The second wave of immigrants who came to the USA around the turn of the century (our setting is 1905) came mostly from Eastern Europe. Political turmoil and poverty were the push factors for myriad Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Turks and others who needed to get away, and the still vivid hope of the American dream, the possibility of social mobility unthinkable in Europe, was the pull factor. The Statue of Liberty still meant something back then.
It wasn’t as simple as it seemed, though. One of the primary large cities to which immigrants flocked was Chicago, and one of the chief industries that would offer them work–as usual, work that those born here would not do–was meatpacking. It looked like good money, even after meeting coworkers who had fewer body parts at the end of their tenure at the packing plant than they’d had going in. It was bloody, nasty, inhuman, and heartless, both toward the workers and the animals. And the stuff that landed on the conveyor belt went into the product to be sold at the supermarket, whether it belonged there or not.
I’ll let that sink in a moment.
Sinclair’s novel was intended to be a workingman’s call to arms. Cast off the bonds of wage slavery. Let the people who do the work own the means of production, set the time tables, and divide the spoils. He’d been reading Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and believed his book would be a revolutionary vehicle. After all, working people read back then, and their attention spans had not been reduccd by the instant gratification that television and video games would later provide. He hoped it would be effective.
It was, but not the way he planned. When Americans read about all of the disgusting stuff that was landing in what they intended to serve for dinner, they revolted, and the Food and Drug Administration was born.
Today, meat packing workers are still among the most injured and the lowest paid, and they are still largely manned by immigrant workers.
The bottom line: read this for its historical importance and its place in American literature, but don’t expect to enjoy the experience. It’s pretty grisly material, but rightly so.