Sinclair’s early life played an integral role in shaping his beliefs. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1878, the only child of Upton and Priscilla Sinclair.
His childhood was overshadowed by poverty and his father’s alcoholism. Although he did not attend school until the age of ten, he taught himself how to read and was doing so avidly by the time he was five years old (Coodley). His birth coincided with the Industrial Revolution in the United States.
During this time, the life of the average American was transformed; manufacturing moved from home businesses to factories where workers performed one simple, repetitive task for hours on end. The change was accompanied by a flood of immigrants and working-class Americans to major cities. In 1888, in the midst of a minor agricultural depression, the family moved to New York City (Coodley; Jacobs). It was here that Sinclair was introduced to his wealthy maternal grandparents.
Having experienced a life of economic hardship, he was troubled by their extravagant lifestyle, and cited his exposure to this inequality as a major influence on his political beliefs (Coodley). Besides unwittingly planting the seed of socialism in their grandson, Sinclair’s grandparents also sponsored his education. At the age of fourteen he enrolled at City College of New York with the intention of studying law. His grandparents retracted their financial aid during Sinclair’s third year of undergraduate study due to personal conflicts (Coodley; Harris). In order to support himself and pay his tuition, Sinclair turned to writing. He primarily published jokes for newspapers and pulp fiction for magazines, and purportedly wrote upwards of eight thousand words per day.
Sinclair’s appetite for literature was equally voracious—he claimed to have read the complete works of both Shakespeare and John Milton in a two week period while studying law at Columbia. He would continue to be a prolific reader and writer for the rest of his life (Harris). In 1900, Sinclair abandoned his graduate studies to become a novelist full-time. That same year, he met and married Meta Fuller and the two of them moved to Quebec. During his first four years in Quebec, he published five novels, which were well-received by critics but did not sell well enough to provide a living (Harris). By 1902 he was nearly destitute, unhappily married, and succumbing to a deep depression—until he was introduced to socialism.
With the same assiduousness that had enabled him to write eight thousand words per day during his college years, Sinclair devoured the analects of the socialist movement. He became an active member of the leftist community and was one of the earliest contributors to the Appeal to Reason, a socialist newspaper. (Bachelder; Harris).
Sinclair’s fervor was renewed, but success continued to elude him. His “break” came in the fall of 1904, when Julius Wayland, then-editor of the Appeal, offered him a $500 advance to write about the “Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America”, who were on strike (Bachelder; Boylan). Sinclair was eager to accept—so eager that less than a week after accepting the proposal, he abandoned his wife and son in Quebec and made his way to Chicago (Bachelder).For seven weeks, the destitute author lived and worked in the Chicago stockyards, staying with fellow unionists and socialists. Through a series of interviews, Sinclair learned of the conditions that had motivated the strike and felt compelled to dig more deeply. He went undercover, obtaining positions with some of the largest employers in the area, and experienced the horrors the men spoke of firsthand (Boylan). What he observed in the slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants appalled him.
Plant owners could hardly be troubled to comply with the food safety regulations of the day, resulting in a spectacle of filth. In one particularly memorable excerpt from The Jungle, Sinclair recounts that “there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit” (Bachelder; Sinclair). His account would be consolidated by later investigations. Labor conditions in Packingtown were equally abhorrent.
The work was debasing, repetitive, and hazardous, and the foremen set a furious pace. The laborers Sinclair encountered, many of them immigrants from east Europe, sometimes worked ten or twelve hour shifts without breaks (Savage). The brutal nature of the work was evident from the condition of their bodies, which were frequently scarred and mutilated. He describes the job of a beef boner as “a dangerous trade .
.. Your hands are slippery, and your knife is slippery, and you are toiling like mad .
.. Then your hand slips up on the blade, and there is a fearful gash. And that would not be so bad, only for the deadly contagion.
The cut may heal, but you never can tell” (Sinclair). In The Jungle, Sinclair uses the image of the workers’ scarred hands to represent not only the physical abuse, but the moral evils that result from capitalist greed, with human bodies being exploited and made to suffer as readily as the animals. These abuses would form what Sinclair viewed as the crux of his preeminent novel (Jacobs; Savage).After nearly two months of investigation, Sinclair had amassed plenty of material for his new project.
The Appeal to Reason published The Jungle in serial form from February to November of 1905, and it was met with outrage from the paper’s subscribers (Harris). Jack London, a popular novelist one of Sinclair’s socialist contemporaries, praised it as “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery” (Savage). However, it did not penetrate the mainstream the way Sinclair had hoped.
Starting in June of 1905 he sought out a publisher, but was repeatedly turned down due to the novel’s graphic content and inflammatory political ideas. One employee at Macmillan called the book “horror and gloom unrelieved” and advised “unreservedly and without hesitation” against its publication (Phelps). This sentiment was echoed by at least five other publishers. (Cherny).Sinclair finally published a censored version of the book through Doubleday, Page & Company in February 1906, with some of the more graphic passages expunged (Phelps).
Even with the alterations, the novel was an immediate bestseller. The horrors Sinclair described sparked public outcry, but not in the way he had hoped. While Sinclair had intended to expose the suffering and exploitation and suffering of