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TODAY

Monday, November 20

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Upton Sinclair lived in Chicago for just seven weeks. But, although calling him a local author may be a stretch, his brief stay resulted in a novel that has become synonymous with the city.

Sinclair was born on September 20, 1878 in Baltimore, Maryland. He came from a once-prominent Southern family that had boasted several distinguished military veterans. The family had since been reduced to poverty, however, and Sinclair's father, a traveling salesman and alcoholic, was an irregular provider.

When he was just 14-years-old, Sinclair enrolled at New York's City College. While in college, Sinclair discovered his talent for writing and began submitting work to local magazines. He became a prolific writer, developing a remarkable ability to produce thousands of words a day.

In the summer of 1904, Sinclair closely followed the events surrounding a general workers' strike in the Chicago stockyards. The news of the strike was heavily covered in a Socialist magazine titled Appeal to Reason. Sinclair began studying the philosophy of the Socialist movement during this period, and, after the strike in Chicago was broken, he wrote an opinion piece for Appeal to Reason that urged the stockyard workers to put their faith in the Socialist party.

This passionate editorial led the editor of Appeal to Reason to offer Sinclair an opportunity to write an article exposing the working conditions of the "wage slaves" of industry. Sinclair accepted a 500 dollar advance for the story and left for Chicago on November 2, 1904.

During the weeks he spent in Chicago, Sinclair visited the stockyards, sometimes posing as a worker, in order to observe conditions at the plants. He interviewed workers, visited their homes, talked to strike leaders, stayed in settlement houses and took notes about everything he saw. Finally, when he happened upon a Lithuanian wedding in Chicago, Sinclair explained he received the inspiration for the form his story would take.

The Jungle tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who comes to Chicago with his family in hopes of pursuing the American Dream. The story begins with his wedding to Ona Lukoszaite, and that is the happiest part of the whole book. When Jurgis finds work in Chicago's stockyards, his life and the lives of those around him spiral into increasing hardship and tragedy.

The book was published in 1906, and Sinclair's horrifying descriptions of working conditions and meat contamination in Chicago's stockyards outraged the country. Although Sinclair intended the story to carry a powerful emotional impact, he meant for the book to act as a rallying cry for social reform. Instead, he realized, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." The Jungle prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to send federal investigators to the stockyards to verify Sinclair's story, and the results of the investigation led to the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act that same year.

Because of the factual basis of the story and Sinclair's Socialist philosophy, critics are divided over whether The Jungle should be considered a novel or political propaganda. Some split the difference by calling the book a "novel of social protest." But, whether you choose to read it as a work of literature or as a piece of Socialist muckraking, The Jungle provides a fascinating examination of Chicago's meatpacking industry in the early 20th century. And you may never look at a hamburger the same way again.

Sources

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Penguin Books, 1974.

"Upton Beall Sinclair." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2004.

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Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, May 9, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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