Muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) published his most well-known book, The Jungle, in 1906 to draw attention to the dangerous working conditions for and poor wages of slaughterhouse workers in Chicago. As Sinclair intended, the book created an uproar – but not for the reasons he expected. To many readers, Sinclair’s graphic descriptions of the unsanitary slaughterhouses were horrifying, and they led to major new food safety regulations. “I aimed at the public heart,” Sinclair complained, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland and, at age 24, wrote a successful novel about the Civil War. A lifelong devotee of left-wing politics, he used the considerable proceeds from The Jungle to indulge in various socialist causes, including a short-lived commune in New Jersey. During this time, Sinclair also made the first of what would be dozens of unsuccessful runs for public office, losing a New Jersey congressional race by an overwhelming margin.
As a writer, Sinclair’ style was often dramatic, sincere, and emotional, unlike the arch cynicism of his contemporary H.L. Mencken (1880-1956). The Jungle was written to create sympathy for the poor and oppressed, and modern readers expecting a tirade against injustive are sometimes surprised by the book’s sentimentalism.
Nevertheless, the book was a runaway success and perhaps the most well-known example of muckraking journalism in the early twentieth century. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) read it, summoned Sinclair to a meeting in the White House, and dispatched aides to investigate his allegations. The result, later that year, was the Food and Drug Administration, extablished to assure the purity of American food.
Sinclair continued to write for the next six decades, championing dozens of progressive causes from workers’ rights to vegetarianism in the ninety books he published. He also ran for office several more times. coming closest to victory in the 1934 California governor’s race, in which he ran as a left-wing Democrat in the midst of the Depression and came within 200,000 votes of victory.
In 1943, Sinclair won a Pulitzer for Dragon’s Teeth.