Over a century after Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, arguably one of the most politically influential American novels of the past 100 years, the ethnicity of the protagonists and the location of the story have changed, but the basic narrative of poor working conditions for immigrant laborers in the meat-packing industry and public concern over food quality remains constant. Working in the meat-packing industry is the most dangerous job in America.
The Jungle tells the story of a young Lithuanian couple, Jurgis Rudkus and Ona Lukoszaite, who move to Chicago’s Packingtown at the turn of the century, where Jurgis finds work in the stockyards. At the outset Jurgis, full of youthful vitality and the optimism of a recent immigrant, goes to the gates of the stockyards and compares himself favorably to others waiting for work.
President Theodore Roosevelt read and was deeply affected by it, so much so that Sinclair embarked on a feverish correspondence with the president. Too feverish—in the end, Roosevelt wrote to Frank Doubleday, the head of the publishing house: “Tell Mr Sinclair to go home and let me run the country for a while.” The book eventually led to the birth of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.