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

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Getty Images

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.

26 Amazing Books by LGBTQ+ Authors You Should Add to Your Bookshelf

iStock/Mitshu
iStock/Mitshu

With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots coming up on June 28, it seems like the entire country is celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride. But what happens on July 1, when all the rainbow logos and flags get put away for the year? Don't worry—we've got a list of incredible books by LGBTQ+ authors to keep you occupied all year long. Like the queer community itself, this reading list is diverse and exciting, representing a wide variety of genres, time periods, and identities. Here are 26 great books to add to your bookshelf.

1. Fingersmith // Sarah Waters

The cover of 'Fingersmith'
Riverhead Books

Sarah Waters is the reigning queen of lesbian historical mysteries, and Fingersmith is her answer to Oliver Twist—only with more, well, twists. So-called "genre" stories rarely get recognized for major literary prizes, but Fingersmith not only won the Crime Writers Association's 2002 Historical Dagger award, and it was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year.

Find it: Amazon

2. Eighty-Sixed // David Feinberg

The cover of 'Eighty-Sixed'
Grove Press

In the last few years, a host of historical novels have delved into the first wave of the AIDS crisis, from Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers to Joseph Cassara's House of Impossible Beauties. But no retrospective look captures the unknowability of the queer community's sudden descent into the plague years as well as David Feinberg's seminal Eighty-Sixed, which blends humor, fear, loss, and anger into a genuinely fun—if incredibly harrowing and sad—chronicle of the 1980s.

Find it: Amazon

3. Stone Butch Blues // Leslie Feinberg

The cover of 'Stone Butch Blues'
Alyson Books

Winner of the 1994 Stonewall Book Award, Stone Butch Blues is one of the earliest American novels told from the point of view of a genderqueer, trans-masculine person—a “stone butch,” in the parlance of the 1970s (when the majority of the book is set). Leslie Feinberg’s last words were “remember me as a revolutionary Communist,” and in that spirit, the 20th-anniversary edition of the book is free to download on hir website. (Feinberg used the pronouns ze/hir.)

Find it: Amazon

4. [insert] Boy // Danez Smith

The cover of '[insert] Boy'
YesYes Books

This first poetry collection from queer, black, nonbinary Midwesterner Danez Smith shows that the best spoken word poetry can also light up the page. Showing the true breadth of their talent and appeal, in the years since [insert] Boy (2015) was published, Smith has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and won a number of awards, including a nomination for the National Book Award for their 2017 collection Don't Call Us Dead.

Find it: Amazon

5. I’ve Got a Time Bomb // Sybil Lamb

The cover of 'I've Got a Time Bomb'
Topside Press

In this whacked-out road novel, Sybil Lamb borrows deeply from her own experiences as an underground, always-on-the-move, crust punk trans artist—including the time she was beaten and left for dead after a gay wedding in New Orleans, causing her permanent brain damage. The result is surreal and disturbing, yet somehow still hopeful.

Find it: Amazon

6. The Color Purple // Alice Walker

The cover of 'The Color Purple'
Open Road Media

The Color Purple is a timeless American classic that has won accolades in print, on film, and on the Broadway stage. Yet it's not often recognized for the queer sexuality and unconventional family structures at its heart. If you haven’t read this book since it was assigned to you in school, come back to it with adult eyes to find a beautiful story of queer resilience.

Find it: Amazon

7. Sketchtasy // Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The cover of 'Sketchtasy'
Arsenal Pulp Press

Young queer people might be prone to wax nostalgic about the 1990s (as many of us do). But Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s third novel, Sketchtasy, presents a different perspective on the decade, delving into the dangerous and confusing side of being a young queer outsider in Boston, America’s most parochial city, in the mid-1990s.

Find it: Amazon

8. I, the Divine // Rabih Alameddine

The cover of 'I, the Divine'
W. W. Norton & Company

Rabih Alameddine’s sumptuous prose would make a to-do list mesmerizing, but the real delight of I, the Divine is its experimental structure: The book takes the form of a series of attempted first chapters of the memoir of its protagonist. Alameddine is a master of using nonlinear forms to build powerful and unexpected narratives, and I, the Divine is one of his best.

Find it: Amazon

9. Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga // Michael McDowell

The cover of 'Blackwater'
Valancourt Books

Michael McDowell was only 49 years old when he died of AIDS in 1999, but he was already the “finest writer of paperback originals in America today,” as Stephen King put it. Although you may not know his name, you almost certainly know some of his writing, such as the script for Beetlejuice. Blackwater is McDowell’s six-part serial Southern gothic horror epic, which follows decades of one family’s haunted life along the Perdido River in Alabama.

Find it: Amazon

10. We the Animals // Justin Torres

The cover of 'We the Animals'
Mariner Books

Justin Torres’s loosely autobiographical first novel follows three brothers growing up in upstate New York in the 1980s in a family that is at turns loving and violent. A beautiful coming-of-age story about being queer, brown, and working class, Torres fills his pages with gorgeous sentences that linger in your mouth, like, “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

Find it: Amazon

11. Outline of My Lover // Douglas Martin

The cover of 'Outline of My Lover'
Soft Skull Press

Douglas Martin's exquisite, short, experimental roman a clef shines a queer light in an unexpected place: the indie music scene of Athens, Georgia, circa the late 1980s and early 1990s. Following a fey young man's limerent crush on a closeted rock star, Outline of My Lover was published by Soft Skull Press, a New York City underground institution whose earliest books were printed on pirated Kinko's copiers.

Find it: Amazon

12. This Bridge Called My Back // Cherrie Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua

The cover of 'This Bridge Called My Back'
SUNY Press

If you love the concept of intersectionality, This Bridge Called My Back is the throwback read you need. Combining everything from poetry to memoir to theory, this slim anthology is one of the ur-texts that brought an explicitly anti-racist, women-of-color-centered, feminist lens to queer studies—without being so full of academic jargon you’ll want to throw it across the room.

Find it: Amazon

13. Conflict Is Not Abuse // Sarah Schulman

The cover of 'Conflict Is Not Abuse'
Arsenal Pulp

Sarah Schulman is one of the queer community's fiercest public intellectuals, with a critical eye that has tackled topics as diverse as Palestinian liberation and American gentrification. With Conflict Is Not Abuse, she examines the “supremacist thinking” that undergirds everything from our current presidential administration to that Twitter fight you got in last week.

Find it: Amazon

14. I’ll Give You the Sun // Jandy Nelson

The cover of 'I'll Give You the Sun'
Speak

This beautiful young adult novel proves that writing for teens can be as poetic and lyrical as writing for adults—without losing the unputdownable quality that animates the best YA books. In alternating chapters, Nelson’s twin brother-sister narrators slowly circle the devastating secrets that transformed them from best friends into virtual strangers. We dare you not to cry at the end.

Find it: Amazon

15. 7 Miles a Second // David Wojnarowicz

The cover of '7 Miles a Second'
Fantagraphics Books

Following his 2018 retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, the late artist and activist David Wojnarowicz has exploded back into cultural relevance. This posthumous graphic novel (illustrated by Wojnarowicz’s friend, James Romberger, and originally published by DC Comics), turns his autobiographical stories of homelessness, sexual abuse, and AIDS into a fever dream of stream-of-consciousness prose and hallucinatory images.

Find it: Amazon

16. Trash // Dorothy Allison

The cover of 'Trash'
Penguin Books

Dorothy Allison is rightly famous for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, which drew on her experiences growing up poor, Southern, queer, and sexually abused. But the novel’s protagonists, Bone and Shannon, made their debut in this early collection of Allison’s short stories, which won multiple Lambda Literary Awards in 1989.

Find it: Amazon

17. Written on the Body // Jeanette Winterson

The cover of 'Written on the Body'
Vintage International

The unnamed, ungendered protagonist of Jeanette Winterson’s magical novel Written on the Body is both philosopher and seducer, approaching love as a conundrum to be sorted and a prize to be won. The result is a genderless eroticism that is both intellectual and physical. This one is best read with your lover(s).

Find it: Amazon

18. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls // T Kira Madden

The cover of 'Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls'
Bloomsbury Publishing

T Kira Madden’s lush, wild, and disturbing memoir seems to take every insane “Florida woman” Internet meme and explode it, revealing the tenderness, love, fear, pain, anger, and joy that nestle within stories of crazy nights and lost days. But Madden’s lyric prose and unique voice are what truly make this autobiography shine.

Find it: Amazon

19. Go Tell It on the Mountain // James Baldwin

The cover of 'Go Tell It on the Mountain'
Vintage International

James Baldwin is one of the lions of 20th-century literature, renowned for his gorgeous writing, his gripping narratives, and his ability to grapple with some of the major social issues of his time. Go Tell It On the Mountain is his first book, the one that years later he would call “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Start here, and then read everything Baldwin wrote after.

Find it: Amazon

20. No Ashes in the Fire // Darnell Moore

The cover of 'No Ashes in the Fire'
Bold Type Books

Darnell Moore’s memoir of coming of age queer and black in Camden, New Jersey, is equal parts harrowing and beautiful. His ability to interweave his personal journey with the larger story of the structural racism and disenfranchisement faced by Camden residents makes No Ashes in the Fire fascinating on both a personal and political level.

Find it: Amazon

21. Confessions of the Fox // Jordy Rosenberg

The cover of 'Confessions of the Fox'
One World

Transgender writer Jordy Rosenberg’s stunning debut novel ping-pongs back and forth between a lost 18th-century manuscript that purports to be the true autobiography of Jack Sheppard (an infamous historical figure and thief) and the story of the beleaguered academic who finds the book in a library sale at his second-rate university. Rosenberg himself teaches 18th-century literature as well as gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and for anyone who’s spent too long in academic circles, the present-day parts of this book will feel all too realistic.

Find it: Amazon

22. Dancer from the Dance // Andrew Holleran

The cover of 'Dancer From the Dance'
Harper Perennial

Nothing can recreate the hothouse nature of post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS urban gay male life, with its heady mix of liberation and oppression all set to a throbbing disco beat—but Dancer from the Dance certainly comes close. It’s a portrait of shallow hedonism filled with unexpected depth and pathos.

Find it: Amazon

23. Leaves of Grass // Walt Whitman

The title page of a 19th-century copy of 'Leaves of Grass'
Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library

If the last time you tried to read Leaves of Grass was in a high school English class, it deserves a second look. Whitman’s poems are queer, erotic, sensual, sexual, and sometimes downright dirty. As the poet himself wrote, “I am for those who believe in loose delights—I share the midnight orgies of young men.”

Find it: Amazon

24. SCUM Manifesto // Valerie Solanas

The cover of 'SCUM Manifesto'
AK Press

If you only know Valerie Solanas from her attempt to shoot Andy Warhol or her recent cameo on American Horror Story, you’re missing out on one of the most outrageous feminist texts of the mid-20th century. Is SCUM Manifesto a Swiftian satire of Freudian misogyny, or actual propaganda for the violent overthrow of the patriarchy? Unclear. But either way, it's hard to put down a book that begins like this:

"'Life' in this 'society' being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of 'society' being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex."

Find it: Amazon

25. The Queen of the Night // Alexander Chee

The cover of 'The Queen of the Night'
Mariner Books

Like the arias sung by Alexander Chee’s protagonist—a 19th-century opera diva with a hidden past—The Queen of the Night is lush, dramatic, passionate, and melodramatic (in the best way). This book is a confection for opera queens and Francophiles, but even tone-deaf readers will revel in its murders, affairs, intrigues, and mysteries. We've previously put Chee on our list of great Asian American authors to read, so suffice it to say we're big fans.

Find it: Amazon

26. Complete Poems // Marianne Moore

The cover of Marianne Moore's 'Complete Poems'
Penguin Classics

We might think of the terms asexual and aromantic as modern identity labels only recently recognized under the queer umbrella, but throughout history, there have been people who have lived queer lives very much in those modes—like the extraordinary poet Marianne Moore, one of the most talented (and longest lasting) of the Modernist poets of the early 20th century. Complete Poems gives readers a broad overview of her work, from her early, dense, Imagist pieces (often drawn from scientific sources, like 1936's "The Pangolin"), to her later, more accessible and popular work (like 1961's "Baseball and Writing").

Find it: Amazon

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Joy Harjo Named First Native American Poet Laureate

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Since 1985, the United States has appointed poet laureates to promote the reading and writing of poetry among the public. As The New York Times reports, poet Joy Harjo now holds the prestigious title, making her the first Native American poet laureate in the country's history.

A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Harjo was born on Native land in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951. She was introduced to poetry as a college student in New Mexico, and she further honed her skills as a graduate student in the distinguished creative writing program at the University of Iowa. Today she's the author of eight volumes of poetry, including She Had Some Horses, How We Became Human, and In Mad Love and War. She's also taught classes at UCLA and the University of Tennessee.

In her work, Harjo grapples with themes of tradition, loss, and myth-making. Her Native heritage has had a major influence on her poetry. She spoke of the honor of being named poet laureate in a statement: "I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem."

Harjo will take over the position of poet laureate from Tracy K. Smith, who held it for two years. As the United States' new poet laureate, Harjo will be responsible for raising "the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry," according to the Library of Congress, which bestows the title. Official duties are kept to a minimum so poets can work on their own special projects that boost the medium's profile.

[h/t The New York Times]

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