It’s usually a big honor when the president of the United States reads your book and wants to meet you. When President Theodore Roosevelt invited Upton Sinclair, whose book “The Jungle” had stunned and grossed out readers, for a luncheon at the White House in April 1906 to discuss the book, the journalist likely felt honored, but also surprised.
Published Feb. 26, 1906, “The Jungle” documented the terrible conditions of the Union Stockyards in Chicago. “Muckraker” journalist Sinclair interviewed employees and witnessed the abhorrent conditions, including allegations that rat and human carcasses found their way into sausage casings.
But those descriptions made up a small part of the book. Most of it was dedicated to denouncing corruption in Chicago and capitalistic societies in general. The book heavily supported socialism, with its main character adopting its philosophies at the end of the novel, so it may have surprised Sinclair that Roosevelt would have been supportive of a pro-socialism book.
Turns out, Roosevelt did have ulterior motives for the luncheon.
“Author Sinclair’s sensational statements [regarding government corruption and collusion with packers] came to the notice of the president and he quietly started an investigation” before calling the author to lunch, the Chicago Daily News reported on April 10.
Roosevelt’s investigators, which the paper pointed out were “scientifically trained men,” visited the Union Stockyards and reported that “Sinclair had pictured conditions which do not exist.”
Knowing this, Roosevelt invited Sinclair to lunch and “calmly interrogated the author about his book and learned to some extent how certain conditions described therein came to the notice of the writer,” the paper reported. The author did not know about the investigation, but the paper said its scientific men failed “to verify a single important statement made in the book.”
Whoever blabbed to Roosevelt jumped the gun — by a lot. Investigators did complete a survey of the stockyards, but they found conditions nearly identical to what Sinclair described in his book.
Though Sinclair hoped to turn more people on to socialism, he actually sparked a movement to clean up the meatpacking industry.
On May 21, the Chicago Daily News published a front-page story announcing that an Indiana senator introduced a “drastic meat-inspection bill” requiring government inspectors to certify meat slaughtered or produced in the United States.
“The bill is the outcome of ‘The Jungle,’ a book written by Upton Sinclair on conditions at the Chicago stockyards, which was grilled in high government quarters and the writer classed with the ‘muck rakers,’” the report said.
Roosevelt, it was understood, “will send in a message urging its passage.”