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10 Things You Should Know About Upton Sinclair's The Jungle

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Upton Sinclair conceived The Jungle as a political game-changer, a book that would get people talking and instigate some major reforms. The book certainly did both of those things—but for reasons that its author didn’t quite expect. Grab a barf bag and join us as we take a fresh look at Sinclair’s gut-wrenching magnum opus.

1. IT WAS COMMISSIONED BY A SOCIALIST NEWSPAPER EDITOR.

Upton Sinclair, who was born in 1878, began his literary career as a teenager. While enrolled at the City College of New York, the future Pulitzer Prize-winner supported himself by writing jokes and short stories for assorted newspapers. Sinclair’s first novel—a romance titled Springtime and Harvest—was released in 1901. His politics veered leftward with age and by 1903, he’d become a socialist. One year later, Sinclair established himself as a regular contributor to Appeal to Reason, America’s leading socialist newspaper. Its editor, Fred D. Warren, admired Sinclair’s fourth novel, Manassas, a historical epic set in the Civil War that was written as a salute to the abolitionist movement. In 1904, Warren gave Sinclair a $500 advance (the equivalent of about $13,200 in today’s dollars) to pen a similar novel about the problem of “wage slavery” in industrialized cities. Sinclair accepted the challenge, made tracks for the Chicago stockyards, and got to work.

2. SINCLAIR DID SEVEN WEEKS’ WORTH OF RESEARCH ON LOCATION.

Right from the get-go, Sinclair believed that The Jungle was destined to change history. He said as much when he met journalist Ernest Poole as he was starting his field research. “I’ve come here to write the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the labor movement,” the 26-year-old author told Poole.

Sinclair spent a total of seven weeks taking field notes in and around Chicago’s meatpacking district. To access local factories, he contacted Windy City socialists and union leaders, many of whom were familiar with his work in Appeal to Reason. In the 1975 book Upton Sinclair, American Rebel, biographer Leon Harris writes that these men “took him into their homes and all over the slaughterhouses, where he proved he was a superb reporter.” Disguised in well-worn clothes, Sinclair blended right in. On top of checking out the stockyards, he also took a few peeks into Chicago’s big banks and the famous Jane Addams Hull House.

3. FIVE PUBLISHERS REJECTED THE JUNGLE.

In exchange for his $500 advance, Warren secured the right to publish The Jungle as a serial in Appeal to Reason, where it ran in (mostly) weekly installments from February to November 1905. Sinclair concurrently tried to get a shortened version published in book form—but it proved challenging. At first, Macmillan offered to put it out, but only if Sinclair made some huge changes to the text. Though the company gave him another $500 advance to implement these tweaks, the two parties never saw eye-to-eye and Macmillan eventually decided against publishing The Jungle. (Luckily for the cash-strapped Sinclair, they never asked him to return the money.)

Afterward, four other publishers turned down the book. Just as Sinclair was making plans to self-publish The Jungle, however, Doubleday finally made him an offer on it. Their edition was released in 1906.

Calling the book a bestseller feels like an understatement. Doubleday sold 5500 copies in a single day, and in the first six weeks after its release, that number shot up to 25,000. In the blink of an eye, The Jungle’s author had become a household name. “Not since [the British poet Lord Byron published Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage has there been such an example of worldwide celebrity won in a day by a book as has come to Upton Sinclair,” reported the New York Evening World.

4. SINCLAIR NEVER LIKED THE ENDING.

For the most part, The Jungle takes a “show, don’t tell” narrative approach. The story centers on Jurgis Rudkus, a luckless, Lithuanian immigrant who immigrates to America with his family. We spend the lion’s share of the novel in his company, following this man’s trials and tribulations across the stockyards, saloons, and prisons of Chicago. And yet, during the book’s final chapter, he basically fades into the background. Jurgis ends up in the employ of a kindly socialist who converts him to the cause; he then attends a socialist dinner party, where he passively listens to armchair intellectuals debate the movement’s finer points. The novel ends with some welcome news about increased Socialist vote totals in elections around the country.

Critics panned the ending, which was seen as preachy and patronizing. Sinclair later admitted in his autobiography that “The last chapters were not up to standard.” When the time came to write the novel’s final third, he found himself distracted by marital difficulties and political commitments. Sinclair had also managed to waste Macmillan’s $500 advance. Financially, this put him in a tight spot and thwarted his plans to revisit Chicago on a second fact-finding trip.

Desperate to wrap up his story on a satisfactory note, Sinclair explored every option he could think of. At one point, he approached Macmillan with a proposal to split the book into two volumes, with the first installment ending after the death of Ona—Jurgis’s wife—in Chapter 19. Sinclair hoped that this would buy him more time to cook up a conclusion for The Jungle, but Macmillan nixed the whole two-volume idea. So, with some help from Warren, Sinclair sat down and gave the novel its underwhelming finale. Five years later, an embittered Sinclair told one correspondent, “Think of my having had to ruin The Jungle with an ending so pitifully inadequate.”

5. THE JUNGLE GOT ITS AUTHOR INVITED TO THE WHITE HOUSE.

It didn’t take long for The Jungle to trigger a massive public outcry. Readers were sickened by the book’s revolting asides about the unsanitary conditions at meatpacking factories. This had huge consequences for America’s food industry—according to one packer who testified before Congress, sales of U.S. meats went down by 50 percent after Sinclair’s book was published in 1906. (For the record, though, this statement is unprovable because national statistics on meat consumption did not yet exist.)

Multiple copies of the novel were sent to Theodore Roosevelt, who also received hundreds of letters from angry citizens demanding that his administration regulate slaughterhouses more thoroughly. In response, the president asked Sinclair to come and visit him at the White House. On April 4, 1906, the author arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where he met up with Roosevelt in the study. The president informed Sinclair that although a team of investigators from the Agriculture Department had already been sent to Chicago to verify The Jungle’s claims, he was dissatisfied with their conclusions. Roosevelt was now forming a second team and asked if Sinclair would consider joining it. The novelist declined.

6. IT PROVOKED AN AVALANCHE OF LEGISLATION ON CAPITOL HILL.

By the end of 1906, Congress had passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. The former mandated—among other things—that packing factories comply with new sanitation standards while also allowing the USDA to inspect all livestock animals before and after they were slaughtered. Meanwhile, the Pure Food and Drug Act banned “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors.”

Both were vigorously backed by Roosevelt, whose second team of investigators was able to confirm most of what Sinclair had written in his novel. Given this, and the degree to which it had shaped public opinion, historians credit The Jungle with helping to push the acts forward.

7. ONE OF THE BOOK’S MOST REPULSIVE INSINUATIONS IS (PROBABLY) BASELESS.

Roosevelt’s men found that Sinclair’s assessment of the workplace environment at American slaughterhouses was uncomfortably spot-on. As their 1906 report concluded, “The whole situation as we saw it in these huge establishments tends necessarily and inevitably to the moral degradation of thousands of workers who are forced to spend their working hours under conditions that are entirely unnecessary and unpardonable, and which are a constant menace not only to their own health, but to the health of those who use the food products prepared by them.”

In short, Sinclair really did his homework. According to biographer Anthony Arthur, every claim in The Jungle, with “one notable exception,” has been backed up by “corroborating evidence or some sort of assurance that it was [at least] close to being true.” The lone outlier he noted was Sinclair’s suggestion that a few workers at lard factories may have fallen into vats and been converted into lard themselves. “[When] they were fished out,” Sinclair writes, “there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting—sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!” Arresting as this image is, it’s never been verified.

8. SINCLAIR BELIEVED THAT MOST READERS TOOK THE WRONG LESSONS FROM HIS BOOK.

The Jungle is the rare activist novel that measurably changed our world. And yet, the effect it had on society was far removed from the author’s intentions. Remember, Sinclair set out to write an expose about the systemic exploitation of working-class people in industrialized cities. But instead, the public chose to fixate on his gruesome food-related anecdotes. In the process, most readers completely ignored Sinclair’s social pleas. As the author famously said in hindsight, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

9. PROCEEDS FROM THE NOVEL WERE USED TO KICKSTART A “UTOPIAN COLONY.”

Ultimately, The Jungle made Sinclair $30,000 richer. With some of this hard-earned cash, he purchased Helicon Hall, an abandoned boy’s school in Englewood, New Jersey. Sinclair envisioned it as a utopian colony, populated by a live-in community of artists, writers, and assorted intellectuals. In total, there were roughly 46 adult residents, as well as 15 children who were to be raised by members of the community. Originally, this group was also going to divide all of its cooking and housekeeping-related jobs up between its own members and a group of college interns (one of whom, by the way, was a young Sinclair Lewis). After a while, however, those menial tasks were handed off to paid servants. A fire burned down Helicon Hall in 1907, putting an end to Sinclair’s strange communal experiment.

10. A SILENT FILM VERSION CAME OUT IN 1914.

Produced by the All-Star Feature Corporation, this silent movie premiered in New York City on June 1, 1914. Unlike the novel, it had little impact on the general public—thanks partly to the meat industry, which used its influence to keep The Jungle far away from most urban theaters. The cast was reasonably well known, but there was one surprising actor: Upton Sinclair himself. In the film, Sinclair played Eugene Debs (or possibly a character inspired by Debs), a socialist icon who ran for president five times during the early 20th century. Unfortunately, his performance has been lost to the sands of time. No known copies of this movie exist and it’s believed that the last print disappeared at some point in the 1930s. Since then, David Schwimmer of Friends fame has expressed an interest in remaking The Jungle, but he seems to have dropped that project.

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
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Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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11 Haunting Facts About Beloved

Toni Morrison—who was born on February 18, 1931—made a name for herself with The Bluest Eye, Sula and Song of Solomon, but it wasn’t until 1987’s Beloved, about a runaway slave haunted by the death of her infant daughter, that her legacy was secured. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in the decision to award Morrison the Nobel Prize in 1993. All the awards aside, Beloved is a testament to the horrors of slavery, with its narrative of suffering and repressed memory and its dedication to the more than 60 million who died in bondage. Here are some notable facts about Morrison’s process and the novel’s legacy.

1. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

While compiling research for 1974's The Black Book, Morrison came across the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave from Kentucky who escaped with her husband and four children to Ohio in 1856. A posse caught up with Garner, who killed her youngest daughter and attempted to do the same to her other children rather than let them return to bondage. Once apprehended, her trial transfixed the nation. "She was very calm; she said, 'I’d do it again,'" Morrison told The Paris Review. "That was more than enough to fire my imagination."

2. MORRISON CAME UP WITH THE CHARACTER BELOVED AFTER SHE STARTED WRITING.

The book was originally going to be about the haunting of Sethe by her infant daughter, who she killed (just as Garner did) rather than allow her to return to slavery. A third of the way through writing, though, Morrison realized she needed a flesh-and-blood character who could judge Sethe’s decision. She needed the daughter to come back to life in another form (some interpret it as a grief-driven case of mistaken identity). As she told the National Endowment for the Arts’ NEA Magazine: "I thought the only person who was legitimate, who could decide whether [the killing] was a good thing or not, was the dead girl."

3. SHE WROTE THE ENDING EARLY IN THE WRITING PROCESS.

Morrison has said she likes to know the ending of her books early on, and to write them down once she does. With Beloved, she wrote the ending about a quarter of the way in. "You are forced into having a certain kind of language that will keep the reader asking questions," she told author Carolyn Denard in Toni Morrison: Conversations.

4. MORRISON BECAME FASCINATED WITH SMALL HISTORICAL DETAILS.

To help readers understand the particulars of slavery, Morrison carefully researched historical documents and artifacts. One particular item she became fascinated with: the "bit" that masters would put in slaves' mouths as punishment. She couldn’t find much in the way of pictures or descriptions, but she found enough to imagine the shame slaves would feel. In Beloved, Paul D. tells Sethe that a rooster smiled at him while he wore the bit, indicating that he felt lower than a barnyard animal.

5. SHE ONLY RECENTLY READ THE BOOK HERSELF.

In an appearance on The Colbert Report last year, Morrison said she finally got around to reading Beloved after almost 30 years. Her verdict: "It’s really good!"

6. THE BOOK INSPIRED READERS TO BUILD BENCHES.

When accepting an award from the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1988, Morrison observed that there is no suitable memorial to slavery, "no small bench by the road." Inspired by this line, the Toni Morrison Society started the Bench by the Road Project to remedy the issue. Since 2006, the project has placed 15 benches in locations significant to the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, including Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, which served as the point of entry for 40% of slaves brought to America.

7. WHEN BELOVED DIDN’T WIN THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN 1987, FELLOW WRITERS PROTESTED.

After the snub, 48 African-American writers, including Maya Angelou, John Edgar Wideman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., signed a letter that appeared in the New York Times Book Review. "For all of America, for all of American letters," the letter addressing Morrison read, "you have advanced the moral and artistic standards by which we must measure the daring and the love of our national imagination and our collective intelligence as a people."

8. IT’S ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY CHALLENGED BOOKS.

Between 2000 and 2009, Beloved ranked 26th on the American Library Association’s list of most banned/challenged books. A recent challenge in Fairfax County, Virginia, cited the novel as too intense for teenage readers, while another challenge in Michigan said the book was, incredibly, overly simplistic and pornographic. Thankfully, both challenges were denied.

9. MORRISON ALSO WROTE AN OPERA BASED ON GARNER’S LIFE.

Ten years ago, Morrison collaborated with Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour on Margaret Garner, an opera about the real-life inspiration behind Beloved. It opened in Detroit in 2005, and played in Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York before closing in 2008.

10. MORRISON DID NOT WANT IT MADE INTO A MOVIE.

Although she publicly claims otherwise, according to a New York magazine story, Morrison told friends she didn’t want Beloved made into a movie. And she didn’t want Oprah Winfrey (who bought the film rights in 1988) to be in it. Nevertheless, the film came out in 1998 and was a total flop.

11. THERE'S AN ILLUSTRATED VERSION.

The Folio Society, a London-based company that creates fancy special editions of classic books, released the first-ever illustrated Beloved in 2015. Artist Joe Morse had to be personally approved by Morrison for the project. Check out a few of his hauntingly beautiful illustrations here.

This article originally appeared in 2015.

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