Upton Sinclair’s Influence on American Literature

A short essay that discusses and analyzes the contributions of Upton Sinclair on 19th century literature and society.

Upton Sinclair’s Influence on the 19th century

Around the turn of the century, there were many cultural changes taking place in American society. With the rise of urban society and industrialization, monopolies were forming, businesses were competing, and capitalism was supporting the economy. Many authors wrote about these, and other, aspects of society in the early twentieth century, including Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Kate Chopin, but the most prominent author during this time period was Upton Sinclair. This notorious “muckraker” published more than ninety books during his lifetime, most of which dealt with capitalism, industrialism, and the horrors of turn-of-the-century urban life. Three novels by Upton Sinclair that attacked capitalistic society and industrialization, supporting Sinclair’s view that the American dream was only available to the rich, greedy members of society, were The Jungle, King Coal, and The Goose-Step.

Upton Sinclair’s most famous novel, The Jungle, is a story of a family of Lithuanian immigrants who find work in the Chicago stockyards. The family is ripped apart and they are crushed by the evils of urban society. The workers see that the meat is made from sick cows and that many things besides just rotten meat are put into the grinders, including rats, splinters, rope ends, and other waste. This novel clearly portrayed Sinclair’s disgust for capitalism and his belief that success, or even the mere opportunity for the “common man” to meet his basic needs, was unattainable. It displayed his belief that the American dream was just that – an American’s dream, something which was not an option for any common person, especially those who were not born in the United States. It is clear by the end of the story that Sinclair feels that capitalism is not working and his support for a socialist economy becomes apparent. The Junglehad such an impact on its readers of his day, as it still does on readers today, that it led to the passage of two new laws, The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and The Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which would protect consumers against impure meat.

Another of Upton Sinclair’s books that broadened the spectrum of Americans’ knowledge surrounding the reality of corporate life was the novel King Coal. In this story, Sinclair writes of a man, Hal Warner, who becomes caught up in capitalistic greed and it tells of the oppressive working conditions of the coal mining industry during the early twentieth century. Americans were shocked and appalled by atrocities of what was detailed in the book. Unlike The Jungle, which portrays the effects that an unsanitary working environment has on society, King Coal tells of the effects that miserable working conditions have on the workers themselves. King Coalis used by Upton Sinclair to further his social agenda by highlighting the plight of the common man and appealing to the American peoples’ emotions.

Finally, The Goose-Step, a part of the “Dead Hand” series addresses Sinclair’s concern about the ulterior motives of the “specially privileged” on the education system. This book discusses Sinclair’s belief that the universities’ boards of directors are composed of mainly corporate leaders, and that their goal is not to educate the people, but to use the educational system as a tool for their own benefit. Sinclair’s support for this thesis was that professors were not able to speak freely, in or out of the classroom, without fear of losing their jobs. He uses this book to convince his readers that the educational system has lost its purpose as a teaching institution and has instead become a moneymaking method. This book, like The Jungle and King Coal, shows Sinclair’s disdain for one popular aspect of early twentieth century culture – capitalism.

These three books, The Jungle, King Coal, and The Goose-Step, were appropriate social commentary for the turn of the century, which was a time of big business and the demise of the “common man”. He used them to expose the corruption of capitalism and industrialization by appealing to his readers’ emotions. Sinclair uses these books to prove that the American dream is unattainable by the “common man” and that capitalism and capitalistic business-owners prevent the rest of society from experiencing the American dream.

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