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Muckraking: Sinclair and Riis Impact

Muckraking in the historical context

Muckraking is simply investigative journalism with a leaning towards exposing corruption in government and institutions involving public trust. It is also associated with revolutionary ideas and concerns of reform in government and public institutions. Originally, the term ‘Muckrakers’ was coined to refer to American writers involved in reform literature in the period just before World War I.

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During this period America was industrializing fast and factory workers were the engine of the economy but they mostly worked under horrid conditions. The literary works that exposed misuse of laborers, the proliferation of child labor, and inhuman working conditions were imaged in muckraking journalism; literary scholars classified this form of literature as expose literature.

The 1890s were years of sensational magazine articles that criticized official corruption. This was called ‘Yellow Journalism’ and it gave birth to muckraking which was a fervent literary assault on misuse of power. Reporters and writers moved from sensationalism to more concrete accurate exposition aimed at public knowledge.

The public of pre-World War I was hungry for literature that exposed industrial corruption and for good reason; the capitalistic society that was America had little thought for societal concerns involving social responsibility. Business and factory owners were in a rush to grow bucks and hoping to give back the least to the community that worked for them while most of the time exploiting the workers through low wages and poor working conditions. There was a felt need for industrial and government reform and the writers were anxious to point it out.

The public became the driving force for change and the muckrakers became the catalysts. Names like Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and Ida M. Tarbell became known for their scathing articles on government and labor. Upon Sinclair and Jacob Riis wrote books that led to significant changes in U.S legislation.

Journalistic accounts became preoccupied with issues of political/economic corruption and social hardships in the United States.

Comparison and contrast

Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘The Jungle’ was written in 1906. It is about the downtrodden workers in the meatpacking factories of America at the time, which consisted of main immigrants. The novel depicts the hopelessness and poverty of the working class under the behest of unyielding capitalism madness where social programs were non-existent.

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The book criticized the system and the powers that be and called for revolutionary action by ordinary Americans. Upton Sinclair had Socialist ideas that viewed the wage system as oppressive, unfair; a form of slavery.

The climax of the plot offers a description to unmask the ills faced by workers in meat factories as well as the unhygienic and dirty conditions occasioned in the processes of preparing and packaging the meat. The storyline is aimed at addressing the social hardships of middle-class Americans at the time and the problems that faced their daily working lives.

The meat factor, though not the main theme of the book, took precedent as it stood out among the readers who demanded and rallied for investigations into the meat business, calling on the government to act. The message in the book was very clear that progressive change would not succeed with the existing political alignment.

Like Upton Sinclair, John August Riis was a newspaper reporter and a ‘muckraker’ whose work was inclined towards crusading for social reform. He became famous for his literary and photographic description of New York slums. Inspired by his experiences from New York City’s Lower East Side where people were crammed in filthy tenements, he wrote his renowned book ‘How the Other Half Lives’ in 1890.

Like Sinclair, Riis wrote to expose the ragged life of U.S citizens, in particular addressing the plight of the poor workers especially their squalid living conditions. But unlike Sinclair, Riis employed the use of photographs to describe the rooms, the hallways, buildings and the scruffy conditions of the tenements. He also dramatized his lectures using these photographs. Davis (2000) views this style of photography in terms of “social reform,”

Both Sinclair and Riis managed to rally the masses to protest exploitation and negligence by the government. Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ caused a stir that compelled Roosevelt to send commissioners for a meat inspection exercise in the meat factories. Both authors were largely part of the pressure that culminated in the passing of two legislative laws: Sinclair’s novel drew events that led to the passage of the ‘Meat Inspection Act and the ‘Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906’. Riis’ book caused fresh New York legislation on tenement housing.

Key Issues Illuminated

Misery of immigrants

The main character in the novel is Jurgis Rudkus, who is an immigrant from Lithuania. He is portrayed as naïve and honest, a farm boy who is oblivious of the powerful forces of American industrial capitalism. His hope to earn and make a decent living for his family quickly disintegrates and he gradually loses all hope of succeeding in his adopted country.

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Ruckus’s fears and culture shock are heightened by the tragedies of losing his bride Ona, who dies in childbirth since they can’t afford the price for a doctor. Rudkus flees the city after his son drowns in the muddy street.

Economic Oppression through exploitation

The novel opens with a wedding feast where Rudkus and his bride have spent what the ordinary folk would call a fortune in expenses. Sinclair describes a sorry financial state of the commoner when he talks about the “men who cannot earn three hundred dollars in a year, only to spend such a sum, all in a single day of your life, at a wedding feast!” (Sinclair, 1906, p.2)

Riis’ ‘Mulberry Bend’ photographs depict horrid shacks and desperate faces of children in tenements that look like dirty chicken pens. In one of Riis’ photographs, the men’s Lodging Room in the West 47th Street Station has no beds and the men are lying on the floor with pieces of tatters for cover. Behind them is what looks like garbage or scraps of wood.

Oppression through violation of human rights

A horrid account of how some of the men processing the meat fall into the vaults and get ground together with the meat to emerge as “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard” (Sinclair, 1906, p. 99) A pitiful account of child labor is found in chapter one where little children are part of the workforce. They were innocent children subjected to harsh conditions including cold and inhuman acts without any remorse.

Capitalism Flaws

Rudkus embraces socialist ideas when he wanders into a lecture being given by a socialist orator. The speech gives him renewed purpose and hope. The speaker acclaims the importance of labor unions which Rudkus sees as a solution to his afflictions; this discontentment with capitalism is shown in the socialist rally where the rioters are chanting “Chicago will be ours!”

Even the beggars have usurped a capitalist spirit, as is illuminated in the story; the contrasts come out in what befalls the men who get injured in the factories only to turn into hopeless beggars in the streets “And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart’s desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. (Sinclair, 1906, p. 35)

Corruption Ills

Corruption seems to run the city of Chicago, where everyone demands a tip and powerful individuals seek bribes. Police officers and government officers must be paid off, while con men and blackmailers permeate daily life.

Muckraking – to – Progressivism

We may view progressivism as a synonym for reform in the context of its birth and conception. As Harold Tallant (N.d) puts it, it was generally a spirit embraced by Americans from all walks of life during the early twentieth century. Progressivism occurred as the society was seeking social justice after many years of oppression. It followed the end of the civil war in the early 1900s where major immorality was witnessed in the corporate and political environments. For instance, the end of the civil war gave rise to industrialization, urbanization and globalization. This led to a massive change of attitude by the rich and the governments, who exploited the poor by forcing them to work under very poor conditions – they preferred money instead of the well-being of the workers. Free markets were abolished and immorality took center stage with corruption implanting itself in the minds of the rich. Since social injustice was at its worst, American reformers initiated movements to disclaim the injustice to society.

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These movements of progressivism can be related to the muckraking work of Sinclair and Riis in that; they were both fighting the same war of liberating the poor and the weak from the chains of social, economic and political injustice. The work of Riis was aimed at exposing the contrasting lifestyles of the poor and the rich through the use of photography and in the process campaign for the reforms that could help to eradicate the social and political vice practiced at the time. In addition, Sinclair campaigned for reforms in the health care and the labor market. His view was that people were being exploited by the production organization and therefore there was a need for democracy in the organizations to ensure social justice was upheld; and hygiene which includes purity of foot was important for building healthy cultures and persons (Duvall, 2002).

Progressivisms campaigned for democratic ideals such as the secret ballot during elections and efficiency in the way public offices were run. They crusaded for Social Justice and Regulation of Large Corporations and Monopolies who controlled the industrial boom. This was also echoed by both Riis and Sinclair who used different means to campaign for social justice in the workforce and to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich.

The Legacies

Sinclair and Riis heralded a significant era in journalism redefining the role of the fourth estate as a medium for opinion formation. They also asserted the place of literature in society and its potency in influencing the worldview, lifestyle and daily lives of people. Their main themes were of course issues to do with social justice and social responsibility as well as good citizenship and patriotism.

Their flair for reform transformed American society in ways that only literary appeal can achieve. The pen is mightier than the sword may have been a grand slogan for these writers and their quest for telling their version of the truth is as historical as is the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.

Many other writers who came after can give their credit to the works of Riis and Sinclair who have had an impact on the community. Through their work, many developments have been witnessed in the society including improvement of health, justice in the labor market, corruption has subsided and racial discrimination has gone to the wire. The poor who had no voice in the earlier years are now able to talk their hearts out and the oppressions they received from the rich have subsided. In addition, the animosity that existed between the society and the rich people has been done with and the society is today more united than at any other time. The notion or stereotype that the poor became poorer due to immorality and trying to cleanse the rich as moral has taken a different direction in modern society.

The impact of Sinclair and Riis on the social, economic and political reforms can not be undermined. Indeed Americans and the world, in general, have borrowed a lesson from the writings of these two journalists. For instance, health care and government systems of the current generation have their roots in muckraking. In addition, the use of photography in delivering messages has been ingrained in contemporary journalism when describing the social, political, economic and even environmental influences on society.

It is their evidence that the works of the two journalists were not only aimed at enlightening the society about their rights but also bore some wonderful fruits which are umpteenth enjoyed by the current generations and which is likely to be carried forward to the next generations. The reforms experienced in all spheres of political, economic and social environment originate from the credited work of Sinclair and Riis. Many societies have been liberated from the chains of oppression (just to mention, the black’s liberation from slavery and forced labor) and the attitudes of the society have changed considerably. The poor are no longer viewed as weak but as important people in society.

References

Blakwel, J. (Nd). Rumble Over the Jungle. 2009. Web. 

Davis, K. (2003). Photography and Social Reform, University of Virginia. 2009. Web.

Davis, K. (2003). The Reporter of Mulberry Bend. 2009. Web. 

Duvall, J. M. (2002). The processes of Elimination: Progressive-Era Hygienic Ideology, Waste, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. 2009. Web.

Riis, J. (N.d). Photographs Slideshow. 2009. Web.

Sinclair, U. (1906). The Jungle. NY, Doubleday Jabber & Company publishers, USA.

Tallant, H.D. (N.d). Progressivism. Georgetown College. 2009. Web.

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