And then there are the heirs of Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, Aristophanes in Lysistrata, Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal, Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Charles Dickens in multiple works, Jack London in The Iron Heel, and so on.
Sinclair’s heirs today are writers of literary nonfiction, who derive their drama from facts. It almost seems a shame that Sinclair couldn’t have written that way, for the story of the actual family whose wedding inspired his opening scene would probably have contained more surprises and more nuance than his ideologically driven plot.
But it wouldn’t have been as popular. In the way that Sinclair used fiction to get his facts across to a broad audience, The Jungle‘s closest contemporary counterparts are films like Dead Man Walking or Maria Full of Grace, whose stories illuminate aspects of the death penalty or drug running for audiences much larger than any equivalent book could be expected to have. (And now that Fast Food Nation has been made into a narrative movie, it’s likely to do the same for the meat industry.) Meanwhile, surely The Jungle has endured in large part because it’s a novel. How many high-school English teachers assign Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company or Lincoln Steffens’ The Shame of Our Cities, nonfiction works by Sinclair’s muckraking contemporaries? Judged for its style or insight into character The Jungle may leave something to be desired. But it lays bare a place and a time and an industry, registering injustices which, as Schlosser notes in a foreword to the Penguin Classics edition, we have yet to fully remedy. So, go ahead, read The Jungle for its documentary power—just be warned that, as with Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard, the label is a little misleading.