Novels set in Chicago: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Being one of the great cities of the world, many novels have been set in Chicago. This is the fourth of a series looking at how the city has been portrayed/described in novels.

A classic of muckraking journalism turned into fiction, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle led to a slew of public interest in food safety and resulted in the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. This, however, had not been his intention. Sinclair wrote the novel in order to show the exploitation and brutal life of immigrants in Chicago and elsewhere, and to issue a call for Socialism. As he said of the result, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Published by Doubleday in 1906, The Jungle was the result of Sinclair spending seven weeks working undercover in the Union Stockyards, getting to know the inhabitants of the meatpacking district and Back of the Yards. At the time he was working for the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, which would serialized the novel in its pages in 1905. Initially turned down by five publishers for being too shocking, Sinclair was working on a self-published version when Doubleday agreed to take it on. Both versions were released and the book has been in print ever since. It was included among the books burned by the Nazis.

Among other things, this novel introduced the public to “Bubbly Creek.” As Sinclair writes:

“Bubbly Creek” is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the yards: all the drainage of the square mile of packing houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide.

The Jungle, Project Gutenberg

The Stockyards closed for good on July 30, 1971. When my high school sociology class took a field trip to Chicago in 1999, Mr. Graham (the best teacher I ever had), took us to the darker side of the city, including to the Stockyards. All that remains today is the main gate, which has been declared a Chicago, as well as a National, landmark. However, Bubbly Creek remains as well and when we visited it, 28 years after the place was gone, that creek was still bubbling and it still smelled something awful.

While the societal result may not have been what Sinclair had intended, his descriptive writing makes this work as powerful now as it was over a hundred years ago. It is a reminder that the general public still knows little about what it takes to get food to our plate, that Chicago, while beautiful, has a huge struggling underclass that tourists (and many residents) don’t acknowledge, and that the most undesirable jobs continue to be done by the same immigrants that are often used as scapegoats for any and all problems in our society.

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