He's been lauded as an "old-fashioned muckraker." He's also been called "Michael Moore without a bullhorn." And for hundreds of us -- maybe thousands -- heck, maybe even tens of thousands -- he's forever changed how and what we think about the most common of American convenience foods.
But when journalist Eric Schlosser first put pen to paper during his early college days (he graduated from Princeton in 1981 with a history degree), it wasn't the craft of nonfiction he was concerned with mastering at all, but rather that of fictional dialogue and prose. "I was an unsuccessful playwright [and] I was an unsuccessful novelist," he said in a 2003 interview with Princeton Alumni Weekly.
While at Princeton, Schlosser had been a student in New Yorker contributing writer John McPhee's semi-legendary course "The Literature of Fact." Later, when a friend suggested to Schlosser that his then-failing writing career might be buoyed by a venture into nonfiction, he took the leap. "It sounds very corny," he told the Weekly, "but what gave me the chutzpah to try to do it was remembering the course. It had a huge impact on me."
Corny or not, the speed at which Schlosser's career has influenced American popular culture -- most especially its eating habits -- has been astounding. And since the publication in 2001 of Fast Food Nation, an often horrifying exposé of the fast-food industry and its poor treatment of low-wage workers, his reputation as an intellectual and investigative journalist with genuine concern for the working class has grown second only to that of Barbara Ehrenreich.
In Schlosser's second book, Reefer Madness, which began as a three-part series for Atlantic Monthly, he has extended his reach by exploring three separate spheres of our country's underground economy: the porn industry, the marijuana market and the now overwhelming population of illegal and itinerant workers. Currently in progress is a book-length look at the American prison system -- specifically its troubling overpopulation, and its frustrating propensity to lock up even casual drug users. According to Schlosser's research, one out of every six federal prisoners today is jailed for a marijuana offense. That's more than the number of federal prisoners currently locked up for violent crimes.
As a country with an enormous need for a prison-system overhaul, we can only hope that Schlosser's upcoming work will be as influential as was Fast Food Nation, which undoubtedly begat the documentary film Super Size Me, which was largely responsible for the salads and Apple Dippers we now see on the McDonald's menu. (To say nothing of the company's recent affiliation with fitness guru Bob Greene.)
And although we don't yet know what Schlosser plans to speak about during his appearance at Carnegie Lecture Hall next week, I'd strongly suggest paying close attention. Who knows? The next trend in American cultural criticism may be getting a test run right before your very eyes.