How it changed the world: Sinclair's powerful, colorful (and often unsettling) images of immigrant life, the unsanitary (to put it lightly) Chicago stockyards, the political corruption and vicious labor battles struck hard. It earned him a place among the 20th century's early muckrakers and helped advance passage of the 1906 federal Pure Food and Drug Act. Yet the reason Sinclair traveled to Chicago and wrote "The Jungle" was to expose the horrid living and working conditions of immigrants through his fictional character, Lithuanian Jurgis Rudkus. "I aimed at the public's heart," Sinclair said, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
"When he came to Chicago, he's reported to have jumped off the train and said, 'I'm here to write the 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' of Chicago," says Russ Castronovo, professor of English and American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "He always calculated this to have a certain type of dramatic social and political effect. And that was abetted by the fact that, as 'The Jungle' was making its way into print, Congress was debating food-safety legislation."
Just as writer/reformers Jane Addams and Jacob Riis incorporated popular folk traditions into their writings, so did Sinclair, says Castronovo. "That first scene — the feverish wedding, the money being spent — on one level, it's celebrating this vibrant experience of immigrant life and joy and hopes and dreams. And then it quickly becomes this nightmare.
"The way he took the vivid pro
se associated with naturalism and yoked it or adapted it to a story of the immigrant working class — that was something distinctive that he had done."
What it says: Midway through the book, the struggle of the immigrants' lives in the much-dreamed-of America has become the stuff of nightmares: Jurgis' family is tied to Packingtown and its treacherous working conditions. Sinclair wrote:
"They were beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside. It was not less tragic because it was so sordid, because that it had to do with wages and grocery bills and rents. They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child grow up to be strong. And now it was all gone — it would never be! They had played the game and they had lost."
Why you should read it now: Issues Sinclair tackled still resonate: food safety, the immigrant experience, labor battles. And perhaps, Castronovo suggests, there's a parallel between Occupy Wall Street and Sinclair's phrase, "Chicago will be ours!" "There's been more than a century of protest against the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands in the United States, and that's also what Sinclair is talking to."