It is difficult to think of a book, let alone a novel, that has forced the state to respond in such a comprehensive manner. And yet, while Sinclair was delighted with both sales and fame, it was not quite the response that he intended. He had dedicated the book to the “Workingmen of America” and had set out to make an emotional appeal to the nation over the plight of the working poor and the prospects of a socialist alternative. Instead he had generated a public panic about food quality. “I aimed for the public’s heart,” he wrote in his autobiography, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
The Jungle was very much a novel of its time – an era of mass migration, US military expansion and rapid economic and technological transformation. It earned its place in the US literary hall of fame not for its aesthetic qualities but for its practical effects. Thanks to its polemical style, formulaic narrative and, at times, propagandistic language, it has more currency as a work of literary journalism than of great fiction.
Those publishers who discarded the manuscript had underestimated not only the potential breadth of its appeal, but the political and journalistic context that made that breadth possible. Middle-class Americans, concerned that the concentration of capitalism in a few hands would leave them at the mercy of trusts and monopolies, began to revolt.
The social commentator Randolph Bourne described it as a period when “a whole people” woke up “into a modern day which they had overslept . . . they had become acutely aware of the evils of the society in which they had slumbered and they snatched at one after the other idea, programme, movement, ideal, to uplift them out of the slough in which they had slept”.
These concerns gave birth to the Progressive movement, which found its literary expression in a more aggressive and socially responsive style of journalism.
by Tony Christini