Upton Sinclair’s Losses and Triumphs

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A hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair, the muckraker and socialist, brought out “The Jungle,” a sensationally grim exposé of the noisome squalors and dangers of the meatpacking industry. Dedicated to “the workingmen of America,” the book became an overnight best-seller. At the White House, Theodore Roosevelt, who had watched soldiers die from eating rotten meat during the Spanish-American War, wrote a three-page appreciation and critique of the novel, and sent it to Sinclair with an invitation to visit him. (Those were the days.) “The Jungle” played a major role in pushing forward the Pure Food and Drug Act, which Roosevelt had long favored, and which was passed in June of 1906, marking a major expansion of federal regulatory power. The book’s influence hit the dinner table as well: after a couple of years, meat consumption declined, and it was widely believed that Sinclair’s book was the cause. By common consent among literary historians, only one American novel, before or since—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”—has had so powerful an influence on practical affairs.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair was twenty-seven years old; he continued publishing for more than sixty years, a clattering typewriter that would not stop. No two scholars seem to agree on exactly how many books he wrote, but the number is above ninety, and his output, in addition to social-protest and historical novels, includes plays, screenplays, tracts, journalistic exposés, didactic dialogues, instructional manuals, and autobiographies. Sinclair spoke at rallies, joined strikes and protests, and repeatedly ran for political office; he sponsored Sergei Eisenstein’s epic unfinished documentary about Mexican Indians, “Que Viva México.” Ezra Pound, who knew a thing or two about obsession, said that Sinclair was not a maniac but a “polymaniac.” During many periods of his life, Sinclair’s activities were widely discussed in the press, and in the eyes of some prominent contemporaries, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Bernard Shaw, he was an invaluable guide to twentieth-century politics. To many people, however, he now seems remote and musty—the author of flaking volumes encountered in country book barns. Apart from “The Jungle,” Sinclair’s works have been largely forgotten, or perhaps simply mislaid, his name confused with that of Sinclair Lewis, the author of “Main Street,” “Babbitt,” and “Dodsworth.”

Can anything in Sinclair’s life and work still make a claim on us? At the moment, he’s getting some of his old notice. Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” is adapting Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” into a movie starring Daniel Day Lewis and titled “There Will Be Blood” (with luck, the title will be changed again). The novelist Chris Bachelder recently brought out a fantasia, “U.S.!,” in which Sinclair, resurrected by diehard leftists, writes one terrible novel after another and is repeatedly slain by reactionaries—a bizarrely masochistic scheme that nevertheless catches Sinclair’s jack-in-the-box energy. Reading two new biographies of Sinclair—one intimate and intellectually astute, “Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair,” by Anthony Arthur, and one political and anecdotal, “Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century,” by Kevin Mattson —leaves one bewildered by the contradictory nature of his enthusiasms, and by the mixture of prescience and credulity in his temperament. What fuses these qualities, one finally realizes, is his dedication to an ethical notion of being an American. He was one of those professional citizens—like William Jennings Bryan or H. L. Mencken or I. F. Stone—who took responsibility for the soul of the country but never (except for Bryan, briefly) held power. Through the years of America’s century-long triumph, Sinclair was always mocking or scolding or keening for some unachievable national paradise. If he no longer seems original, it may be because he anticipated both our reforming high-mindedness and so many of our follies.

Sinclair was born in Baltimore in 1878, the son of a genteel and puritanical Southern woman and an alcoholic liquor salesman descended from a naval family. The combination of his mother’s distaste for indulgence and his father’s habit of lingering in bars—the young Upton was frequently dispatched to bring him home—appears to have left him with lifelong habits of industry and a sense of disgust for any behavior that suggested weakness. Moving to New York in 1888, the Sinclairs boarded at a residence hotel filled with other down-on-their-luck Southern families. Sinclair didn’t waste much time at home; he entered City College at the age of thirteen and then transferred, as an eighteen-year-old graduate student, to Columbia, where he was generally bored in the classroom and spent his time writing stories and jokes for the pulp magazines published downtown. By the time he was nineteen, he was composing pseudonymous hack novels about the debonair adventures of West Point and Annapolis cadets. With the help of two stenographers, he churned out eight thousand words a day.

Although he was eager for fame his entire life, Sinclair also gave way to a periodic desire to live in a log cabin or, even better, a tent, and at the age of twenty-one, announcing to his friends that he was going to devote himself to art, he moved to a cabin near Lake Massawippi, in Quebec. There he subsisted on berries and nuts while nurturing prolonged ecstasies fuelled by nature walks and by literature, especially the poetry of Shelley. After foraging by himself for a while, he married the sensual and (by all accounts) neurotic beauty Meta Fuller, another Southerner from a fallen family. He took her to another cabin in the woods, near Princeton, New Jersey, lectured her on philosophy and poetry, but made love to her only now and again. Sinclair seems to have felt a considerable antipathy toward sexual love. He warned Meta and himself against indulgence, and, in a fictional portrait of his marriage, “Love’s Pilgrimage,” published in 1911, he describes sex as a marriage duty in which “the body and soul . . . were wrung and squeezed dry like a sponge.”

Sinclair’s early novels were insufferably high-minded and were generally ignored. He needed to create interest in himself somehow. In 1902, he secretly placed an obituary in the Times announcing the suicide by drowning of a twenty-two-year-old “poet and man of genius” named Arthur Stirling. The following year, a book purporting to be Stirling’s journal appeared in print. The journal lamented the obscurity of the artist in a materialist society: “To have a heart as hot as the wild bird’s, and wings as eager—and to be chained here in this seething hell of selfishness, this orgy of folly,” and so forth. Caught out by a reporter, Sinclair and his publisher revealed the hoax, and he got some sales and the desired public notice, but his notion of art was hopelessly maudlin. Reading all that Shelley, it turned out, was not good for his style.

Other novels soon followed the dead-poet caper, but Sinclair clearly required a cause beyond “art.” The period of the eighteen-nineties, just before Sinclair’s fumbling rise to authorship, was marked by an expansion of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines and by the wresting of American literary culture from the grip of what Ann Douglas has called “feminization”—the alliance between ministers and genteel women writing sentimental fiction. Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, seizing on the new reading public, produced exposés of corporate malfeasance and urban corruption. Tarbell’s “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” published in 1904, aided Roosevelt in his attempt to break the power of John D. Rockefeller. Such remarkable changes in the literary marketplace and in literary taste, and the influence of European novelists like Émile Zola, made “naturalism” a major literary form. Naturalist fiction in the hands of its American masters—Jack London, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser—was left-wing fiction, and, whatever its intellectual failings, it rescued Sinclair from his youthful insipidities.

In February of 1904, Sinclair finished “Manassas,” a long novel about slavery and the Civil War, and, as he worked on the galleys, he read Marx and Veblen. Eugene V. Debs had formed the Socialist Party of America in 1901, and, in 1904, Sinclair joined up. In those early years of the century, socialism was a kind of militant humanism; Sinclair, like many socialists of the period, believed that the scramble for profits degraded relations between people. He approached socialism “as a moralist, not as a political theorist,” Anthony Arthur writes. “Both his strengths and his weaknesses derived from his simplistic belief that all injustice stemmed from greed, whether for money or power.” After “Manassas” was published, in the summer of 1904, the editor of a popular socialist magazine, The Appeal to Reason, challenged Sinclair to write a novel about “wage slavery.”

At the time, livestock was among the largest industries in the country. In Chicago, companies like Armour and Swift owned acres of yards, pens, slaughterhouses, and packing plants. The filthy conditions in such places were an open secret, but the big companies, working together (the “Beef Trust”), bribed government inspectors, and exercised enough control over the local newspapers to avoid serious censure. The unions were weak and defenseless; the companies were able to replace rebellious workers from a constantly renewed pool of Central and Eastern European immigrants. In the pages of The Appeal to Reason, Sinclair had implored Chicago’s meat workers, after an unsuccessful strike, to continue fighting, but he did it from a distance. Now he accepted the magazine’s challenge and went to Chicago. He was twenty-six, a slender, pale young man with soft lips and liquid eyes. Zealous and excitable, he suffered from nervous tension, indigestion, and headaches. Away from his demanding and unhappy wife, however (she stayed behind in the cabin), he was content. He walked all over Chicago’s more dismal neighborhoods, asking questions of workers, union organizers, settlement-house officials. And for days he wandered through the vast Armour facilities in shabby clothes, lunch bucket in hand. There was very little security at the plant. No one challenged this oddly inquiring worker.

Sinclair built his narrative around a family of immigrant Lithuanians who settle in the stockyard area known as Packingtown. They have few illusions about wealth; they expect little more than employment and freedom from tsarist corruption. The broadbacked hero, Jurgis Rudkus, is a virtuous prole whose refrain, no matter what happens to him, is “I will work harder.” At the stockyards, in a reverse anticipation of Henry Ford’s production line, the cows are stunned with a sledgehammer, then hung up by one leg, beheaded, skinned, and so on—deconstructed as they move past one worker after another. Jurgis’s job is to sweep the gutted slops into a hole in the floor, and at first he enjoys the hard, bloody labor. Within a few months, however, he is sore and disillusioned. The men are forced to perform at punishing speed; they are played off against one another by management and dismissed for any kind of rebellion or injury. And frozen, and then soaked again, and so on, until by night-time a man would be walking on great lumps the size of the feet of an elephant.

The force of “The Jungle” can be suggested only by quoting it at length. Sinclair’s prose is fluent and forward-moving, but he rarely writes an interesting phrase or discovers new weight or color in a word. He builds his effects through precise reporting and the remorseless piling up of detail; he was a master of the routines of physical labor and the gear-by-gear minutiae of industrial processes.

It is the archetypal scene of industrial horror, an image that haunted the nation. If only Sinclair had possessed fiction-writing abilities equal to his ability to evoke squalor! One lurid catastrophe after another engulfs Jurgis Rudkus and his relatives—so many disasters that one suspects Sinclair outfitted the family with exactly those vulnerabilities which could be most grievously exploited by a brutal society. Jurgis is injured, loses his job, and takes to drink; his pretty young wife, who also works in the meatpacking district, is bullied by her foreman into becoming his mistress; their little boy drowns in the Packingtown muck. Jurgis breaks down, and Sinclair sends him reeling through the city, where he is brushed by “the hurrying throngs upon the streets, who were deaf to his entreaties, oblivious of his very existence—and savage and contemptuous when he forced himself upon them.”

Available in many editions, “The Jungle” is still widely taught in schools and colleges. It has remained a moral text if not quite a literary one. You have only to read the first few chapters of “Germinal,” Zola’s 1885 novel about French coal miners, to know what it feels like to be in the hands of a sensually and morally alive writer who establishes a tight pattern of significance rather than just laying on pages of atmosphere and calamity. Any kind of inwardness was beyond Sinclair: his characters, suffering without any gain in consciousness, remain mere names attached to depressing social conditions. Jurgis falls in with criminals and corrupt politicians, and then, suddenly, at a public meeting, he’s electrified by a fervent voice: “They own not merely the labor of society, they have bought the governments; and everywhere they use their raped and stolen power to intrench themselves in their privileges.” The book ends with Jurgis’s rapid conversion to socialism and with an outpouring of blood-raising speeches inspired by the words of Eugene Debs. The last line of the novel is “chicago will be ours!”

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But Chicago didn’t become “ours,” which was something that Sinclair had trouble understanding. The shock created by “The Jungle” was extraordinary, but it didn’t produce what Sinclair had hoped for—outrage over the exploitation of workers, and the first steps toward the defeat of capitalism. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he later said, in perhaps his sole public witticism. Roosevelt brushed off the call for socialist revolution, and though he acted vigorously on contaminated food, his measures were neither as vigorous nor as comprehensive as Sinclair wanted. The writer, hanging around Washington, pestered the President with cables and protests, until Roosevelt, losing patience, wrote to Frank Doubleday, Sinclair’s publisher, “Tell Sinclair to go home and let me run the country for a while.”

In the spring of 1906, at the time of the signing of the Pure Food and Drug Act, Sinclair was trying to build socialism on a small scale. His idea was that a select group of intellectuals and artists would band together and hire people to cook and clean for them and look after their children, leaving them free to work and exchange ideas. A refuge from commercial society, the enterprise was a descendant of the nineteenth-century colony Brook Farm, but without the emphasis on physical labor and schooling or the philosophical strength of Transcendentalism to hold it together. In November, 1906, Sinclair and his group jointly purchased a former boys’ academy in Englewood, New Jersey, named Helicon Hall, after the mountain in Greek mythology whose rushing springs inspired the Muses. By the following March, eighty men and women (including writers, feminists, freelance philosophers) were living there, discussing Nietzsche and eating stunningly healthy dinners of beans, potatoes, turnips, prunes, and salt-free crackers known as “educators.” College students swabbed the floors and tended the furnace (among them, dropping in for a laugh, was Sinclair Lewis, then a twenty-one-year-old Yale undergraduate). The New York papers, fascinated by the experiment, spoke of an atmosphere of “free love,” which was probably a journalistic fantasy—Sinclair was hardly a bohemian. Helicon Hall became famous overnight and was visited by William James, Emma Goldman, and John Dewey, who joined the board of directors. In March of 1907, however, the place mysteriously went up in flames, and Sinclair lost the funds he had sunk into it, including a good chunk of his proceeds from “The Jungle.”

In the Helicon Hall affair, as on other occasions, Sinclair was plagued by the kind of comic misfortune that tends to befall those bent on improving themselves and others. He was skeptical of the morals of industrialists and newspaper publishers but receptive to the delusions of quacks. He had a weakness for nostrums and half-baked schemes (including his own). H. L. Mencken, with whom he had a joshing epistolary relationship for years, said of him, “He must suffer vicariously for the carnal ease of the rest of us. He must die daily that we may live in peace, corrupt and contented.” This suggests a savior unable to save anyone, but failure never stopped Sinclair from preaching. In the nineteen-twenties, when other American writers were excited by Freud, Joyce, and Picasso, or by jazz, flappers, and booze, Sinclair was devoted to popular fads like dieting and homeopathy. At various times in his life, he gave himself over to programs of fasting, prolonged chewing, colonic cleansing, and other such methods of ideologically approved digestion. He practiced a kind of socialism of the body, its constituent parts rehabilitated along progressive lines—tennis for the heart and lungs, nuts and berries for the colon.

By the twenties, he had settled in with a new wife, Mary Craig Kimbrough. Meta, after years of being tormented by her abstemious husband, had taken a number of handsome young men, including Sinclair’s best friend, as lovers, and Sinclair, charging Meta with “depravity,” had sued her for divorce, in 1911. Kimbrough, whom he always called “Craig,” was closer to him in temperament. She believed in his abilities and wanted to protect him—and she possessed a useful talent for shrewd real-estate deals. In 1916, they moved to Southern California, a land with ripening property values, a rapidly expanding economy, and a fondness for spiritualist cults. The place, then in one of its Ouija-board phases, seems to have hit the two of them hard. In Pasadena (and later Beverly Hills), they set up séances and dallied with mediums, one of whom, channelling the dead Jack London, obligingly remarked that Sinclair would be one of the few American writers still remembered in fifty years’ time. In 1911, Sinclair had written a book called “The Fasting Cure,” which recommended fasting as “an automatic protection against disease.” In 1930, he wrote a book promoting telepathy and psychokinesis as physical skills democratically available to everyone.

He was a humorless and sententious man, obtuse in many ways, but so resourceful that he drew all sorts of people to him. He can perhaps best be understood as a product of that period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which rapid industrialization and America’s abrupt rise to world prominence created a variety of great two-dimensional characters: Henry Ford, with his anti-Semitism; John D. Rockefeller, with his sour contempt for humanity; D. W. Griffith, with his penchant for Victorian sentimentality and racist fantasy. There was a bit of the crank in all of them, though one has to admit that crankiness, in that unfettered time, may have been part of the strength that allowed them to function so effectively. From our point of view, they understood the secrets of mechanical and industrial dominance—they were literally empowered, and in a rush—but some element of sensibility or just plain sense got lost in their swift ascension.

In temperament, the innocently arrogant Sinclair was of their number. The great difference, of course, is that they ran things, and he did not. His power was solely the power of protest. He had been thoroughly shaken by the coal miners’ strike in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914, during which the governor, at the behest of a local company owned by the Rockefellers, called out the state militia and private “detectives,” who put down the strike by killing twenty miners and members of their families. He picketed the Standard Oil headquarters, in New York (John D. Rockefeller’s son John D., Jr., as everyone called him, controlled the Colorado mining company), and left a furious note threatening “indictment.” He was arrested, spent three days in the Tombs, and then, at a crowded meeting of the Socialist Club, gave a speech entitled “Shall We Murder Rockefeller?” His answer was no.

Anthony Arthur characterizes Sinclair’s conduct in the Ludlow affair as a strange pattern of incendiary speeches followed by denunciations of violence. But Sinclair was not inconsistent about violence; he detested it, and thought it would destroy American socialism. Looking back on the disasters that political intellectuals of the left and the right fell into in the twentieth century, we may regard his virtue as both a disappointment (he lacked the imagination to become a dangerous man) and a relief; in any case, he was immune to authoritarian appeals of any kind. An instinctive American democrat, he believed in the mimeograph machine, the public meeting, and the vote. Since he was sure that the capitalists controlled what was said in the newspapers, taught in the universities, and preached by organized religion (he had written a book on each institution, proving the case to his own satisfaction), it was necessarily his job, when something was wrong, to read up on the subject, visit the scene of the crime, and bring the offense to public notice. He spent three years researching and writing two long novels about the Ludlow strike.

During the strike, Sinclair described John D., Jr., as “an inoffensive and possibly likable person” who was nevertheless the representative of “predatory force.” This double focus suggests an abandonment of the class-warfare melodrama that was so strong in “The Jungle.” By 1927, when Sinclair came to write “Oil!”—probably his second-best book and certainly his most readable—he was ready to look at a capitalist sympathetically, though without relinquishing his judgment. In the novel, the affable California entrepreneur J. Arnold Ross buys oil-rich properties at bargain rates from unsuspecting owners and routinely corrupts local officials. Eager to expand, Ross wanders haplessly—and, in Sinclair’s terms, inevitably—into bribing national officials to gain oil leases from the Navy (the incident is clearly meant to evoke the Teapot Dome Scandal). In other ways, however, Ross is a good fellow, and, as he and his teen-age son, Bunny, rampage around California together, Sinclair conveys, in extraordinary detail, the exhilaration of creating a successful business. His old talent for describing industrial work returned—no novelist has ever written better (or more) about oil derricks. But “Oil!” is a leisurely, low-intensity affair. When Sinclair isn’t describing the oil business, or the struggle between owners and workers, he turns chatty, cheerful, and instructive, bringing us the news about Hollywood parties, religious revivalism, and much else in the California boom. He had become an assured middlebrow entertainer.

“Oil!” ends in 1924, with Sinclair cutting back and forth between the death of a young Communist, who has been assaulted by goons, and the news, on the radio, of Calvin Coolidge’s electoral victory. Sinclair treats the Harding and Coolidge Presidencies as put-up jobs engineered by a cabal of big-money interests. He was obsessed with the “purchase of government,” as he called it, and, in California, he had run for office himself—for Congress in 1920, the U.S. Senate in 1922, and the governorship in 1926 and 1930—on the American Socialist Party ticket. It was his hope to conduct an honest campaign while acquainting the electorate with the basics of socialism, but “Uppie,” as the press called him, never won more than forty-five thousand votes.

By 1933, the boom had been killed by the Depression; some half a million people were out of work in the state. Sinclair was encouraged by the first hundred days of the New Deal, but he wanted to push Franklin D. Roosevelt further to the left. He ran for governor again, this time on the Democratic ticket, capturing the Party’s nomination with an astonishingly peppy grassroots campaign. The candidacy was built around the rubric epic—End Poverty in California.

In the end, everyone would join in a giant co-operative. It was the socialist moment in American electoral politics. Debs had won more than nine hundred thousand votes in 1920, but that was in a Presidential election. This was an election that, along with some mayoralty races, a socialist might actually win.

Speaking without notes in a reedy but clear voice, Sinclair explained to farmers and workers notions that, during the Depression, seemed far more pressing than they might have ten years earlier. His concern for social justice was obviously on the level—no one imagined that he was merely out for himself—and the campaign attracted an enormous number of young volunteers, two of whom, Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, later held congressional seats, only to run into Richard Nixon’s smears in the late forties. But the candidacy, however popular, was doomed. The industrialists, bankers, oilmen, churches, and other wealthy groups he had attacked for decades were appalled, and they united against him, hiring a phalanx of advertising and public-relations men. He lacked the support of a single daily newspaper in California (with the Los Angeles Times especially virulent in its opposition), which wasn’t surprising, since he thought that newspapers and radio stations should be run on a nonprofit basis. In Hollywood, James Cagney and Charlie Chaplin supported him, but the studio bosses were outraged by his candidacy. At M-G-M, Irving Thalberg, who loathed Sinclair (the studio had unsuccessfully adapted “The Wet Parade,” a novel of Sinclair’s advocating Prohibition, in 1932), went to work. He concocted phony newsreels and had them distributed to theatres all over the state. In one, bands of scruffy “hoboes” were shown getting off a train in California, eager to enjoy the benefits of a possible Sinclair victory. In another, a dolorous-looking bearded immigrant said that since Sinclair’s system “vorked vell in Russia, vy can’t it vork here?” The most serious blow came from Franklin Roosevelt, who, though he had seemed congenial at first, wanted to protect New Deal legislation from association with radicals, and pulled away from an endorsement. Yet, despite the concerted opposition, Sinclair received eight hundred and eighty thousand votes—about two hundred and sixty thousand fewer than the nondescript Republican candidate, Frank Merriam, but by far the most ever amassed in a statewide election by a candidate with a radical program. The campaign quickly passed into legend and has remained there. Historians now regard the opposition to Sinclair as the first modern media campaign—the methods came to be used to destroy a candidate vulnerable in any way at all.

After his defeat, Sinclair, unable to turn off the motor, immediately wrote two books about the campaign, but, through the rest of the thirties, he stayed out of politics and wrote fiction, culminating in “World’s End,” a best-seller published in 1940 that became the first installment of an eleven-volume, two-million-word popular epic. Sinclair fed his hero, Lanny Budd, a European-born American spy, diplomat, and lover, into the Versailles Treaty negotiations, the Weimar Republic, the rise of Fascism, and just about everything else that happened in Europe and America. The Budd series was disdained by American literary intellectuals, but it prospered as an easy course in modern history for young people. By the forties, Sinclair the fiction writer had become the precursor not of a serious left-wing novelist like E. L. Doctorow but of James Michener, Herman Wouk, Howard Fast, and other well-paid authors who did their homework and spun out historical tales at satisfyingly interminable length. Devoted to his wife, who was often ill, Sinclair lived in California as a semi-recluse through the forties and fifties. When John F. Kennedy was elected President, groups of idealistic students rediscovered Sinclair, and he became, during Kennedy’s term and Lyndon Johnson’s, an active campus speaker—the old troublemaker, born thirteen years after the end of the Civil War, entertaining students in their “tight-fitting blue denim pants and long hair.” He died in November, 1968, at the age of ninety. All that faddish dieting had kept him alive into the Age of Aquarius.

Most of Sinclair’s fiction no doubt deserves to molder in the book barn. But the influence of “The Jungle” may still be seen in investigative journalism and in such books as Susan Sheehan’s “A Welfare Mother” and Jonathan Kozol’s “Rachel and Her Children,” which use the resources of fiction to chronicle the lives of people who have dropped to the bottom of American society. Sinclair’s ideas didn’t go away, either. The union hall may be nearly empty, but his desire for an alternative world within American capitalism has borne fruit in such nonprofit organizations as food co-operatives, day-care centers, and public radio and television. His personal habits of non-stop opinionizing and self-serving rant find their natural heir in the blog. His austere citizenly dedication inspired the young Ralph Nader, who has acknowledged the debt. His obsession with health and physical culture prefigured our own. He was one of the great American squares, exasperating and tone-deaf his entire life. But an ethical man tugs at us from the grave more persistently than merely successful men, who have gone to a quieter form of rest.

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