This book is categorized as political and historical fiction. There are good reasons why.
The book is credited with being a catalyst for real change. It is very rare when a work of fiction creates a real-world problem to be corrected. Published in 1906 and revealing the "wage slavery" and corruption within the meat packing industry, this book literally caused an uproar in America. This book put the disgusting practices of the industry in a public form and people reacted. Sales of American meat took a nosedive following publication. People were scared of eating diseased meat. The meat packing industry ended up lobbying the federal government to help them show the world that the meat was safe. This lobby and the public outcry are why President Theodore Roosevelt initiated an investigation that led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (which later became the FDA).
"I aimed at the publics heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
The quote above is what Mr. Sinclair says about the reaction to his book. Why did he say this? Upton Sinclair was an outspoken Socialist Journalist. He was a muckraker extraordinaire. He had an agenda and he pushed that agenda all of his life (into the 1960's). His point in writing this book was not to fix the meat packing industry. His point was to show the ungodly working and living conditions of the people. His goal was to have the workers organize and promote a Socialist agenda. The public reaction didn't really care about that at all. They cared deeply about the meat on their own tables being safe. I think the quote is very appropriate.
The story itself is about a Lithuanian immigrant family that comes to Chicago in pursuit of the American dream. The story is a never ending stream of misery and misfortune. Try as they might, these poor people keep falling down again and again. The system is designed to make them feel like they have a chance. Just enough of a chance to try. To try very hard. The problem is that they really never have a chance from the very start. It is made for them to perpetually lose.
From the very beginning I felt bad for these people. Time after time I would think, yes, that is the direction you should take...do that...and they would. Time after time there was something that happened and caused them to be even worse than they were before. There were times when I physically had a tear in my eye. (Damn you Upton Sinclair!)
So, life sucks repeatedly, until Jurgis (the main character) is exposed to and joins the Socialist party. Well, isn't that just amazing how nothing goes bad from that point. Life is wonderful and everything just happens to fall in place. Yeah, right. The last 80 pages or so of the book is really a very ling dissertation about the strengths of Socialism. Amazingly, while reading it I thought it sounded really good. What a wonderful idea. Yes, that makes sense. But, I know it is missing parts that are really needed for the system to work.
Mr. Sinclair wrote this whole misery and agony novel in order to show the reasons why Socialism was a better option. He exposed more than just bad business policy in the meat packing industry. He showed the real truth about how the businesses, governments, big company trusts (oil, railroad, coal, etc) colluded to hold men down, and much more. The American people got pissed about dirty meat, acted on that, and then chose to mostly ignore the rest.
The book was a good read. Sometimes, I felt like I was reading a very long article in a newspaper. That makes sense because Sincalir was a journalist for the now defunct Socialist paper Appeal to Reason. It went into very graphic detail throughout the entire book. It was descriptive enough to give me a mental image of everything described.
My only problem with the book (besides the conclusion dragging on and on about the benefits of Socialism) was all the Lithuanian names (Jurgis, Ona, Elzbieta, Marija, Jokubus, Jadvyaga, Tamoszius, etc etc). They were difficult to follow because they were unfamiliar. It took a while to get them all straight. Other than that it was a damned good book and I am glad I read it.
PS...I am not going to argue the pros and cons of Socialism in this blog.