Since I’ve written a biography of Upton Sinclair, people often ask me the best way to remember The Jungle now that the novel has reached its hundredth anniversary. I’ve realized the question is more complicated than first appears. For sure, the book stands as a stinging indictment of the meatpacking industry at the turn of the century. The descriptions of the plants – with their “leaky roofs” and “thousands of rats” and other unsanitary conditions – still gross people out to this day. And with its tales about the sufferings of immigrant workers and its ringing endorsement of socialism, there’s little doubt that the book still stands as a classic in the progressive literary canon (if such a thing exists).
But what’s really evocative – and challenging for progressives in America – is what happened in the wake of the book’s publication. As many know, Teddy Roosevelt sat in the White House at the time The Jungle appeared. He had eaten tainted meat when he served in the military during the Spanish American War and was ready to do something about the grotesqueries found in The Jungle. He helped push for the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 which provided a massive extension of federal oversight and correlated with other legislation, passed the same year, that aimed at regulating the marketing of drugs in America.
What’s surprising is how upset Sinclair was with the limited nature of reform The Jungle helped win. Sinclair was a socialist and an admirer of the municipal slaughterhouse system that had grown up in Europe. He grew so disgruntled with the shortcomings of Roosevelt’s support for federal oversight (Sinclair worried about bribery of inspectors, among other things) that he seemed to give up on reform for a period of time and turned instead to exploring numerous dietary fads – including fasting and an array of vegetarian regiments (one he learned at the Kellogg Sanitarium) and even an odd beefsteak diet.
It’s this detail that troubles me. Because I realize that Sinclair’s hibernation from politics and his search for “perfect health,” as he called it, symbolized a broader change in American history. Today, Sinclair’s experimentation in lifestyle change has replaced the more public solutions captured in the Meat Inspection Act and Sinclair’s dream for socialized slaughterhouses. This displacement suggests a wider transformation in the American conscience. We seem to have a hard time talking about public solutions for the many problems we face.
Let me use a personal example here. After reading about my book on Sinclair, Gary Null asked me to be on his radio show. Null is a smart and intelligent talk show host. His philosophy, as his website explains it, centers around “natural health lifestyle” and personal empowerment. It’s that philosophy that drove his interest to revisit The Jungle, not the legislative outcomes the novel prompted. That speaks volumes.
Or consider the two most recent treatments of America’s food industry. Eric Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation to expose today’s corporate food system and its vast exploitation of workers. It’s interesting to note though that when asked about what should be done about the problems with the fast food industry, Schlosser recognized that Americans seemed most intent on searching for personal solutions. He told the New York Times a few years back, “What people are turning to in the book is, ‘What about me?’ It’s not to the part about the poor Latinos in Colorado. And that’s O.K.”
Consider also the recent documentary film “Supersize Me.” The film exposes the unhealthy diet promoted by McDonald’s. But it focuses on the director’s personal story of eating too many hamburgers, gaining weight, and exhibiting health problems. No doubt it’s an important lesson to learn, but it’s one only of lifestyle.
Our culture – including the American left – seems to fixate on personal diet and wellness. “Lifestyle” politics – symbolized in the “whole food” markets that dot America’s suburbanized landscape – serve as the easiest means for people to feel that they’re doing something about the politics of food. Buying organic substitutes for considering ways we might improve the way we make and distribute and eat food collectively.
This penchant for lifestyle politics brings me back to the way I’d suggest we remember The Jungle today. Sinclair’s disappointment in the Meat Inspection Act and his search for “perfect health” symbolizes a dangerous legacy for today’s left. We would do well to remember today that there are problems – even the most personal problems of eating – that require wider public solutions. The Jungle doesn’t offer any concrete policies about regulating the food industry that can be adopted today (after all, it IS 100 years old). But it does suggest a frame of mind that is much needed to improve the way we talk about politics as a whole. Remembering that would be a good way to remember the most important legacy of the novel.
Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of "Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century" (Wiley, 2006). Email to: email@example.com.