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Moral Crusader & Muckraking Novelist

Upton Sinclair Revisited

Who reads Upton Sinclair’s books? Who recognizes his name? Not many, especially those under the age of say, 40, though “U.S.,” to borrow his iconic initials, created a commotion with his muckraking novels and enjoyed a long-running career as one of the most popular American writers in the United States and around the world. Born in 1878 in Baltimore, and a descendant of southern aristocrats and military men, he died in 1968 in New Jersey, where, decades earlier, he created Helicon Hall, a cooperative community for white Christian folk only. No Jews or African-Americans allowed. That might be enough for some ‘68ers to dismiss him, but remember, too, that he denounced D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as “class lying” and “an incitement to race hatred.”

A quirky moral crusader, Upton Sinclair thought of books as weapons in the class struggle, though he never wanted to cause deliberate injury to anyone, rich or poor. Biographers and cultural historians have not been kind to him. V.L. Parrington noted ages ago that he “started as a novelist, but his art was submerged by propaganda.” Still, some lefties today, including Norman Solomon, speak well of him and his dissection of “the media jungle.”

Nearly 150 years after Sinclair’s birth—with most of his works only available as eBooks—the question might be, not who reads him, but rather why read him? Sinclair endured wars, revolutions and depressions, but climate change, Donald Trump, drones, and state terrorism could be a bit too for his own blood that was stepped in the nineteenth-century and that found the first 60 or so years of the twentieth-century rough going.

Competing with Harry Potter won’t be easy. Still, Sinclair’s books might appeal to curious boys: preteens, teens and twenty some-things. After all, his novels are adventure stories with happy endings. Boy usually meets girl and sometimes boy becomes a socialist. Those who knew Sinclair often said he was “boyish.” Indeed, he seemed part Peter Pan and part Pied Piper, though unlike the character in Robert Browning’s narrative poem he wasn’t motivated by revenge.

Lanny Budd serves as the protagonist in eleven novels published between 1940 and 1953. They make up the “Lanny Budd Series.” Budd does what the older Sinclair would have liked to do and never did: works for President F. D. Roosevelt. Theodore Dreiser, the author of An American Tragedy and a committed socialist, aptly described the first book in the Budd series, World’s End, as “novelized history.” World War II signaled to Sinclair the end of everything he knew and loved. But he braced himself and went on writing through the 1950s. “I always think of stories,” he said. Playwright and Fabian Socialist, George Bernard Shaw, explained that, when asked to describe what happened in his own lifetime, he recommended the Lanny Budd books.

Sinclair won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943 for Dragon’s Teeth, the third novel in the series, which describes the Nazi takeover in Germany. Dragon’s Teeth arrived in bookstores just as the U.S. entered World War II. Sinclair’s timing couldn’t have been better. The Pulitzer was the only major literary prize he ever won. The Nobel Prize selection committee thought he was too hot-headed to qualify for its prestigious award

My father, who was a lawyer and a member of the Communist Party, U.S.A. from 1938 to 1948, introduced me to Sinclair’s novels when I was a boy. His favorite Sinclair book was Boston (1928), which is based on the real story of the two Italian immigrants and anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, who were in all likely framed as armed robbers and killers. Sinclair called their execution in the electric chair in 1927 “the most shocking crime that has been committed in American history since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.”

Effective at absorbing and compressing vast amounts of information, quickly, and transforming facts into fictions about class and class differences, Sinclair was a master at publicity and nifty when it came to quotations suitable for the mass media. Decade after decade, he read the zeitgeist, and learned how to blow-up a story so it grabbed headlines and kept him in the public eye.

The trial of Sacco Vanzetti awakened my father from his Jazz Age reverie as a bootlegger, pushed him to the Left and persuaded him that art should be propaganda. He loved Boston because it turned the two persecuted Italian immigrants into martyrs, and alerted readers to the cause of justice, which Sinclair embraced wholeheartedly. In 1915, he edited and published The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of Social Protest with an introduction by his comrade, Jack London. Like my father, I revered Sacco and Vanzetti, but Boston intimidated me. At 755-pages, it looked insurmountable. When it was first published, critics savaged it and Sinclair, too. He defended the book and himself. “Having portrayed the aristocrats as they were, I had to do the same thing for the anarchists,” he wrote.

He tended to admire aristocrats and millionaires more than anarchists and workers. His protagonist, Lanny Budd, the son of an American arms manufacturer and his gorgeous mistress, grows up in affluent pre-World War I Europe and becomes a sophisticated socialite. Bunny—the protagonist in another Sinclair novel, Oil (1926), which is set in Southern California—is cut from the same cloth as Lanny. In Oil, American presidents, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge, come and go. Bunny dates a movie star named Miss Viola Tracy, falls in love, marries a “little socialist,” and defends the Soviet Union as a “new civilization” and “a model for the future.” The author was as rosy about communism again.

The Jungle (1906), which was published two decades before Boston, and which is dedicated “to the Working men of America,” has simple declarative sentences, a vocabulary suitable for teens, plus characters and scenes that translate into a kind of comic book that plays up the grotesque. It has often been called the best American proletarian novel ever written, but in a country like ours that has produced relatively little proletarian literature, that’s not saying a great deal. I’ve had two friends who crafted fiction about the working class: Tillie Olsen, the author of Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974), who wrote poetically, but produced very little work; and Alexander Saxon the author of Grand Crossing (1943), who was better at history than the novel. A proletarian novel isn’t as easy to write as one might think.

Sinclair wanted The Jungle to awaken citizens to the harsh realities of industrial civilization. Instead, the novel roused consumers to the horrors of industrially produced food and led to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Sinclair explained. Even before The Jungle was published serially in Appeal to Reason, the author was hailed as “a genius.”

Yes, his books could be prescient and timely, but they also ran away from him and sent messages to readers he had not intended. As the Marxist literary critic, Michael Folsom, noted in an essay titled “Upton Sinclair’s Escape from The Jungle“: “The Anglo Saxon Protestant petit bourgeois intellectual triumphed over realism, Socialism, the alien working class, and serious literature.” The Jungle literally turned my stomach. After I read it, I couldn’t look at a frankfurter without seeing rats and rat shit. I avoided Nathan’s Hot Dogs like the plague. The Jungle also turned me off to Sinclair’s work because he piles tragedy on the tragedy from exploitation and prostitution to food poisoning, death in childbirth and more. At the novel’s conclusion, which feels tacked on, the hero, Juris Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant in Chicago, experiences a near-religious conversion to socialism.

For years, I forget about Sinclair. Briefly, I even confused him with Sinclair Lewis. Others must have done the same. At the top of Upton Sinclair’s Wikipedia page, readers are advised, “Not to be confused with his contemporary, Sinclair Lewis, another American novelist.” For much of the twentieth-century it would have been nearly impossible for a reader to confuse the author of muckraking works of fiction like The Jungle, and King Coal (1917)— a love story set against the backdrop of the Colorado mining industry— with the novels by the Minnesota-born author of Main Street, Babbitt and Arrowsmith who was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

I didn’t think about Upton Sinclair again until 2000 when I turned my attention to Jack London. While I didn’t ignore London’s jingoism, racism and anti-Semitism, I found him much more fascinating than Sinclair. He was a mess, but he was a loveable mess. Indeed, he tasted real poverty and knew existential loneliness, too, and, unlike Sinclair, he grew up on the edge of what felt like “the abyss.” London could also be in deep denial about his birth out of wedlock and his early years in the Oakland African-American community. “I’m afraid I always was an extremist,” he wrote in John Barleycorn, a memoir about his bouts with alcohol.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently described Bernie Sanders as a European-style social democrat and not a real socialist. He’d probably say much the same about Upton Sinclair. After all, Sinclair was closer to Christ than to Marx and more akin to the English romantic poets than to the Bolsheviks. Jack London studied Das Kapital, along with the history of the socialist movement in Europe in the nineteenth-century. He supported the Russian Revolution of 1905 and called upon his fellow Americans to employ revolutionary violence to overthrow capitalism. In The Iron Heel, his 1907 dystopian novel, he predicted the coming of fascism, and in The Scarlet Plague he chronicled the arrival of a pandemic that kills millions of people. At Beauty Ranch in rural Sonoma County, he raised pigs and horses, smoked hashish and got stoned, guzzled cocktails and entertained lavishly. Long before Kerouac went on the road, London went on the road. He died at the age of 40 in 1916, burned up and burned out. Sinclair assumed that London committed suicide and said so publicly which didn’t endear him to his widow and her circle.

In 1905, the two men met at Peck’s Restaurant on Fulton Street in New York, and founded The Intercollegiate Socialist Society (ISS), a forerunner of SDS, with London as president and Sinclair as vice president. What they had in common was socialism, whiteness, antipathy to Jews and African-Americans, and an inability to create complex women characters. When they were together, London smoked cigarettes, consumed alcohol and regaled Sinclair with tales of “incredible debauches.” Sinclair disapproved, though he liked Jack well enough to dedicate his 1908 novel, The Moneychangers, to him. Not surprisingly, Sinclair called himself a “mollycoddle” and London a “red-blood.”

Before they met face-to-face, Sinclair wrote “The Author” when asked to autograph copies of his books. London explained that he was supposed to write, with a flourish, “Upton Sinclair.” London looked the proverbial picture of health. Sinclair seemed sickly. But beneath his he-man physique, London was a sick man. Sinclair moved to California and willed himself to live an active life, playing tennis year for decades and adhering to a strict diet that often included only vegetables. He plugged his notions about eating and not eating in The Fasting Cure (1911).

When London died in 1916, The New York Times reported that his death was sudden and unexpected. The paper emphasized his creativity as a writer and listed twenty-nine of his 50 or so books. When Sinclair died in 1968 at the age of 90, The New York Times played up President Teddy Roosevelt’s role regulating the foods and drugs, though the obit also credited Sinclair and The Jungle for alerting the public to the horrors of the meat packing industry.

Read Upton Sinclair now? I often prefer to read about him than sit down and tackle his novels, though the novels are the most valuable source of information available about “U.S.” as a thinker, political animal and social reformer. With 100 books to his name, on a wide variety of subjects, Sinclair couldn’t help but rely on formats, formulas, cliché and stereotypes. The point wasn’t to create great works of art, but to engage with readers, and inspire them to send telegrams to the White House, picket in front of the offices of Standard Oil, vote Socialist and buy his books. During his lifetime, right-wingers accused him of exploiting his political activities to make money.

Sinclair was too influential a writer and too much of a no holds barred, rabble-rouser, to ignore today. Too big to forget, he was also too quirky an historical figure to omit from an overview of American public life in the twentieth century. For decades, he served as everyone’s favorite punching bag. Mocking him was easy. Sinclair Lewis refers to him in his novel, It Can’t Happen Here (1935). Upton also appears in T. C. Boyle’s novel The Road to Wellness (1993) and in Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed (2013). Chris Bachelder features him in U.S.!, a satirical novel in which Sinclair’s career is emblematic of the failures of the American left.

During his heyday, it was impossible not to comment on his dramatic comings and goings, from New York skyscrapers to Colorado mines and to sunny southern California. His friend, H. L. Mencken, the intrepid journalist, caustic cultural critic, opponent of organized religion, populism and representative democracy noted sarcastically that U.S. delighted him “constantly.” Mencken read Sinclair’s major works, which were translated from English into dozens of languages and sold in bookstores in Chicago, New York, Paris, Moscow and Los Angeles, where he lived for half-a-century.

After V. I. Lenin’s widow, Krupskaya, read Sinclair’s novel, Jimmie Higgins (1919), she wrote to Louise Bryant— John Reed’s lover and comrade— and asked, “Is he a Communist?,” and “Has he written other books?” It’s not difficult to understand why Sinclair’s novel piqued Krupskaya’s interest. Jimmie Higgins traces the life of an American Everyman who, like his creator, considers himself a pacifist. Against his will, he joins the U.S. army and goes to Europe, where he bravely battles German soldiers, and then refuses to fight the Reds. Sinclair himself supported U.S. entry into World War I on the side of the British and the French and insisted that it was essential to destroy German militarism, which he saw as the major threat to the cause of world peace. He felt the same way about German fascism.

Unlike the muckraking reporter, Lincoln Steffens, Sinclair never visited the Soviet Union, and, unlike Steffens, he never said anything as truly glowing as Steffens did about the fledgling experiment in communism. Steffens noted famously, “I have seen the future and it works.” Still, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik coup and Lenin’s rise to power, Sinclair gave his support to the Russian Revolution. Even after he learned about and was shocked by the conditions that Russian political prisoners faced, he insisted that the “most important task in the world is the preservation of Soviet Russia.” Before long he changed his tune, not surprisingly, since he wasn’t in the same league as Steffens or John Reed, the bohemian turned Red—the author of Insurgent Mexico and Ten Days that Shook the World—who died in the Soviet Union in 1920 at the age of 32 and was buried in the Kremlin. “To you, Upton, there is only one tiger in the forest,” Reed wrote. “To me there is a whole flock of tigers. These tigers are fighting and whichever side wins, I get eaten just the same.”

In her letter to Louise Bryant, Krupskaya wrote, “I would like to know about Sinclair.” American readers felt the same way. There was a lot to know, though Sinclair often guarded his privacy and didn’t like it when the mass media pounced on him. Thin-skinned and unsuitable, temperamentally, for the vicissitudes of public life, he found himself repeatedly in the public eye.

If Americans knew anything about U.S., they knew that he rubbed shoulders with Charlie Chaplin, that his books were turned into movies, that he ran for Congress as a Socialist in 1920 and again in 1922, and for Governor of California in 1934 as a Democrat. That year, the Socialist Party expelled him and his supporters as defectors and soon afterward it lost much of its influence in California. Sinclair called his 1934 campaign for governor, “End Poverty in California,” or EPIC. He received nearly 900,000 votes, but incurred the wrath of Hollywood studios, the ire of agribusiness, the scorn of the pulpit and the hatred of newspaper editors. The popular Pentecostal evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, aka “Sister Aimee” denounced him.

Sinclair lost by more than 200,000 votes to his bland Republican rival Frank Merriam. That he won the support of hundreds of thousands of California was due to his fame, as well as to the strength of the EPIC and the dedication of its individual members. His strength at the polls also reflected the fact that, as never before, Californians were unemployed, hungry, homeless and sometimes hopeless. EPIC gave them a cause and a future in which they could believe. Sinclair wanted to cut retail taxes and distribute land to hungry people so they could grow their own food and sustain themselves. He aimed to finance his ambitious program by selling bonds and taxing the wealthy. He also suggested that the state of California own and operate factories, though he didn’t spell out exactly how that would work. Sinclair appealed mostly to the poor and the unemployed, though he also insisted that “the owning classes will benefit under EPIC, not merely spiritually, but materially.” Class warfare wasn’t on his agenda and he didn’t urge California proletarians to arm themselves and head for the barricades, but he encouraged the formation of the “End Poverty League,” which boasted 100,000 members who sold on street corners copies of the paper EPIC News.

Centered in and around Los Angeles, EPIC gave birth to 800 individual clubs. It took the bee as its symbol, issued “Sinclair Dollars,” staged a play written by the candidate himself titled “Depression Island” and adopted an official campaign song, “End Poverty in All America” with the subtitle, “And Upton Sinclair will Show the Way.” Sinclair’s running mate, Sheridan Downey, a lawyer, a member of the Democratic Party and a loyal supporter of FDR. Together Sinclair and Downey were known as “Uppie and Downie.” EPIC could be too cute for its own good, but it attracted loyal supporters and famous people. Sinclair sought and failed to get FDR’s endorsement.

In Esquire magazine novelist, Theodore Dreiser, called EPIC, “the most impressive political movement that America has yet produced.” Historian Greg Mitchell describes Sinclair’s 1934 run for governor as “The Campaign of the Century” in his 1992, 665-page tome. Sinclair put himself at the heart of the campaign, which worked both for him and against. He certainly had name recognition as a novelist and a crusader for social justice. But he made the mistake of turning the election into a kind of referendum about himself as much as the cause to end poverty. In many ways, he was afflicted by a sense of grandiosity as well as naivete. Calling the campaign “EPIC” didn’t make it so. “The only real problem,” Sinclair noted in 1934, was “getting power.” John Reed could have told him that in 1917.

During the campaign, a cult of personality developed around Sinclair—he had an ego and encouraged a kind of hero-worship— and he was all too easily demonized, as was EPIC itself. Earl Warren, who became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court known for his liberal stance, called Sinclair’s 1934 campaign “a crusade of Americans and Californians against Radicalism and Socialism.” In Warren’s eyes, Sinclair was the quintessential radical socialist and a menace. Newspaper editors portrayed Sinclair as a Bolshevik, who, if elected would turn California into an outpost of the Soviet Union, with private property abolished and individual freedoms curtailed.

Still, Sinclair thought he would win. In 1934 he published a work of fiction titled I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty. After his defeat, he followed up that book with I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked in which he noted, “I am pretty good at fighting with my pen, but I dislike personal controversies.” Sinclair blamed his defeat on the “All the little incipient Hitlers—the Californianazis.” He never realized that, behind the scenes, two dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, Clem Whitaker and his wife, Leone Baxter—the founders of Campaigns, Inc.— pulled strings, doctored photos and told lies both big and small. Harvard Professor, Jill Lapore calls Campaigns Inc. “the first political-consulting firm in the history of the world.” She gives it all the attention it deserves in These Truth: A History of the United States. Apropos Upton Sinclair, Clem Whitaker said, “we had one objective: to keep him from becoming Governor.”

For some 1930s Progressives, EPIC was a sign of successful popular movements yet to come. They insisted that under Sinclair’s leadership, the power of the Republican Party was broken, that the Democrats established a beachhead in the state, and that right-wing California was gone forever. EPIC members were elected to the legislature, but not long afterward came the Hollywood 10, and then the rise of Nixon, Reagan and later, Schwarzenegger.

Sinclair noted astutely in a 1951 letter to Norman Thomas, who ran for president six times as a socialist, that “The American people will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label.” Sinclair added, “We simply have to recognize the fact that our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie.” He urged his liberal friends, allies and supporters not to launch a “frontal attack” on conservatives and their ilk, but rather to “out-flank them.” Years earlier, when he took on the meatpacking industry, the coal industry and John D. Rockefeller, confrontation was the name of his game. As he aged, and became increasingly conservative he evolved into an anti-communist who didn’t want to alienate the American middle class.

In 1982, Theodore White, who followed elections religiously from 1960 to 1980, noted that Whitaker and Baxter at Campaigns Inc. were dead, “but that their kind of politics—professional image-making— has not only persisted but thrived.” Professor Lauren Coodley ignores Campaigns, Inc. entirely in her 2004 anthology The Land of Orange Groves and Jails: Upton Sinclair’s California, and insists that Sinclair “has perhaps never been as relevant as he is right now.” Professor Chris Bachelder, the author of a stunning novel about Sinclair, titled U.S!, is far less sanguine than Coodley about Sinclair’s relevance.

In an email to me, from the University of Cincinnati where he teaches, Bachelder suggested that if “American fiction and poetry are becoming more engaged, more directly political and something of a movement, Sinclair might once again be regarded as an important figure.” When he wrote U.S.!, Bachelder explained, he “was interested in Sinclair’s “desperate zeal, crusading spirit, American pluck, notion of the artist’s responsibility and in a very broad sense his ardent anti-capitalism.” He added, “I guess I still find him admirable and absurd.” As we approach the 2020 elections, I’d like to think of Sinclair as a socialist who warned Americans about the “Big Lie.”

I’d also like to recommend the new edition of The Cry for Justice, which Sinclair edited and published in 1915, and that has just been reissued by Seven Stories with a new fiery introduction by Chris Hedges who points to a Golden Age of American radicalism before 1914, and who calls for a revival of “revolutionary religious fever.” Not surprisingly, Hedges does not praise Sinclair. Indeed, he points out that the author of The Jungle “was tone deaf to white supremacy and institutional racism,” and that he ignored the writings of Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Harriet Tubman. But he does like the work of many of the contributors, including Peter Kropotkin and Alexander Berkman who tried and failed to assassinate millionaire Henry Frick, went to prison and wrote his memoirs.

“The ideas celebrated in this book were driven from the mainstream,” Hedges says of The Cry for Justice. He adds, “We never recovered.”

The Cry for Justice is an odd anthology. It includes Rudyard Kipling and John D. Rockefeller as well as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Abigail Adams, who told her husband in 1774 that she and her sisters “are determined to foment a rebellion.”  The Cry for Justice has more selections from Sinclair’s work than from another other writer, such as Karl Marx and William Blake. It has a substantial section on Jesus and another on Children but no section titled sex,  race or ethnicity. Despite its flaws, Hedges would like us to read the anthology and recover the lost heritage of real radicalism. To him, I would say that over the last one hundred years, we have lost ground and gained ground and that men and women and children here and all around the world still cry out for justice loudly and clearly. Perhaps Upton Sinclair hears their voices.

Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.

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