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Upton Sinclair was a writer whose main concerns were politics and economics, and whose ideas about literature were inseparable from his dreams of social justice. Since the essential purpose of literature, for Sinclair, was the betterment of human conditions, he was a “muckraker,” a propagandist, an interpreter of socialism and a critic of capitalism, a novelist more concerned with content than form, a journalistic chronicler of his times rather than an enduring artist. Since World War II, his literary reputation has declined, yet The Jungle (1906) is one of the best known and most historically significant of American novels, and Sinclair himself remains an important figure in American political and cultural history.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Becoming a “Real” Writer
Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 20, 1878, into an aristocratic, but impoverished, Southern family whose financial difficulties dated back to the Civil War era. His father, a traveling salesman who turned to alcohol to cope with the unaccustomed pressures of having to work for a living, rarely made enough money to provide Upton and his mother Priscilla with some measure of comfort. This life of genteel hardship contrasted sharply with that of Priscilla Sinclair’s wealthy Baltimore relatives; it was a difference that disturbed young Sinclair, who could not understand why some people were rich and others poor. Many years later, at the age of eighty-five, he remarked at a gathering held in his honor that he still did not understand.
A sickly but precocious child, Sinclair entered New York’s City College at the age of fourteen. Determined to become financially independent from his unreliable father, he immediately began submitting jokes, riddles, poems, and short stories to popular magazines; by the time he graduated, Sinclair was selling full-length adventure novels (which appeared under various pseudonyms) to Street Smith, one of the day’s foremost publishers of pulp fiction. During this period, the teenager learned to write quickly, prolifically, and with a minimum of effort, turning out an average of six to eight thousand words per day, seven days per week.
After receiving his degree, Sinclair went on to graduate school at Columbia University, where he was attracted to the romantic poets and their belief in the power of literature to make an appreciable difference in the world. To this end, he decided to give up hack writing and concentrate on “real” writing instead. The next few years were filled with nothing but misery for Sinclair, his wife Meta (whom he married in 1900), and their infant son David as they watched his first three novels fade into oblivion soon after being published. His next novel, however, Manassas (1904), proved to be the turning point in his career. With its theme of a rich young Southerner who rejects plantation life to join the abolitionist movement, Manassas demonstrated the author’s growing interest in radical politics. The book eventually brought him to the attention of the American Socialists, a movement that had origins in the revolutionary activity in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century as well as the women’s rights, abolition, and utopian movements at the same period in America.
Into The Jungle
Once in contact with members of the socialist movement, Sinclair began studying philosophy and was soon invited to contribute articles to major socialist publications. in late 1904 Sinclair was encouraged to write about the ”wage slaves” of industry in the same way he had written about the ”chattel slaves” on the Southern plantations in Manassas. Sinclair took as his starting point an article he had recently worked on dealing with an unsuccessful strike in the Chicago meat-packing industry. Having received an advance for his novel-to-be, Sinclair moved his family to a farm in New Jersey and set out for Chicago in November 1904, promising to ”shake the popular heart and blow the roof off of the industrial tea-kettle.” It was, notes William A. Bloodworth in his study Upton Sinclair, a trip that ”made a traumatic, lifelong impression on him.” Explains the critic,
What World War I meant to Ernest Hemingway, what the experiences of poverty and crime meant to Jack London, the combination of visible oppression and underlying corruption in Chicago in 1904 meant to Upton Sinclair. This kind of evidence, this kind of commitment to social justice became the primal experience of his fiction. For at least the next four decades, . . . Sinclair would continually retell the story of what happened to him in Chicago.
Sinclair’s investigative work for his novel, The Jungle, took seven weeks, during which time he talked with workers and visited meat-packing plants, both on an official basis and undercover. ”I sat at night in the homes of the workers, foreign-born and native, and they told me their stories, one after one, and I made notes of everything,” he recalled. Sinclair fashioned the resulting story around the experiences ofa fictional Lithuanian immigrant who arrives in Chicago fully expecting a piece of the American dream; instead, he is confronted with the reality of poverty, back-breaking labor, and death. As Bloodworth writes, he is ”brutalized by working conditions in the Chicago packing houses and exploited by corrupt politics.” To dramatize his story of pain and oppression, Sinclair included some unpleasant passages on the meat-packing process itself, focusing on the diseased and chemically tainted condition of the products manufacturers were offering to the American public.
Because Sinclair had a political purpose in writing his novel, he was left with the problem of ending The Jungle on a note of socialist hope. His hero, too beaten down to lead the revolution, instead stumbles into a political meeting and undergoes what most critics call a ”religious conversion” to socialism. Sinclair completed The Jungle in late 1905; balking at the subject matter, his publisher rejected it. It took four more tries—and the house of Doubleday’s fact-checking trip to Chicago—to get the novel published.
Though The Jungle was written as a socialist novel, it was promoted as an expose of the food industry, which was an issue that easily stirred up outcry at the turn of the century. The Jungle shocked and infuriated Americans; it was, in fact, this widespread revulsion that made the book a best seller and its author a world-famous writer. But never again did Sinclair write a novel with quite the impact of The Jungle.
The Next Acts
Between 1906 and 1914, Sinclair’s career took several directions. He organized a communal living experiment in New Jersey only to see the building burn down in March 1907. Continuing to write novels about socialism, and seeking answers to personal problems, especially the breakup of his marriage, Sinclair made several attempts at utopian communal living. He also wrote about diet and health; about the corrupt worlds of the wealthy and of high finance; about feminism and the modern marriage; and about sexually transmitted disease.
Around 1914 Sinclair found his footing again, beginning a successful second marriage (to Mary Craig Kimbrough) and relocating to southern California. There he wrote King Coal (1917), a Jungleesque look at the lives of miners in Colorado. It was less successful than the earlier venture, however, as it was released at the dawn of World War I when Americans were far more interested in submarines than they were in coal or labor.
It was not until the end of the 1920s that Sinclair had another major novelistic success, and that was with a pair of novels again dealing with current events, Oil! (1927) and Boston (1928). Oil! is a long, expansive novel based loosely on the oil scandals of the Harding administration (1921-23) and revolves around the son of a prosperous oilman who finds himself torn between loyalty to his father and the radical politics he has come to believe in. Boston is a fictional account of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, in which two Italian American anarchists were arrested, tried, and then executed for murder in 1927; it is widely believed that the men’s political beliefs—including confidence in violence against the government as a solution—were used to convict them unfairly. The novel represents Sinclair’s best effort at using his medium as a means to publicize and interpret contemporary events.
Sinclair did not just write about politics in novel form, but actually attempted to influence them. In 1934 he ran, unsuccessfully, for governor of California on an antipoverty platform; his experience is reflected in his novel Co-Op (1936). By the end of the 1930s, however, with the world on the brink of yet another World War, Sinclair turned his attentions to writing historical novels, detailing the major, world-changing events in history from 1913 to 1950 as told through the experiences of one character, Lanny Budd. His writing career wound down in the 1950s. When Sinclair died in 1968 most of the obituaries were generous in their praise. Some of them noted one of the main ironies of his career: that such an essentially gentle person could have written some of the most socially combative works in American fiction.
Works in Literary Context
While the novels of Sinclair—in particular The Jungle—have become classic examples of ”muckraking,” the term covers much more than just the politically motivated novel. It primarily refers to a type of investigative journalism that aims to expose large-scale, widespread fraud and corruption by governments and institutions, as well as the appalling social conditions of workers and slum-dwellers. Muckraking was a popular journalistic practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but its appeal—both for writers and readers—has persisted, with many writers willing to hold the powerful accountable even if nobody else will. Often, muckraking succeeds in bringing about change: Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1962) led to major safety regulations in the auto industry. At other times, muckraking makes for a powerfully good read, when such literary talents as Jessica Mitford feel called to investigate: Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963), an expose of the funeral industry, remains a classic of literary journalism.
Works in Critical Context
The Jungle Writing about the nature of The Jungle’s phenomenal success, Alfred Kazin observes, in his book On Native Grounds,
The Jungle attracted attention because it was obviously the most authentic and most powerful of the muckraking novels. The romantic indignation of the book gave it its fierce honesty, but the facts in it gave Sinclair his reputation, for he had suddenly given an unprecedented social importance to muckraking. … No one could doubt it, the evidence was overwhelming: here in The Jungle was the great news story of a decade written out in letters of fire.
But while few critics discount The Jungle’s importance, many maintain that the novel isn’t great literature. Its plot and characterization have come under particularly heavy fire, with Bookman s Edward Clark Marsh, for instance, arguing that ”we do not need to be told that thievery, and prostitution, and political jobbery, and economic slavery exist in Chicago. So long as these truths are before us only as abstractions they are meaningless. As for its characters, Marsh found them underformed, while Walter Rideout, writing in The Radical Novel in the United States, saw the protagonist as a composite of many of the people Sinclair would have met in Chicago. While this is still a kind of flawed characterization, Rideout writes that the characters’ ”mere capacities for infinite suffering … finally do come to stand for the masses themselves.” Many reviewers were also disappointed with the book’s ending, especially the abrupt switch from fiction to political rhetoric that occurs when the protagonist is ”converted” to socialism. Writing in The Strenuous Age in American Literature, Grant C. Knight observes that the final section ”is uplifting but it is also artificial, an arbitrary rechannelling of the narrative flow, a piece of rhetoric instead of a logical continuation of story.”
- Bloodworth, William A., Jr. Upton Sinclair. Boston: Twayne, 1977.
- Dell, Floyd. Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest. New York: Doran, 1927.
- Karsner, David. Sixteen Authors to One: Intimate Sketches of Leading American Story Tellers. New York: Copeland, 1928.
- Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. New York: Harcourt, 1942.
- Knight, Grant C. The Strenuous Age in American Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.
- Mookerjee, Rabindra Nath. Art for Social Justice: The Major Novels of Upton Sinclair. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1988.
- Rideout, Walter. The Radical Novel in the United States 1900-1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.
- Scott, Ivan. Upton Sinclair: The Forgotten Socialist. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996.
- Sinclair, Upton. The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.
- Marsh, Edward Clark. Review of The Jungle. Bookman (April 1906).
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