In 1833, Chicago was a village of only 250 people. By 1893, the year of the Chicago World's Fair, it was over a million -- America's official Second City, railhead of the plains, slaughterhouse to the nation, more Poles than Warsaw, more Jews than Lithuania. The frontier had officially "closed" in 1890; the American Dream was now being worked out indoors, in tenements and factories.
The '93 Fair, was a literal fairyland: a White City of 400 temporary but neoclassical buildings, all faced in white plaster, all set among artificial Venetian canals and lagoons, aglow in Edison's incandescent light bulb, embodiment of the Fair's motto, "Make Culture Hum!"
Upton Sinclair was a voice of disharmony. The Jungle, his expose novel on the lives of immigrant workers in Chicago's meatpacking industry aimed to put the lie to the fairy tale. When it was published in 1906 it became an international best seller, launched a government investigation and changed the food laws in America overnight.
Sinclair grew up poor and early. At fifteen he was writing dime novels to put himself through college; by seventeen he had his own apartment and his parents to support. In his twenties he became a socialist, and most of his almost one hundred books are unabashed social protest. The Jungle, the book that would make his career at the age of twenty-eight, was commissioned by the editor of the socialist weekly, Appeal to Reason. Sinclair's account of life on the meatpacking "disassembly line" was serialized in the Appeal, starting on February 25th, 1905, but it was not the kind of thing book publishers wanted to touch.
When Sinclair announced his intention to publish the book himself, and immediately received over 900 orders, Doubleday got interested. When it was published the next year, book sales rose as spectacularly as meat sales dropped. There was a public outcry over the reports of sausages made from diseased meat, of dead rats and the poison that killed them being swept into the processing vats, of immigrant workers falling in, to be "overlooked for days," tells Sinclair's hero, "till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Beef Lard." President Roosevelt too read the book, and though he railed at the journalistic "muckrakers" who wrote such things, he ordered an investigation. Before the year was out, the Pure Food and Drugs Act, and the Meat Inspection Act were in force across the country.
Detail of a panoramic photo depicting the meat packing industry circa 1900. (source)
With his money, Sinclair was able to start a commune for left-wing writers, and go on to a series of investigative novels -- on coal mining, on Rockefeller oil, on the Sacco-Vanzetti case. He became, said Edmund Wilson, practically the only writer of his generation "to put to the American public the fundamental questions raised by capitalism in such a way that they could not escape them."
Sinclair himself came to different conclusions. Despite its commercial success, the novel became, for him, a bitter failure and a difficult political lesson. He had dedicated his book to "the workingmen of America" and he had hoped to do something for them. He would not have minded the poor marks he got from the literary critics of the day, nor those he got from the socialists for his political innocence -- "Sinclair is a socialist of the emotions," wrote Lenin, "without any theoretical training." His lifelong regret, Sinclair later said, was that "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." Instead of sympathy for the downtrodden, for the faceless "wage-slaves" who fell into the vats, he got consumers worried about the meat that came out, headed for their table. If anything, the new Food laws made things worse: what was supposed to bring reform to workers' lives brought McBurgers and McJobs instead.
Forty-five years later, after several unsuccessful runs at political office, Sinclair was philosophical, and undefeated: "The American people will take socialism, but they won't take the label. Running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to "End Poverty in California" I got 879,000 votes. I think we simply have to recognize the fact that our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie. There is no use attacking it by a front attack, it is much better to out-flank them."
By the second world war, most of the "Muckrake Men," as Sinclair liked to superheroically call them, had faded away -- as had many of the novels they wrote. In the second half of the century, journalists such as I. F. Stone and Jessica Mitford marched on, however, perhaps equipped with a lesson from Sinclair: "You may not be able to change the world," Mitford urged any writer who would listen, "but at least you can embarrass the guilty.