Sinclair, Riis, and the Reality of Realism

Updated on November 28, 2017

Upton Sinclair

Revealing and "Turning a Blind Eye"

Does being a journalist mean that the social commentary of which you provide to the global society has to make a difference in your own life and perspective, or are you just spaying information about without reason or desire for social change?

In “What Life Means to Me”, Upton Sinclair makes clear suggestions to writers about the purpose of journalism. He basically states that no writer should feel comfortable practicing his or her craft without using it to impart social justice to the world because art is null and void as long as there is suffering in this world. He states that proletariat literature demands that writers no longer write from the outskirts of society; on the contrary, it requires writers to go down into the trenches to learn first-hand, to see for themselves. Sinclair remembers sitting in workers’ living rooms and documenting their stories (Sinclair). For Sinclair, this made the writing experience more than just a simple practice of the artform. It impacted his life in a personal respect that would follow him for the rest of his life. This was a deeply life changing endeavor for him; observe the following quote: “I wrote with tears and anguish, pouring into the pages all the pain which life had meant to me” (Sinclair). Although Sinclair broke a major story so to speak in The Jungle, these words contend that it was more than a story to him. In fact, Sinclair would place himself in deprived situations in order to gain the reality of living in poverty. He essentially conducted human field studies on himself in order to feel.

In chapter 9 of The Jungle, one sees the outcome of being able to feel for what one usually cannot touch by going down into the trenches. In this chapter, Jurgis joins the union and decides that he wants to know what is going on in the meetings. This leads to him taking English classes. When he does this, his “veil of ignorance” so to speak begins to be lifted. However, Sinclair also illustrates another downside to being a worker caught up in the capitalistic system of labor with the following: “They were teaching him both to read and to speak English—and they would have taught him other things, if only he had had a little time” (Sinclair). Here Sinclair illustrates the notion that these laborers are interested in more than just working and that they are people with intellectual abilities too; however, the way the system is constructed sometimes impacts how far these laborers may stretch such intellectual endeavors. Therefore, the system also supports keeping these laborers walking through a field of ignorance. He finds that the packing houses are systematically corrupt. He also finds that, as a worker, he is expendable in the eyes of capitalism. Not only is he expendable, the very consumers who buy their products are expendable as well. Jurgis is caught up in a system that requires him to risk his life on a daily basis, and his reward is to live in poverty. Sinclair uses The Jungle as a sounding trumpet that eradiates the music of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Social Enlightenment

The simultaneously simple and prolific character, Jurgis, thinks that he finds hope in the American political process; however, after becoming a citizen and participating in the voting process, he finds that it is a sham: “So each man in turn took an oath of which he did not understand a word, and then was presented with a handsome ornamented document with a big red seal and the shield of the United States upon it, and was told that he had become a citizen of the Republic and the equal of the President himself” (Sinclair). Here Sinclair illustrates, with a hint of absurdity, that even the process of becoming a citizen is a sham. Jurgis now gets to participate in the political process, to finally feel like he has a say in how America is run, only to find out that graft plays a huge part in political outcomes: “Jurgis felt quite proud of this good luck till he got home and met Jonas, who had taken the leader aside and whispered to him, offering to vote three times for four dollars, which offer had been accepted” (Sinclair). Here Sinclair illustrates a process of how the proletariat travels down to the road of nihilism in a capitalistic society. Sinclair further illustrates the corrupt meat packing industry when he describes what happens when diseased meat is introduced for public consumption: “...a physician, made the discovery that the carcasses of steers which had been condemned as tubercular by the government inspectors, and which therefore contained ptomaines, which are deadly poisons, were left upon an open platform and carted away to be sold in the city; and so he insisted that these carcasses be treated with an injection of kerosene—and was ordered to resign the same week!” (Sinclair). Sinclair’s depicts a realistic view of the workings of the meat packing industry in Chicago. Unfortunately, it does not matter how realistic the piece is at the time because certain members of society did not want knowledge of the truth.

Jacob Riis seems to embrace various facets of Sinclair’s suggestions in How the Other Half Lives; this is keenly apparent in the introduction to the text: “Long ago it was said that 'one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.' That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate, of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat” (Riis). Riis breaks the barrier described in the previous passage with his literary investigation of the New York slums. The unfortunate aspect of his documentation is the generalizations and stereotypes that he makes regarding Italians and Irish communities to name a couple. Regardless of these stereotypes and generalizations, Riis did go down in the trenches to seek the true picture of how the owners of New York tenements operated without concern for the human condition. Riis also made note that the rent was high because tenants would cause damages to the buildings that needed to be covered and that a large criminal element resided in the buildings. Riis also offers a plan for social justice in the text, recommending that the city build new living quarters on the outskirts of town and slowly move the tenants into them and implement what is now referred to as rent control in addition to trying to rehabilitate the old buildings.

One of the most puzzling aspects of Riis’ work is its contradictory nature in that, with the inclusion of stereotypes, it plays against itself; however, the contradictory nature of the work does not overshadow his apparent concern, not only for the condition of the various communities in New York, but also for implementing a plan to change these conditions for the good of the poverty stricken and the middle class. Here he reveals injustices in Sinclair's shadow while "turning a blind eye" in contradiction.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. The Gutenberg Project, 11 Mar. 2006. Web. 6 Oct. 2017.

Sinclair, Upton. “What Life Means to Me”. Cosmopolitan Magazine. Web. 7 Oct. 2017.

Riis, Jacob. How The Other Half Lives. Web. 7 Nov. 2017.

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