The progressive era featured a period of time in American history where society embraced new cultural values and changing ways of life for the common working man. Indeed, 1906 was a significant year because notable authors like Upton Sinclair expressed their dissent for the way that the government had done a poor job of regulating new industries, such as meatpacking. In writing The Jungle, Sinclair pinpointed how the meatpacking industry in the United States was disgusting, unregulated and subject to criticism. While it may not have been originally intended as a call to action for society to consider the implications of such bad food packaging practices, it surely caused an uproar that was unprecedented for the industry. Similarly, artists of the time did a wonderful job of portraying how the progressive era impacted society and its unique culture. George Bellows’ 1909 painting, Stag at Sharkey’s, featured such a cultural change as the painting portrayed men at a boxing match. The painting was indicative of America’s penchant towards entertainment, consumerism, and brawling. Both The Jungle and Stag at Sharkey’s represented progressive era notions of reform and changing cultural values, while highlighted the consequences by portraying raw and unrestrained works of art.
Throughout the early 20th century, the progressive era marked a sharp transition in the ways Americans lived their lives. Industrialization offered people new ways of working, raising families and spending their leisure time. Many people migrated to cities and urban centers in order to get jobs in production factories. Crowded cities resulted in taller buildings, the need for public services for waste disposal and corporate regulation by the government. Also, the influx of new goods and services resulted in a redefined American consumer culture filled with shopping, games, and sport. However, the progressive era also caused inherent cultural problems. For instance, the new way in which people worked was heavily unregulated and there were few government mandates for food packaging and other industries. Consequently, authors like Sinclair sought to showcase these atrocities by writing books that would appeal to the masses.
Sinclair represented a wave of intellectual dissent that resulted in public outrage. In writing towards the working man, Sinclair published The Jungle with the hopes that society would see where their food came from and how it was handled. Indeed, Christopher Wilson, in The Labor of Words: Literary Professionalism in the Progressive Era, remarked that “the intellectual was often championed as an ally of the masses” (Wilson 113). That is his words resonated with people all across the nation, no matter what rung of the social ladder they were on. Similarly, artists like Bellows utilized art in order to epitomize American cultural values for boxing, a pastime that was not acceptable for much of American history. As new ways of working and enjoying free time, boxing was an exciting sport that captivated the imaginations of the public. Boxing specifically exemplified how American cultural values were oriented towards competition, brutality, and gambling, practices that were heavily considered ‘low-brow’ or sinful in previous years.
Sinclair’s The Jungle. In Sinclair’s work, the overarching message was clear: progressivism had both its benefits and negative externalities for society. For instance, the book showcased how the environment was slowly but surely changing in the wake of industrial development. Sinclair gave a descriptive anecdote of Chicago’s landscape changed: "The line of the buildings stood clear-cut and black against the sky; here and there out of the mass rose the great chimneys, with the river of smoke streaming away to the end of the world" (Sinclair 27). Surely, the description presented is a darker perspective of how America was changing due to the technological innovations of the time. The story followed the life of an immigrant that worked in the infamous meat packing industry in Chicago. Because of his criticisms of the meatpacking industry in Chicago, Sinclair was labeled as having crossed into a “deviant terrain” in the literature (Wilson 114). This deviant terrain exemplified the bad aspects of progressivism, much of the same way that a painting of a boxing match did.
Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s. Bellows sought to capture the very essence of the American progressive spirit through his painting by showcasing boxers in a grueling match. Robert Haywood, in George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey’s”: Boxing, Violence, and Male Identity identified the painting as a key aspect of the progressive era because it highlighted how American values had shifted towards the working man’s pleasure for sport:
At the packed, smoky club in the painting, some of the men around the jury-rigged ring move forward with excitement, others duck away, and more distant faces blur into the darkness. Wrapped around the ring’s corner pole are two shouting men who, enthralled by the match, emerge out of the background toward the spotlighted ring as if to propel the fighters. (Haywood 3). Like Sinclair’s book, this painting captured the darker side of the progressive movement because it gave the masses in cities an opportunity to idealize violence, gambling, and other practices.
Like a newly urbanized city without much regulation, the thrill of boxing showed profound changes in society. Through the progressive era, authors and artists had a stronger capacity to influence the public through their works. For Sinclair’s work, he “epitomizes [d] the new political power bestowed upon authorship by the new marketplace” (Wilson 115). This meant that he was able to passively critique and undermine the established progressive movement by pointing out its horrors. Similarly, Bellows’ was able to “forcefully capture the tawdry underworld flavor that was associated with the ‘prizefighting clubs’” (Haywood 5). It is important to realize that fighting was previously viewed as uncivilized and sinful. However, the cultural shift (thanks heavily to Theodore Roosevelt and later, Muhammed Ali) towards sport and boxing was later re-assessed as being appropriate in society. Finally, the inclusion of boxing in mainstream society as showed by the painting is similar to the way the progressive era was considered heavily unrestrained.
Boxing and Factories. Like gross and unregulated meatpacking facilities, the new cultural tendency to approve boxing showed how both authors created their works under the common theme of a changing society. For instance, Sinclair’s attention towards the disgusting nature of meatpacking plants was unrestrained and raw: "This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat will be shoveled into carts and the man who did the shoveling will not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one” (Sinclair 161). Similarly to this, Bellows’ painting shared the same type of unrestrained dimension for portraying violence. Later scholars like Haywood analyzed the work for all of its raw and savage interpretations: “the boy, with half his face blocked by the ring, looks worried, reluctant, and innocent amid this ritual of manhood” (Haywood 4). Clearly, both works shared the same penchant for showcasing the raw and unfiltered nature of life during progressive reform. Both Sinclair and Bellows captured the essence of the American progressive movement within their works through these means.
Clearly, the works of art shown have epitomized how the progressive period of 1906 – 1909 resulted in not only changes in American ways of life, but the negative aspects that it produced as well. We have seen how the historical background of the progressive era reflected an opportunity for intellectuals to present their critical views and interpretations of such things like boxing through their work. While Sinclair’s work sought to exemplify raw and disgusting food handling measures, Bellows’ work showed the violent and exciting nature of sport and American values. Both works shared the common theme of offering an unrestrained and raw look into the newly redefined society that America had come to embrace. Their works were heavily influenced by the historical context of being in the progressive era. This time period fostered attitudes of dissent and social criticism for how the nation was changing. While Sinclair’s was more aggressive in his tone and style, Bellows’ still resonated with the American public in the same way.
Bellows, George. “Stag at Sharkey's.” Hinman Hurlbut Collection, New York City, 1909. http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1133.1922
Haywood, Robert. "George Bellows' ‘Stag at Sharkey's:’ Boxing, Violence, and Male Identity." Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 2, no. 2, 1988, pp. 3-15.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Cambridge, Mass.: R. Bentley, 1946.
Wilson, Christopher P. The Labor of Words: Literary Professionalism in the Progressive Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.