Skip to main content Skip to main content

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)

[7110] H. C. White Company, Making Link Sausages–Machines Stuff 10 Ft. per Second (c. 1905), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-50217].

Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and is best known for his 1906 muckraking novel, The Jungle. He received a degree from the College of the City of New York and did graduate work at Columbia University. Early on, he supported himself as a journalist and a writer. His serials for boys’ weekly magazines, the Cliff Faraday stories and the Mark Mallory stories, were particularly lucrative. Sinclair’s later writing emphasized socialist causes. By 1904 he was a regular reader of the Appeal to Reason, a populist-socialist newspaper. Though his works were celebrated in Russia, he opposed the communist regime there after the 1917 revolution.

Sinclair wrote over a hundred books. In addition to The Jungle, important works include King Coal(1917); Oil! (1927), about the corruption of southern California society; Boston (1928), about the Sacco-Vanzetti trial; and the Lanny Budd series, which includes World’s End (1940), Between Two Worlds(1941), and Dragon’s Teeth (1942). The Lanny Budd series offers a Marxist interpretation of the years between the two world wars. Sinclair is famous for his muckraking novels. Turn-of-the-twentieth-century writers and journalists who exposed scandals in politics and business through their writing were called “muckrakers.” Muckrakers often had proletarian and socialist sympathies. Other writers associated with this movement include Jack London, David Graham Phillips, and Robert Herrick, along with Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell.

Though Sinclair had to publish The Jungle himself after it was rejected by a number of publishers, it became his first popular literary success. The novel was inspired by journalistic investigations into the dirty and dangerous working conditions in the Chicago stockyards. Its protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, endures the exploitation of the Brown and Durham meatpacking company as he witnesses the rest of his family being victimized and destroyed. Sinclair intended his novel to cause public outrage for the immigrants who were forced to work for substandard pay in the intolerable conditions of the stockyards. While the novel had little effect on working conditions, it did incite public concern about poor food quality and impurities in processed meats, which resulted in the passage of federal food inspection legislation.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask students to consider Sinclair’s works as political commentaries and historic records. Suggest that they research a topic about which Sinclair wrote — the meatpacking industry or labor unions, for example; then have them share their assessment of the accuracy of Sinclair’s representation.
  • The muckrakers used the media to alert the public to important issues and to initiate social change. Have students discuss how today’s media is used to investigate social and economic problems. Have them list the topics covered in a week’s worth of television “newsmagazine” shows. Ask them to compare and contrast the approaches and subjects of contemporary television investigative reports with those of the early-twentieth-century muckrakers.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is Jurgis’s original response to getting a job with the meatpacking company? What are we to make of that response?
  2. Comprehension: Why did meatpacking companies almost always employ only immigrants?
  3. Comprehension: How are European immigrants portrayed by Sinclair throughout The Jungle? How does this compare to his portrayal of nonimmigrants?
  4. Context: Compare the living and working conditions of the Rudkus family with those portrayed by Bulosan in America Is in the Heart, by Rivera in . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra/. . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, and by Viramontes in Under the Feet of Jesus. What are the similarities and differences between the ethnic workers in all these works? What burdens do they share? How are their dreams similar or different?
  5. Exploration: The Jungle is a novel in the tradition of literary naturalism. Compare it with earlier naturalistic works, such as Stephen Crane’s Maggie or Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Note the differences in the way Sinclair incorporates socialist themes in his novel.
  6. Exploration: To better understand popular opinion regarding European immigrants in the early twentieth century, investigate the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Who was involved? What happened? Was the verdict right? In addition to Sinclair, which other important American writers wrote about the trial?

Selected Archive Items

[1850] Lewis W. Hine, The Children of John Meiskell (1909), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
Trained as both a teacher and a sociologist and photographer, Hine was hired by the National Child Labor Committee in 1908 to document child labor conditions in America. He traveled around the country photographing the horrible working conditions of children in mines, factories, textile mills, and canneries. The children in this picture, ages two to eleven, all worked thirteen-hour days in an oyster factory in Maryland. Their mother, Mrs. Meiskell, said, “This is worse than the days of slavery.” Their plight might be compared to the depiction of child labor in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Stephen Crane’s Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, and Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron-Mills.

[5637] Joseph C. Borden, Jr., To the Arm and the Hammer, A Song for May Day (1898), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [rbpe 0100230a]. 
Socialism was an important theme in Upton Sinclair’s writing, although he opposed the communists that came into power after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

[6934] Drieser, Breaker Boys (c. 1900), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-D401-11590 DLC]. 
Investigative journalists and novelists such as Upton Sinclair, who sympathized with progressive and socialist causes, exposed corporations’ abuses of power with photos of, and stories about, poor working conditions.

[7110] H. C. White Company, Making Link Sausages-Machines Stuff 10 Ft. per Second (c. 1905), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-50217]. 
Photograph of Swift and Company’s Chicago packing house. Mechanization and urbanization encouraged some writers’ feelings of alienation from and nostalgia for the United States’s agricultural past.

[7426] Herbert Photos, Inc., Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, Manacled Together (1927), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-124547]. 
Sacco and Vanzetti surrounded by a crowd of onlookers and guards before entering a Dedham, Massachusetts, courthouse. Victims of the first Red Scare, these political radicals received the death penalty, despite a lack of evidence.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6