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.

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Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.

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