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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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5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe
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Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

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13 Fascinating Facts About Kurt Vonnegut
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Best known as the eccentric author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut filled his novels, plays, and short stories with irreverence, satire, and wry wit. He wrote about dystopian societies, disillusionment with war, and skepticism, particularly connecting with millions of readers in the 1960s counterculture. To celebrate what would have been Vonnegut’s 95th birthday, we compiled a list of facts about the beloved science fiction writer.

1. HE MET HIS FIRST WIFE IN KINDERGARTEN.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, Vonnegut met his future wife, Jane, in kindergarten. Although they dated as teenagers in high school, their relationship paused when Vonnegut went to Cornell University, dropped out to serve in World War II, and became a prisoner of war in Germany. After returning to the U.S., he married Jane in 1945. The couple had six children—three biological and three adopted—but divorced in 1971.

2. HIS MOTHER COMMITTED SUICIDE ON MOTHER'S DAY.

When Vonnegut was born, his parents were well-off. Kurt Sr., his father, was an architect and Edith, his mother, was independently wealthy from the brewery that her family owned. But due to Prohibition and the Great Depression, the family struggled to make ends meet, sold their home, and switched their son to a public school. Edith, who suffered from mental illness, became addicted to alcohol and prescription pills. In 1944, when Vonnegut came home from military training to celebrate Mother’s Day, he found Edith dead. She had committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and the 21-year-old Vonnegut soon went to Germany to fight in World War II. In an interview with The Paris Review, Vonnegut remembered his mother as being highly intelligent, cultivated, and a good writer. "I only wish she’d lived to see [my writing career]. I only wish she’d lived to see all her grandchildren," he said.

3. HE TURNED HIS PRISONER OF WAR EXPERIENCE INTO A BESTSELLING BOOK.


By United States Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because Vonnegut was flunking his classes at Cornell, he decided to drop out and join the army to fight in World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge, in 1944, German forces captured him, along with other American prisoners of war, in Dresden. Forced to work long hours in a malt-syrup factory, he slept in a subterranean slaughterhouse. In a letter he later wrote to his family, Vonnegut described the unsanitary conditions, sadistic guards, and measly food rations. After surviving the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, Vonnegut was forced by his captors to remove jewelry from the corpses before cremating them. "One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt," he said in his Paris Review interview.

Later in 1945, Vonnegut got frostbite and was discharged from the army (he earned a Purple Heart). Over two decades later, in 1969, Vonnegut published the bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which gave readers a fictionalized account of his wartime imprisonment. He later said that only one person benefited from the raid in Dresden: him. "I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that," he said.

4. CONTRARY TO RUMORS, HE WASN’T FRAT BUDDIES WITH DR. SEUSS.

An urban legend suggests that Vonnegut and Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) were college friends who spent time together in the same fraternity. But according to Snopes, the tale of Geisel and Vonnegut’s friendship is greatly exaggerated … that is, it’s false. The two authors probably never met, and they didn’t attend any of the same schools (plus, Geisel was 18 years older than Vonnegut). Geisel did, however, once visit a friend who belonged to Cornell’s Delta Upsilon fraternity. Geisel drew a mural on the wall of the fraternity’s basement, and Vonnegut saw his drawings at Cornell a decade later as a student.

5. HE HELD A SERIES OF ODD JOBS TO SUPPORT HIS FAMILY.

In 1947, Vonnegut began working in public relations for General Electric, an experience that he drew upon to write Cat’s Cradle. He wrote articles and short stories for magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, and his first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. Vonnegut then briefly wrote for Sports Illustrated, managed a Saab car dealership in Massachusetts (the first in the U.S.), and worked as an English teacher.

6. HE ADOPTED HIS SISTER’S THREE KIDS.

In the late 1950s, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, died of cancer and Alice’s husband died in a train accident within the span of a few days. Although Vonnegut already had three children with his wife, he adopted his sister’s three sons. Since he now had six children to support, Vonnegut spent even more time writing to earn money.

7. HE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE.

Although Slaughterhouse-Five made him a famous, bestselling author, Vonnegut struggled with depression in the midst of his literary success. After getting divorced in 1971, he lived alone in New York City and had trouble writing. His son became psychotic, and although he married his second wife in 1979 (and they adopted a daughter together), his depression got worse. In 1984, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol, an experience he wrote about in 1991 in Fates Worse Than Death, a collection of essays.

8. HE GRADED ALL HIS BOOKS.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Vonnegut discussed his grading system for his books (he also wrote about this system in Palm Sunday, a collection of his works published in 1981). He gave himself an A+ for his writing in Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five but wasn’t as generous with Happy Birthday, Wanda June or Slapstick, which both received Ds.

9. HE LOVED WATCHING CHEERS.

In 1991, while speaking to the press to promote his Showtime television show Vonnegut’s Monkey House, he extolled the virtues of the NBC show Cheers. "I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written," he said. Although he viewed television in general with skepticism, he made an exception for the long-running sitcom, calling it television’s one comic masterpiece: "Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny," he said.

10. HE TRIED TO STOP SMOKING BUT GAINED TOO MUCH WEIGHT.

A lifelong smoker, Vonnegut began smoking cigarettes as a young teenager. Interviews with the author described his chain-smoking, his preferred brand (Pall Mall), and his frequent coughing and wheezing. Vonnegut admitted that he quit smoking twice, but neither attempt succeeded long-term. "Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250 pounds," he told the Paris Review. The second time, his lack of smoking made him "unbearably opinionated" and curtailed his writing time. "I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again," he said.

11. THANKS TO CAT’S CRADLE, HE FINALLY GOT HIS MASTER'S DEGREE.

While studying anthropology as a young man at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut wrote his graduate thesis comparing 19th century Cubist painters to Native American artists. Vonnegut later explained that the faculty rejected his dissertation, and he dropped out of his master’s program there: "I left Chicago without writing a dissertation—and without a degree. All my ideas for dissertations had been rejected, and I was broke, so I took a job as a P.R. man for General Electric in Schenectady." But the quality of his novel Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, persuaded University of Chicago faculty to accept the novel as his dissertation. So 20 years after he dropped out, Vonnegut finally earned his master’s degree in anthropology.

12. HE HAS OVER 210,000 TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

Although Vonnegut died in 2007 at 84 years old, his ideas live on in 140 characters or less. A Twitter account dedicated to the writer tweets his quotes several times a day to more than 215,000 followers. Examples of his tweets? "How embarrassing to be human," and "We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap." Fittingly, the account follows just one person, @TheMarkTwain, for Vonnegut greatly admired the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn author.

13. THE VONNEGUT MEMORIAL LIBRARY CONTINUES HIS LEGACY.

Located in his birthplace of Indianapolis, The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library honors the writer’s achievements and keeps his legacy alive. Opened in 2010, the library displays signed copies of Vonnegut’s books as well as early rejection letters. Visitors can also see his drawings, examine family photos, and view his typewriter, cigarettes, and Purple Heart. The library works to fight censorship, a cause that Vonnegut strongly believed in, by giving free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to students whose schools have banned the book. So it goes.

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