Upton Sinclair: His Rise to Fame

Upton Sinclair at the age of 26 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

During the late summer of 1904, Upton Sinclair was approached by Socialist magazine Appeal to Reason. Having read his newly published book, Manassas, the editor of the newspaper, Fred D. Warren, enjoyed Sinclair’s portrayal of slavery so much that he approached Sinclair with an idea for a new article. Editor Warren wanted Sinclair to write about the issue of wage slavery. Sinclair reluctantly agreed, but only if the newspaper would support him as he wrote it. Warren agreed and gave Sinclair a five-hundred-dollar advance for rights to the story. With the recent strikes in the Chicago Stockyards still in his mind, Upton Sinclair decided to do his research in Chicago. Only having the five hundred dollars he received, Sinclair set out for Chicago in October 1904 to find inspiration for his novel.1 Little did he know, this would not only impact his life, but the lives of millions as well.

Upton Sinclair Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 20, 1878. His father was a salesman and barely made enough money to provide for Sinclair and his mother Priscilla. With the pressure of having to travel for his job, his father turned to alcohol to cope with all his stress. Being around his mother’s wealthy relatives, the differences in their lives confused young Sinclair. He did not understand why there were both rich and poor.2

With the help of his teacher and principal, Sinclair enrolled into the New York City College at the age of thirteen. The minimum age for enrolling was fourteen, but since his birthday was a few days after classes began, they entered him as fourteen.3 While in college, he started writing stories to sell to newspapers. He sent his first story that he wrote to a publisher, Argosy, and received twenty-five dollars for it. With the excitement of receiving money for his story, he searched for more papers that would buy children’s stories, and continued writing. At the time, his family was not doing well financially, so he used the money he received to pay for his college tuition.4 He continued to sell short stories, riddles, poems, and jokes to popular magazines while he was still in college. After he graduated from the New York City College, he enrolled Columbia University in 1897. He continued to write almost daily for newspapers while also trying to focus on school. He became dissatisfied with the type of writing he was doing. In 1900, he decided that he wanted to focus on writing actual novels, and decided to move to Quebec, Canada. He set off in April and contacted realtors to find a cabin to live in so that he could focus on his writing. None of the cottages that they showed him were appealing, so he set off to find one on his own. He went walking down a lake shore where he discovered a small cabin in a place called Fairy Glen. He contacted the owner and rented the place for twenty-five dollars from May to July. It was during that time that he wrote his first book Springtime and Harvest.5 During his summer in the cabin, he met his first wife Meta Fuller. She was the daughter of his mother’s friend and they soon fell in love. Both parents disagreed with the relationship, so when they all went back to New York, the pair secretly got married on October 18, 1900. Soon after, his wife became pregnant and gave birth to a son, David Sinclair, on December 1, 1901.6

Upton Sinclair and his family were suffering because of their living conditions. His wife and son had to live with her parents most of the time because they didn’t have a place to live. Sinclair continued to pursue a career in writing instead of getting a paying job, so he couldn’t provide for his family. He was living in a tent on one of the islands of Thousands Islands for a small period during his life. It was in 1903 that he moved with his family to a rented piece of land on a small farm in Princeton, New Jersey. Sinclair had moved them there because of the Civil War archives located there. It was the information that he needed for the book he was writing, Manassas. It was the book that would lead to the writing of the novel that would change his life. They used the same tent that Sinclair was living in before, so their living conditions were not very appealing. His son, David, was sick before they moved and required a very expensive diet. Still being very sick and not being able to afford the trips to the doctors, Sinclair realized that he would need to improve the way they were living. In 1903, they built a small cabin with the help of some carpenters. Their life was slowly starting to improve; but soon they experienced some more problems. In March of 1904, Sinclair found Meta one night with a gun in her hand, having the intent to kill herself. The young Meta could not handle being a mother and celibacy. Sinclair was focused on his writing instead of his family, and it was having a huge on everybody. Still, he published Manassas that same year, and got the advance of five hundred dollars from Appeal to Reason.7

The editors of Appeal to Reason had the idea of a new book about wage slavery. Sinclair agreed to the theme and chose Chicago as the place for his inspiration and research. With the advance that they gave him for the book, Sinclair sent his wife and son to live with her parents in New York, and he set off for Chicago in October 1904. When he arrived, he was met by a friend, Ernest Poole, who showed him around Chicago. During his seven week stay, Sinclair obtained his information by walking around the city and talking to everybody he could. He would wander the stockyard and the workers would risk their jobs to talk to him. “I was not much better dressed than the workers, and found that by the simple device of carrying a dinner pail I could go anywhere,” he wrote.8 He spent his nights in the homes of the workers, listening to their stories and taking note of everything he observed. During his time there, he met many influential people. He developed a friendship with Jane Addams, who was the founder of the Hull House that provided aid to immigrant workers. She guided him during his stay in Chicago and he often went over to talk with her. Another person that guided Sinclair was Mary McDowell. He went to her to get strategies for gaining information about Chicago and its stockyards.9

Workers in the Chicago stockyards | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Towards the end of his stay, he realized that he had enough research, but he still didn’t have an inspiration for his story yet. When he was walking one Sunday evening, he stumbled across a wedding group entering a room in a saloon. He observed them for a while before deciding to follow them. He entered the room and stood towards the back to watch them. A few people saw him and explained to him what was happening. It was then that he developed the idea for the first chapter of his book. He stayed from four o’clock until midnight and during that time, he was imagining the setting that he wanted his book to take place in.10 As soon as the seven weeks were up, he immediately left Chicago and reunited with his family at their cabin in New Jersey. He started writing on Christmas Day and worked nonstop for three months until he finished the novel. He spent all his time writing in a tiny cabin that he had built for himself the previous winter. As he was writing about the families in the story, he was thinking of all the rough times that his family had gone through. The cold winters that they spent in the cabin, having only thin blankets to use. The hunger and the illness that they had to endure. That winter his son had pneumonia, and he almost died from it. All the grief and pain Sinclair was feeling was put into the writing of the book. He gave the book a title: The Jungle.11

After he was done writing, a family member offered him a pass to go on a steamer to Savannah. He accepted it and from there he traveled to Florida. He spent a few weeks there relaxing on the beaches and going fishing. When he went back to New Jersey, he was ready to focus on his book again. A few chapters had already been published in Appeal to Reason, so he had received quite a few letters from his readers. The deal he had made with Appeal to Reason was that they would give him an advance on the book if they were able to publish the chapters in their magazine as a serial series.12

The first few chapters of The Jungle had been read by George P. Brett and he gave Sinclair an advance of five hundred dollars, since he was impressed with the book. Sinclair had to go to New York to have a meeting with Brett after he had read the finished book. Brett was concerned about the gory details that were included in the book. He didn’t want to publish it, since no book had ever been published with those types of horrible descriptions before.

Cover of the 1st edition of The Jungle | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Sinclair was told that he either had to agree to remove the parts that the company suggested, or they would not be able to publish it. Sinclair had to decline, since he wanted the public to be able to see the truth of what was happening. But Brett was only one of the publishers that denied him. There were four others that turned down his offer to publish The Jungle. Feeling angry, Sinclair was determined to publish it himself. He found a printing firm in New York that was beginning to print the book for him. Around the same time, someone suggested that he send the book to the company Doubleday. So, he decided to go to New York to have a meeting with the editor and publisher Walter H. Page. They were hesitant at first because they weren’t sure if the information in the book was correct. Sinclair insisted that they should do their own investigation if they didn’t believe him; so one of their lawyers went. The lawyer met a publicity agent of the packers and when the book was mentioned, he said that he had written a report for James Keeley of The Tribune that supported everything Sinclair was saying. Doubleday agreed to publish the book, so it was released in February 1906; and was met with lots of controversy.13

Chicago meat inspection in 1906 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The book was sent to President Theodore Roosevelt, and he soon sent Sinclair a message informing him that he asked the Department of Agriculture to investigate the conditions that he had described in the novel. Sinclair replied that he shouldn’t make the investigation known to the public, that it should be confidential. Sinclair met the two men who were supposed to investigate secretly, but soon after he got a letter stating that the workers knew of the visit and were cleaning day and night. When they went to investigate, they found that the conditions were as described as in the book, but they couldn’t prove that men fell into vasts and eventually mixed in with the meat.14

Soon after, President Roosevelt was pushing Congress to pass bills that would improve health conditions. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act was passed and became effective on June 30, 1906. This required all food and drugs to be tested to ensure that it was safe for human consumption. Prescription drugs would need to include a warning on the labels and list the ingredients. The Meat Inspection Act required that the animals be inspected by officials before and after they are slaughtered to check whether they had any diseases.15

Although the book had a very big impact on the food industry, it was not the reaction that Sinclair expected. He wanted to bring attention to the conditions of the workers and bring attention to socialism. Instead, the public focused on the way the meat was handled. Regardless of the outcome, this was his first successful book and it paved the way for his future successful career as one of America’s greatest novelists.16

“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

  1. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 108-109.
  2.  Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature, 2009, s.v. “Upton Sinclair.”
  3. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 23.
  4. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 34.
  5. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 71.
  6. Lauren Coodley, Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2013), 27-29.
  7. Lauren Coodley, Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2013), 32-35.
  8. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 109.
  9. Lauren Coodley, Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2013), 41-42.
  10. Gary Wiener, Workers’ Rights in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008), 51.
  11. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 111-112.
  12. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 112.
  13. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 114-116.
  14. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 118-120.
  15. Gilded Age and Progressive Era Reference Library, 2007, s.v., “Upton Sinclair.”
  16. Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 126.

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24 Responses

  1. Such an interesting article! I had previously learned about Upton Sinclair but not as detailed as this article makes it. It describes the horrific standards the food industry had and the motivations Sinclair had to tell the truth. It is also very interesting to see how much regulation and governmental agencies have been made so that instances like that do not happen again. Thank you for writing this article!

  2. Since I have decided to right my own article on The Jungle I appreciate this article very much. This take on the article really shows how disgusting and horrific the food conditions really were. This also explains how Upon Sinclair put his life on the line by putting out this book but in everyones favor it all works out for the best. This story captures me because as a bit go a picky clean freak when hearing about thus book I was intrigued for what actually started the process on regulations for food.Really great article!

  3. This is a very interesting article. I cannot believe what meatpackers used to do to their meat back in the day. It seems as if a lot of people could have gotten sick, and it is disgusting. I want to thank Upton Sinclair for writing The Jungle, I really enjoyed reading about the horrors that these companies endure in. Also, he played a huge role in the FDA and by having meat tested before they can actually send it out and it is very cool to read.

  4. This was an incredible story of Upton Sinclair. He dedicated a lot of his time and sacrificed his family to be able to put out this book. I thought the ending quote was incredibly witty. Intentional or not he made a definitive change on the standards of food processing today. It is saddening that people chose to focus on their own personal stake in the matter but it seems only natural. Not everyone identified with the workers testimonies but a national issue was the meatpacking standards. It is incredible how a piece of literature can change laws. To be apart of this must have been life-changing. Many of these same issues he advocated against still persist today. The relevance of many bodies of work ring true after all these years.

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