Remembering Author and Activist Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair passed away 50 years ago on November 25, 1968. He was a controversial figure to say the least. He was a prolific writer who is best remembered for his classic novel The Jungle, which was published in 1904. 

The publication placed him alongside the muckrakers during the Progressive Era period of the 1890s –1920s who strived to raise public awareness and anger at poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare, prostitution, child labor, and unsafe working conditions. 

Sinclair intended The Jungle to be an exposé of the poor working conditions of industrial labor. His novel became more than that. During the seven weeks that he spent in Chicago’s meatpacking plants, he witnessed the poor working conditions of immigrant laborers. He also witnessed the unsanitary practices of slaughterhouses and meatpackers. 

He exposed the unsafe labor and sanitary conditions and practices of the meatpacking industry, which caused a public uproar. Legislation was soon passed. Both the Pure Food and Drug Act became law, which required manufacturers to label the active ingredients on their products among other safety practices, and the Meat Inspection Act, which required meat products to be slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions. 

Reflecting on his success, Sinclair noted: 

“I wished to frighten the country by a picture of what its industrial masters were doing to their victims; entirely by chance I had stumbled on another discovery—what they were doing to the meat-supply of the civilized world. In other words, I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” 

Sinclair later became well known for his “End Poverty in California” movement, which served as the basis of his campaign for Governor of California in 1934. The plan called for a massive public works program, which was timely because of the thousands of migrants coming to California looking for work because of the Dust Bowl that eroded the soil of many parts of other western states that forced tens of thousands of poverty-stricken families to abandon their farms. 

Other authors, artists, and activists along with Sinclair drew attention to the after effects of the Dust Bowl including John Steinbeck who died nearly a month after Sinclair on December 20, 1968. His novel, The Grapes of Wrath, focused on families leaving Oklahoma because of the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and coming to California to start a new life. The folk music and lyrics of Woody Guthrie and the photographs depicting the poverty conditions of migrants by Dorthea Lange also drew attention to the struggles of families coming to California as a result of escaping the aftermath of the Dust Bowl.

Sinclair was not elected California Governor. However, his End Poverty in California movement is credited with influencing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal programs that included a series of public work programs as well as reforms in agriculture and housing.

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