Christopher Phelps: Sets the record straight about Upton Sinclair's The Jungle





This year marks the centennial of Upton Sinclair’s classic muckraking novel, The Jungle, or rather, of its appearance in book form, since it first ran as a serial in 1905. In April of last year, I interviewed Christopher Phelps, the editor of a new edition of the novel, for this column.

Most of Sinclair’s other writings have fallen by the wayside. Yet he is making a sort of comeback. Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, is adapting Sinclair’s novel Oil! — for the screen; it should appear next year under the title There Will Be Blood. (Like The Jungle, the later novel from 1927 was a tale of corruption and radicalism, this time set in the petroleum industry.) And Al Gore has lately put one of Sinclair’s pithier remarks into wide circulation in his new film: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

That sentiment seems appropriate as a comment on a recent miniature controversy over The Jungle. As mentioned here one year ago, a small publisher called See Sharp Press claims that the standard edition of Sinclair’s text is actually a censored version and a travesty of the author’s radical intentions. See Sharp offers what it calls an “unexpurgated” edition of the book — the version that “Sinclair very badly wanted to be the standard edition,” as the catalog text puts it.

An article by Phelps appearing this week on the History News Network Web site takes a careful look at the available evidence regarding the book’s publishing history and Sinclair’s own decisions regarding the book and debunks the See Sharp claims beyond a reasonable doubt.

In short, Sinclair had many opportunities to reprint the serialized version of his text, which he trimmed in preparing it for book form. He never did so. He fully endorsed the version now in common use, and made no effort to reprint the “unexpurgated” text as it first appeared in the pages of a newspaper.

It is not difficult to see why. Perhaps the most telling statement on this matter comes from Anthony Arthur, a professor of English at California State University at Northridge, whose biography Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair has just been published by Random House. While Arthur cites the “unexpurgated” edition in his notes, he doesn’t comment on the claims for its definitive status. But he does characterize the serialized version of the novel as “essentially a rough draft of the version that readers know today, 30,000 words longer and showing the haste with which it was written.”

A representative of See Sharp has accused me of lying about the merits of the so-called unexpurgaged edition. Indeed, it appears that I am part of the conspiracy against it. (This is very exciting to learn.) And yet — restraining my instinct for villainy, just for a second — let me also point you to a statement at the See Sharp website explaining why the version of The Jungle that Sinclair himself published is a cruel violation of his own intentions.

Memo to the academy: Why isn’t there a variorum edition of The Jungle? There was a time when it would have been a very labor-intensive project — one somebody might have gotten tenure for doing. Nowadays it would take a fraction of the effort. The career benefits might be commensurate, alas. But it seems like a worthy enterprise. What’s the hold-up?




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