"The History They Didn't Teach You in School"--an occasional series. September 20th, 1878, Birth of  Upton Sinclair

On September 20th, 1878, the muckraker and Socialist Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore. Sinclair was perhaps the greatest "muckraker" of his era, a crusading journalist whose investigation of the sordid conditions of stockyard workers in Chicago led to the classic book The Jungle, still widely read today. He rose to prominence in the early 1900s, when other journalists such as Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens were doing investigative work on corporate malfeasance and urban political corruption.

Sinclair was a Socialist who wanted to investigate the meat-packing industry in order to write about the plight of the working class, especially the immigrants working in the meat plants. Once he began examining the situation, however, Sinclair was struck by the filth, unhealthy conditions, and general absence of meaningful safety standards in the workplace. He would later say he "aimed for the readers' hearts, but hit them in the stomach." The result of his investigation was The Jungle, published in 1906 (some claim that September 20th was also the publication date).

In one passage, Sinclair wrote of conditions on the factory floor:

Such descriptions not only appalled readers about the food they ate, but made them think about the nature of the system that was making such conditions necessary. The critic Edmund Wilson later argued that Sinclair "Practically alone among the American writers of his generation, put to the American public the fundamental questions raised by capitalism in such a way that they could not escape them."

Among those familiar with The Jungle was President Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the term "muckraker" to describe Sinclair, Tarbell and other crusading journalists and social activists. To TR, Sinclair and his comrades simply raked around in the muck to make American society look bad.

A myth has developed about Sinclair and Roosevelt, however, claiming that TR and the muckraking socialist had a solid relationship and that Sinclair inspired the President to enact the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection Acts.  TR, however, despised Sinclair. The food inspections acts became imperative when the public began to hear about the vile conditions described by Sinclair, but they had been in the works for decades before the 1906 publication of his book.

In the 1870s Europe began to close off its markets to American meat because of health concerns, as a significant percentage of pork and beef was tainted by the time it reached overseas markets. Most of the bad meat, however, came from small packers, not the "Big Four" [Swift, Armour, Cudahy, Morris] and the larger meatpacking corporations were alarmed at the loss of the European market caused by their smaller competitors, companies who cut corners on safety and health standards in order to keep costs down and maintain a profit margin. Accordingly,
the Big Four began to lobby for state inspections in order to assure foreign buyers of the healthiness of the meat, and by the 1890s much of the meat in the U.S. was being inspected. Sinclair's book, then, provided a public impetus  to a process already underway at the behest of Big Four packers and being used as a way for them to eliminate smaller competitors by enacting regulatory codes that were costly to implement for marginal businesses.

Sinclair was also notorious in 1933 when, in the depths of the depression, he mounted a challenge from the Left to  FDR and the Democratic establishment. Sinclair, residing in California, began an organization called EPIC, End Poverty in California, which advocated that the state buy or lease lands on which the jobless could grow food, or rent idle plants for the unemployed to produce clothing, furniture, and other small manufactures. Sinclair's "production for use" Socialism was quite popular among the victims of the depression but alarmed the Democratic Party, which was trying to implement the corporatist New Deal at the time. Sinclair even ran in the Democratic primary for governor in 1934 and, to the huge disappointment of the national party, won the nomination. FDR and his allies worked hard against Sinclair, preferring a Republican to a Socialist or even a left-wing Democrat, and he was defeated in the general election.

Still, as the author of The Jungle and founder of EPIC, Sinclair still stands as a central figure in 20th century radical history.

Further reading:

The Jungle, online at http://www.litrix.com/jungle/jungl001.htm

Rick Halpern, Down on the Killing Floor. Black and White Workers in Chicago's Packinghouses,

Roger Horowitz, Negro and White, Unite and Fight! A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-1990 by Roger Horowitz.

The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics

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