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The Politics of Upton Sinclair

I’ve always been a fan of the novelist Upton Sinclair.  From the day in junior high that I finished his classic about the US meatpacking industry, The Jungle, up to last week when I finally read his novel about Wall Street and the coal-mining industry titled King Coal, I have always found his novels to be well-told tales of life in the domain of Wall Street.  Although the industrial processes he describes in his books are outmoded, the financial chicanery and greed of the financial giants he despised are only more refined.  In my mind his works have taken on a new relevance in this period of market manipulation and destruction of the commons under the guise of a free market.

Biographer Anthony Arthur’s 2006 work on writer and activist Upton Sinclair is an engaging and well-researched discussion of the man that was Upton Sinclair. Like the character in Kris Kristofferson’s tune, “The Pilgrim,” Arthur’s Sinclair is “a walking contradiction/partly truth and partly fiction.” Reaching into the personal papers of Sinclair, his first wife and a number of his friends and colleagues, Arthur has produced a book that is in fact more than a history of the man who was Upton Sinclair, it is a history of the time he lived in. That time spanned two world wars, several revolutions, at least one economic depression, and multiple episodes of governmental repression. Sinclair responded to them all.

Harshly honest, this biography, which is titled Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, presents Sinclair as a proud and somewhat egocentric human whose convictions never wavered, although his tactics and interpretation of those convictions did. The reader is introduced to the private man behind such works as The Jungle and King Coal. This was a man who was reticent in affairs of the heart and often uncomfortable with his own pronouncements against monogamy and conventional childrearing. Arthur relates exactly this as he describes the contentious relationship he had with his first wife, who Arthur tells us was as sensually-inclined as Sinclair was ascetic. Nonetheless, he did attempt to participate and design at least two intentional communities that went counter to conventional mores. It was as if he was always pushing himself beyond his own emotional boundaries in an attempt to destroy them. After he and his first wife were able to arrange a divorce, Sinclair remarried. He remained married to his second wife until she died in 1961. He had always considered monogamy to be a restrictive convention, especially for the woman in the arrangement. Yet, when he found a compatible soul, his fidelity was unquestioned.

In terms of his politics, Sinclair political life could have been that of any number of US socialists, except for his fame. He began his political life on the left fringe of the Socialist Party in the United States and ended it as a New Deal Democrat. Sinclair’s movement rightward occurred along with many of his compatriots and lambasted by those on the Left that maintained their anti-capitalist politics. Indeed, Arthur claims that Sinclair’s rightward shift widened the estrangement between his son and himself. Although his independence was always an essential part of his self-identification, as he grew older he often chose tactics over principle, even running as a Democrat after a couple of failed campaigns as a Socialist. Like so many leftists that choose the Democratic Party route in the United States, the party changed his politics more than he changed the party’s.

Sinclair’s most famous novel, The Jungle, is 106 years old.  Although Sinclair’s primary intention was to graphically illustrate the excesses of monopoly capitalism in its exploitation of the meatpackers and associated laborers, the graphic descriptions of the unsanitary practices occurring daily in the slaughterhouses and packing plants spurred major reform in those areas of the meat industry instead.

Despite the fact that The Jungle is required reading in many schools even today, most of Sinclair’s literary and polemical output is out of print and difficult to find even in libraries. One wonders why this is so. After all, there are hundreds of works published every year that have considerably less merit. (Believe me, I work in a public library and can attest to this.) Despite their occasional two-dimensionality, Sinclair’s most popular works deal with topics of war and peace, profit and exploitation, and love and hate. They remain relevant topically and thematically and stand with the best of US political literature.

Perhaps one reason for the unavailability of Sinclair’s works is that no matter what he wrote, he offended some element of the rich and powerful. This was the case even when others on the left considered his actions to be selling out. It seems that the captains of industry have memories that span the generations. According to Arthur, Sinclair certainly found this to be the case in his run for US Senator as a Democrat from California. It was a campaign that he led at times only to be defeated in the end thanks to a large infusion of money from enemies Sinclair had gained over the years. Not only were these enemies wealthy, they were unabashed in their support of half-truths and outright falsehoods in their attacks on Sinclair’s proposals and politics. Like the Republicans of today, they knew no shame and would stop at nothing short of murder to keep their toadies in the state and national legislatures.

Sinclair died in December 1968. Arthur remembers him as a man that was driven by a belief in humanity’s essential goodness, despite an incredible amount of evidence that led many others to believe the opposite. He was, writes Arthur, “a man born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (and)…a proper Victorian who had absorbed two guiding principles of that earnest period. These related to work and to duty, and were often linked.” The fact that he applied these principles to writing and politics can be found in his legacy.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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