by Roberta McCutcheon

Overview

The United States was transformed in the last decades of the nineteenth century by the industrial revolution. The rapid growth of cities, increase in immigration, expansion of a struggling working class, and concentration of the nation’s wealth in the hands of a few “robber barrons” all demonstrated that the nation’s governing institutions were not prepared to cope with the challenges of that revolution. 

The government’s role in the economy in the nineteenth century is best characterized as one of removing obstacles to growth. Congress paved the way for the business community to cater to the needs of private-propertied interests. Industries left to their own devices exploited workers, and cities, ill-equipped to respond to increasing population, provided over-crowded and dire living accommodations. No public institutions existed to deal with even the most urgent problems such as sanitation, poverty, or contagious disease.

Some individuals responded to the need for action by exposing the worst conditions and calling for change. These reformers included photo journalists, print journalists, writers, and novelists who used their talents to encourage a reexamination of the role of the government in an industrialized economy. Upton Sinclair was one of many who sought reform in the first two decades of the twentieth century—the Progressive Era.

Objectives

  • Students will be able to create a model for evaluating the validity of a novel as historical evidence.
  • Students will examine factual references to analyze the history of industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  • Students will be able to identify the major social and economic changes in the first half of the twentieth century.
  • Students will be able to identify the major social and political reforms of the Progressive Era.
  • Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of the muckrakers of the Progressive Era.

Lesson

Reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Student Exercise One

Have the students research the author. The following site will provide biographical information on Upton Sinclair: 1906: Rumble over ‘The Jungle.’

Have students research the historical context of the novel. A history text will provide useful information. Have students work in small groups.  Each group should write questions to guide them while reading the novel.

Student Exercise Two

Have the students read The Jungle.

As they are reading, they should consider the questions they wrote. They may want to revise their questions or write new ones for an ongoing discussion while reading.

Discuss the reading as assigned.

Student Exercise Three

Rewrite portions of the novel:

Rewrite the immigrants’ experiences as they would have been in the socialist society that the author described. An understanding of Sinclair’s socialist vision is important. In addition to Sinclair’s discussion of socialism in the novel, research might be useful. Some sites that are helpful are: 

Write a play depicting the lives of Jurgis and his family.

Student Exercise Four

Congressional Hearing

Divide the class into members of Congress, members of the informed and concerned public, and observers.

The members of Congress will plan a hearing on the problems and abuses in the meat-packing industry—sanitation, health, and working conditions to name a few. They should develop some opening questions for the hearing.

The members of the informed and concerned public will prepare to testify on the practices in the meat-packing industry. The testimony should include at least the sanitation conditions that affected the slaughtering and processing of the meat, the working conditions, and child labor. These students should also be prepared to respond to questions from the members of Congress.

The observers will listen attentively to the hearing. After the hearing, they will write proposals for legislation. These proposals should address the issues raised in the hearing. The Pure Food and Drug is an example of legislation enacted after the novel was published.

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