Friday, October 16, 2009

The Jungle & Silent Spring

A question that I've continually returned to since reading The Jungle concerns genre: What does it mean for a novel -- a work of fiction -- to become the impetus for such significant social change? It seems strange and amazing that a fictional account of the conditions of the meat-packing district resulted in such sudden and sweeping reform. (And why, as there is no shortage of injustices to be exposed, haven't more novels had similar results?)

Fred Warren, co-editor of Appeal to Reason, a socialist journal that published articles and parts of books, commissioned Sinclair to write a novel about immigrants in Packingtown. The novel was serialized in Appeal to Reason in 1905, which had a circulation that year of 175, 000. Doubleday published The Jungle in 1906 and it achieved immediate success in the U.S., was published in seventeen languages within a few years, and received international acclaim. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were implemented within months after The Jungle was published. Congress and the Supreme Court passed other significant laws and made a number of rulings between 1906-1908 which related to unions and to child labor.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which was published in 1962, was an influential book in a similar way, as its resonance and relevance has continued to this day, and in terms of the radical changes it brought about. Silent Spring, though, is a non-fiction work. I wonder about how genre influenced the reception of both Silent Spring and of The Jungle, and about the reach and mobility of a novel in both 1906 and now. I also wonder how the results may have been different if Sinclair had written about Packingtown as a journalist and his piece had been published as the extensive cover story of a newspaper rather than as a work of "ficiton."

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