an idea of Life beyond their limits, and they believe him as they never have believed before and never will again" ("The Responsibilities of the Novelist," Critic 16, December 1902; in Documents of American Realism and Naturalism, edited by Donald Pizer). Novelists had their own distinct aims and responsibilities, not only to represent "the true" but to give symbolic dimension to the new and strange. They sought to find language to describe the urban blight that was growing and spreading at frightening speed, drawing a vast population to toil and live in a new kind of poverty, to struggle against a new kind of filth and stench, to look upon a new kind of ugliness, and to endure new illnesses, injuries, and perils. The speed at which change was occurring intensified the sense that these transmutations were unstoppable. (In 1864 the Chicago meatpacking plants and stockyards were built, and were up and running within a matter of six months; within a short time every railroad that entered Chicago went to the yards, creating a ribbon of 100 miles of track surrounding the new plants that grew to 250 miles by 1905.) Such vastness and efficiency possessed the power to awe, and to overwhelm. Sinclair, and writers of his school, sought to represent the inhuman magnitude of industrial expansion, but also to give it symbolic shape-a human comprehensibility.
Although Sinclair portrays the crushing, machine-like force of a man-made hell, he turned for his title to an image from the natural world (as Frank Norris had done in choosing the octopus to describe the spread of the railway), to a place that, particularly in this period, evoked a sense of primal fear, a "heart of darkness." The Jungle represented a setting inhospitable to human life, where "civilized" man does not thrive, where life is an unrelenting and ultimately a dehumanizing battle. From our perspective, at the other end of the twentieth century, Sinclair's world had yet to arrive at the shared symbolic reference points for man-made horror provided for us by systematic genocide, concentration camps, and industrial warfare.
For many writers of this new school of realism (or what some describe as Naturalism, which I discuss below), there was a sense of liberation from the requirement to tell a story; now the conditions of life were the story. (If for postmodernist writers, reality is no longer realistic, for writers of this period, reality was a new frontier, vivid and legible.) Exploring new narrative structures, novelists, following Émile Zola's lead, were hanging their narratives on the framework not of an individual life, but of an industry or the history of a commodity. Zola had built his novels around coal mines, the emergence of the department store, stock market speculation, even a Parisian laundry. But when Sinclair determined to write a novel about the packing yards, he hit upon more than an apt framing device, more even than an industry that needed to be exposed for its heinous practices; consciously or not, he hit upon the subject that would give his novel its most enduring quality. The Jungle is, arguably, the only muckraking novel of its era that is still read for more than historical interest. In the slaughterhouse Sinclair found both the symbol and the objective correlative for the condition of the worker in that moment, as well as a trope for the entire twentieth century.