Dispatches from the Jungle: The Writers Who Reformed America

Without these vigilant scribes, life in the United States might be much different today.
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Chicago Meat Inspection The Jungle Photo

Chicago meat inspectors in early 1906. (Photo: H. C. White Co. / Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

This year marks the 110th anniversary of one of the most important novels in American history: Upton Sinclair’s book about the meatpacking industry, The Jungle. Although Sinclair, a committed socialist, wrote the book as an indictment of employers who created unsafe conditions for their immigrant employees (the book’s main character is Lithuanian), its greater effect was to alarm consumers who had been unaware of just how unsafe their food could be. The Jungle was a work of fiction, but it had the impact of a documentary report, and it influenced lawmakers to pass regulatory legislation that led to government oversight of food safety in America.

Sinclair’s book followed in the steps of a tradition that had been mostly European: books written for a social purpose. Novels by writers like Émile Zola and Charles Dickens had actually initiated societal change in their respective countries with their portrayals of injustice, poverty, and exploitation. American writers in the later 19th century took note and began to imagine that their work could also influence public policy. Novelists like Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris all wrote books intended to highlight societal problems and potentially influence how they were addressed in the public sphere.

McClures Magazine Cover Photo

'McClures' cover, January 1901. The magazine ran many muckraker articles. (Photo: Wikipedia)

This impulse was not limited to fiction writers, however, and the turn of the century marked the birth of what came to be known as “muckraking.” Today we call this kind of writing “investigative journalism,” a rebranding that lacks the vibrancy of the original term but which describes essentially the same thing – reporters digging deep under the surface to ferret out the (often unpleasant) truth about the operations of business and government. The muckrakers seemed to prove the truism that power and money inevitably lead to corruption, and their stories raised the consciousness and ire of Americans who naturally resented being taken advantage of by powerful and greedy interests.

A free society is a little more free when people ask questions and don’t always take the answers at face value, and America in 2016 is no different in this regard than America in 1906 – witness the popularity of the recent film Spotlight, for example, which portrays an investigative team uncovering inappropriate conduct in the Catholic church, or the willingness of journalists to ask presidential candidates tough questions about business dealings in the current campaign. Even most daily newscasts have investigative teams who crusade to address problems on a local level. All of this would not be standard procedure for today’s news organizations had it not been for the whistleblowers who came before them. Today Bio remembers five of the most influential.

Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair Photo

Upton Sinclair in his younger years. (Photo: Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

Upton Sinclair lived a long, productive life as a writer and political activist. Born in 1878, he lived until 1968, and in that time wrote prolifically: over 90 books, more than 30 plays, and countless articles for periodicals. Sinclair was a struggling novelist until 1906, when he accepted a magazine assignment to investigate a meatpacking plant in Chicago. He went undercover in the plant to discover for himself what occurred there. What he saw was the abuse of underpaid employees, mostly immigrants, who struggled under brutally cold, bloody, and unsafe conditions, as well as a disregard for the treatment of animals and the products that were produced from them. The Jungle was Sinclair’s infuriated response. A famous passage in the novel, possibly true, recounts how a worker who accidentally slipped into a vat for rending lard was ground up as part of the meat.

With the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, who read The Jungle despite his misgivings about Sinclair’s politics, the book led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act. Sinclair was unimpressed by the legislation, which transferred the burden of inspection to the taxpayers instead of the meatpackers. He also rued that his book’s main point had apparently been missed. His intention was to expose the poor treatment of workers; instead, the public focused on the poor treatment of their future dinner. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach” was his comment on the general response to his book.

Undeterred, Sinclair continued to write in the public interest. Books like The Brass Check (about unscrupulous journalists), King Coal (about the coal industry), and Oil! (many years later turned into the popular film There Will Be Blood) made his reputation. Some sold better than others, but sales were never Sinclair’s greatest concern. Thinking that he might do more good as a politician than a writer, he ran for office several times – for instance, in 1934, he was the Democratic candidate for the governor of California. He lost, but his zeal to be a public servant was genuine. Afterwards, he re-dedicated himself to writing, and during World War II, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Dragon’s Teeth, one of a series of historically based novels that would comprise much of his later work.

Despite the quality of his post-World War II books, many of which were better written and more sophisticated than the novels he wrote in his 20s, Sinclair’s reputation still rests on The Jungle, which continues to be read today even though the specific circumstances that prompted its creation are long past. The issues it raises are sadly still relevant — immigrants continue to be treated poorly in many food industries, and food safety continues to be a concern, particularly in an era of genetically modified foods, widespread chemical treatment of crops, and e coli outbreaks.

Samuel Hopkins Adams

Samuel Hopkins Adams Photo

Samuel Hopkins Adams on the inside of the back cover of the May 1922 'Film Fun.' (Photo: Internet Archiva via Wikipedia)

Another writer who dealt with the safety of consumed products was Samuel Hopkins Adams. Adams was interested in how over-the-counter cure-alls, known as patent medicines, could be marketed to the poorest and sickest Americans, when it was clear that the manufacturers knew that the medicines were ineffectual at best and potentially harmful at worst.

Adams’ concern for public safety went back to his earliest days as a writer. Fresh out of college in 1891, he took a job with The Sun, one of New York City’s pioneer daily newspapers (it was the first to employ reporters who sought out news). His training as a city reporter stood him in good stead when he joined McClure’s magazine at the turn of the century. McClure’s was a monthly progressive magazine that did not hesitate to publish exposés of corporation and government misconduct. There he began his investigations into all manner of public health issues, an interest that peaked when he took a job at Collier’s Weekly magazine in 1905. It was there that he wrote 11 articles about the patent medicine industry that did as much for the public’s awareness of phony medicines as The Jungle had done for tainted beef.

Gathered together in a book called The Great American Fraud and published in 1906, Adams’ exposé largely led to the “drug” half of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Adams found that “medicines” laced with alcohol and opiates had no actual medicinal value and often led to addiction, physical debilitation, or even death. He blamed advertising for the pervasiveness of the phony drugs; even medical journals had been guilty of accepting advertising from con men who concocted unregulated drugs that either did nothing or did the wrong thing. Adams’ book alerted consumers to the cynicism of the patent medicine industry and (with the help of the American Medical Association) did irreparable damage to its reputation and profitability.

Adams would continue to write other investigative pieces, often in a fictional vein as Sinclair had done. Both The Clarion (non-fiction) and Success (fiction) addressed advertising and the newspaper business, while The Health Master (fiction) dealt with the medical profession. Adams also wrote lighter fiction pieces on the side, several of which were later adapted for Hollywood films (It Happened One Night, The Harvey Girls, and Tenderloin are all based on stories by Adams). When his obituary was written, however, his work exposing charlatans who produced and promoted bogus pharmaceuticals would stand as his most lasting contribution to American society. Adams died in 1958.

Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell Photo

Ida Tarbell (Photo: James E. Purdy / Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

Another graduate of McClure’s magazine was Ida Tarbell. In a field dominated by men, Tarbell distinguished herself as one of the most tenacious and effective investigative reporters of her day. Her very name seems to represent her muckraker tendencies – she tarred plenty of robber barons’ reputations, and when she rang the bell and sounded the alarm on shady practices, the American public took heed.

Tarbell grew up in a small town near Erie, Pennsylvania, the daughter of an oil man (northwestern Pennsylvania at the time had significant oil fields). She entered college in 1876, and she would be the only woman in her graduating class four years later. After working as a teacher for a couple of years, Tarbell decided to do what she really loved, which was write. She landed a job at a small magazine, where she worked for almost ten years before her work was noticed by the publisher of McClure’s. She joined the magazine after a period of study in Paris and embarked on a very productive career as a journalist and historian. She made a splash with articles about Napoleon, as well as a series of articles on Abraham Lincoln that established her as one of the foremost authorities on the late president’s early life. Like other writers at McClure’s, however, Tarbell was not concerned only with history; she felt a responsibility to represent the public interest by exploring contemporary issues in her writing.

In her youth, Tarbell had witnessed firsthand how industry monopolies could impact people’s lives. Collusion between John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company and the Pennsylvania Railroad made life difficult for smaller producers of oil like Tarbell’s father. When smaller producers struggled, they would be forced to sell out to the powerful Standard Oil interests. In this way, Standard Oil exerted a stranglehold on the industry. Drawing on her own experience as well as several years of research, Tarbell wrote a series of articles for McClure’s that were so well received that the original plan to publish three articles on the subject turned into a series of 19. When the articles were collected in book form as The History of the Standard Oil Company in 1904, Rockefeller’s oil monopoly would feel the first tremors of a groundswell that would eventually lead to the splitting apart of the trust.

The bravery of Tarbell’s book is remarkable in retrospect; a female journalist dared to savage the reputation of America’s richest man and expose the underhanded business practices that made his fortune. In 1911, Standard Oil was found to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and was broken up. This anti-trust decision would impact other industries as well and lead to the break up of several monopolies, leading to a freer marketplace in America (at least for a time). Tarbell’s work also inspired other journalists to devote themselves to similar investigative work. She would go on to co-found and edit her own periodical, American Magazine, as well as continue her historical writing. Like Upton Sinclair, she also flirted with politics, serving in various minor capacities in the Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding administrations. She died in 1944 at an advanced age, her reputation as an important historian and progressive journalist secure.

Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis Photo

Jacob Riis (Photo: Pirie MacDonald / Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

We take it for granted today that a strong visual, whether it’s a striking photograph or a video uploaded on a social network, can create an immediate impact in a way that a written story cannot. One of the first writers in America to realize that a picture was worth a thousand words, especially in the arena of social change, was European transplant Jacob Riis, a New York reporter who made his photographs speak as loudly as his news stories.

Born in 1849 in Denmark, Riis came to the U.S. in 1870 and quickly learned firsthand the hard lot of the new immigrant. He worked terrible odd jobs, was repeatedly conned out of the little money he had, and spent several between-job periods subsisting on restaurant throwaways and sleeping on the streets (or in one case, on a tombstone in a graveyard). Luckily, his father’s insistence that he practice his English as a boy paid off when he took a trainee job with a weekly New York newspaper called the News. Riis quickly rose through the ranks, and several jobs at small newspapers followed. Riis’ big break came when he landed a police reporter job with one of the biggest New York papers, The New York Tribune, and later, The Sun.

Working in the notorious Five Points neighborhood on the Lower East Side, Riis saw the worst of crime and squalor that New York City had to offer. Although he did his best to document it in words, he wanted people to see exactly what he saw during his long nights roaming the poorest areas of town. Learning about the German innovation of flash photography, Riis became intrigued and worked with several American photographers to make it a useful resource. He began to carry camera equipment with him (along with several assistants to produce the flashes, a complicated procedure then), and by the late 1880s, he was documenting the slums of New York in pictures as well as words.

By 1890, Riis had enough material for a book, which he would call How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. The effect of the published book was immediate and prompted many calls for reform in New York City. The police commissioner of New York at the time, the same Teddy Roosevelt who would later endorse The Jungle when he was president, went after landlords who ran the worst of the tenements, and housing policies changed through a series of legislative reforms by the mayor and local government.

Not content to make a difference on a local level, Riis took his photographs on the road and delivered many slide lectures across the country that alerted Americans to the horrors of urban poverty. His dedication to raising awareness did much to create the spirit of reform that would gather force with the muckrakers at the turn of the century. Riis would continue in this vein until his death in 1914, writing many more books as well as an autobiography. “Ahead there is a light,” he wrote, and “the slum will be no more.” Although slums are far from eradicated even now, Riis’ work marked a major change in public and governmental attitude towards urban poverty, and the power of his photographs remains undimmed. (Incidentally, visitors to New York City can see many of them on display at the Museum of the City of New York right now, where there is a special exhibit showing until March 20).

Nellie Bly

Nelly Bly Photo

Nellie Bly. A publicity photograph taken by the 'New York World' newspaper to promote her voyage around the world. (Photo: New York Public Library Archives via Wikipedia)

In the course of a colorful career that would involve daredevil stunts, an escape from a Mexican dictator, worldwide travel, and running her own manufacturing company, Nellie Bly would also find time to make a difference as a writer and journalist. Her expose of poor patient treatment at a New York lunatic asylum for women in the 1880s would cause a public outcry and lead to the improvement of conditions for all patients.

Like her contemporary Ida Tarbell, Nellie Bly was born and raised in a small Pennsylvania town. In this case, the town was Cochran’s Mills, which was founded by her father. Her birth name was Elizabeth Cochran; she would become Nellie Bly early in her career, when a newspaper editor gave her this nom de plume (in much the same way that Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain). Her entrance into journalism was typical of the young woman’s brio. Irritated by a chauvinistic column in a Pittsburgh newspaper that belittled women’s accomplishments, she wrote a passionate response. The paper’s editor was impressed by her spunk as well as her style, and he offered her a job. Soon Nellie was writing about women’s issues and even serving as a foreign correspondent in Mexico. It was there that she got into trouble by protesting the imprisonment of a local journalist and had to flee the country to avoid the wrath of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz.

Taking a job at The New York World upon her return to the U.S., Bly agreed to pretend she was crazy to investigate conditions at the women’s lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). She found it surprisingly easy to be admitted simply by acting a little “crazy”; doctors at Bellevue Hospital pronounced “Nellie Moreno” insane and shipped her off. Once there, she was shocked at the conditions: Nurses and attendants beat and starved the patients, many of whom were clearly not insane (Bly found that several of the women there were foreigners who didn’t speak English); the food was sparse and often spoiled; clothes and bed linens were unwashed and infested; and baths consisted of being doused with three buckets of freezing cold water. Bly lived at the asylum for ten days before a colleague secured her release.

The series of articles that resulted from her stay would be published in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House in 1887 and caused a furor. Public opinion had already been rocked by similar exposés of male asylums, but the conditions at the women’s asylum, vividly depicted by Bly, caused consternation nationwide. On the local level, this resulted in changes in admission policies, budgets, and reviews of personnel for the Women’s Lunatic Asylum; on a national level, Bly’s book paved the way for similar changes at other facilities.

Jules Verne Photo

Jules Verne, circa 1878. (Photo: Nadar via Wikipedia)

Nellie Bly wrote many other exposés where she posed as everything from a factory worker to a woman in the market to buy a baby. Eventually, she became newsworthy herself; she took a trip around the world in imitation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and actually did it in 72. She married a millionaire and became president of his barrel and container manufacturing company when he died. She patented several inventions (including the kind of steel oil drum still in use today), and ran her company with unusual benefits for the day such as health care and an on-site library. Embezzlers and forgers caused the company’s collapse, but she didn’t shed a tear; she simply returned to writing. She covered World War I and the fight for women’s suffrage until her death in 1922. Like her fellow writer-reformers, she continued to write about causes she believed in, certain that the written word could make a difference in her America – and ours.