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Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) was a prolific American novelist and a political activist. Apart from his bestselling novels, which tend to paint the realities of the United States at the turn of the century, he is remembered today for championing socialist causes that are naturally unpopular in America and for succeeding in having considerable effects on American politics and legislation. Sinclair’s socialist ideals and dreams found their way to his fiction as he believed that no art can be practiced for art’s sake as long as humanity still suffers from persistent dangers and evils. Such orientations have often subjected Sinclair to harsh criticism and even to demonization from numerous critics and politicians of his time, the most distinguished among which was probably President Theodore Roosevelt. By and large, while Sinclair eventually became an established novelist with more than one novel reaching the status of classic, he remained unsuccessful as a politician. 

Upton Sinclair was born in 1878 in Baltimore, Maryland, to a modest family. His father, who suffered from poor health, poverty and alcoholism, worked as a salesman, selling liquors, hats and clothes. Paradoxically, Upton also had very wealthy maternal grandparents with whom he often stayed. The difference between the financial statuses of both families is believed to have had a great impact on the young child who seemed to develop a socialist sensitivity at a very early age.  In fact, Upton was rather a precocious child. At the age of five, he learnt how to read and write and soon became fond of classics such as the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton. Sinclair was fourteen years old when the family moved to New York City, which enabled him to join the New York City College. By that time, the young boy was publishing stories, jokes and articles in magazines to help finance his studies. Biographers mention that he was already producing thousands of words on a daily basis since his college years. 

Once graduating from NYC College, Sinclair joined Columbia University to study Law. Although he never finished the law degree, opting to pursue a career of a professional writer, the experience enlarged his knowledge about legal and political matters while he also profited from it to learn three foreign languages, namely Spanish, German and French. His earliest published books included Springtime and Harvest (1901), King Midas (1901), Prince Hagen (1902) and Manassas (1904). Sinclair was reported to have borrowed money in order to publish some of his earliest books. The sales allowed him to pay the money back and to guarantee a living. 

It was in 1904 that Sinclair started the most important project of his career when he was asked by the editor of the socialist journal, Appeal to Reason, to write a novel about workers in the meat packing industry. Being greatly influenced by the investigative journalism that was so popular at the time, Sinclair decided to do an on-site investigation by himself. He disguised himself and worked during seven weeks in Chicago’s meatpacking plants. The narrative that he produced after the experience was serialized in 1905 and helped popularize the magazine. In 1906, Sinclair faced serious difficulties to have the installments published in book form. Publishers were discouraged by what they had seen as Sinclair’s radical communism and hatred towards the rich. When Sinclair decided to publish the book himself and started to receive waves of orders from curious readers, one of the publishers eventually realized the opportunity that should not be missed and accepted to publish it.

The publication of The Jungle was an absolute success and made huge profits for both the publisher and the author. However, while it enabled Sinclair to build an extravagant home in Englewood, New Jersey, it also brought him harsh criticism and even hatred. When the estate was completely burned down a year later, Sinclair was positive that the criminals could only be his anti-socialist enemies.

The story in The Jungle highlights the mistreatment and dishonest exploitation of workers, including women and children, by the owners of large American companies. It follows the character of a Lithuanian immigrant who works for a Chicago meat factory to depict the miseries of the working class and the scandalous practices of capitalists who deny their employees their fundamental rights such as social security and decent working conditions. The denouement of the narrative is dominated by an atmosphere of political agitation and socialist rallies against capitalist exploitation. The book was greatly praised by literary men such as the popular novelists Jack London and Arthur Conan Doyle and was compared by critics to Emile Zola’s masterpiece, Germinal. British politician Winston Churchill himself expressed his great appreciation of the book though disagreeing with Sinclair’s proposed socialist solution by the end of the story. 

Nevertheless, what was more interesting about the book’s reception was how Sinclair’s main objective to sensitize Americans to the miserable conditions of factory workers was overshadowed by a second issue that appeared to be more important for the American public. This issue was nothing but the hygienic conditions of meat-packing. The novel was actually behind a rising public concern about unsanitary practices in the industry and caused a dramatic fall in meat sales both inside and outside the United States. In the October issue (1906) of the Cosmopolitan Magazine, Sinclair humorously commented: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach”. Just a few months later that year, two legislations related to meat and hygiene were passed by the congress, namely the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

Although President Roosevelt despised Sinclair and his socialist writings, famously calling him a “crackpot,” the phenomenal public interest in the novel seemed to force him to take it seriously and gave orders to take radical action and to investigate meat-packing factories. Nevertheless, President Roosevelt still believed that Sinclair exaggerated in his novel and called the novelist a “muckraker,” a term to be used since to describe writers and journalists who do private investigations to expose the corruption of politicians or business leaders. Sinclair was, thus, established as one of the founding fathers of investigative journalism and “muckraking,” a description of which he was proud of though he was only a writer of fiction. 

The success of the novel and of its adaptation into cinema in 1914 encouraged Sinclair to produce more fiction and publish numerous other stories. These included the publication in 1919 of The Brass Check which is probably his second most important and most influential book, though he often presented it as his number one. The Brass Check is also a muckraking work that centers on the issue of “yellow journalism” and the limitations of “free press” in the United States. Sinclair also co-wrote a number of novels with his wife Mary Craig Sinclair which centered around a female character from the American south named Sylvia. Sinclair carried on writing, editing and publishing novels and collections of fiction and non-fiction. Starting from the 1940s, he began a long series of novels known as the Lanny Budd series and featuring a young socialite belonging to a family of arm manufacturers. The novels faithfully and artistically record the various events that took place in America and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. It was actually one of these novels, entitled Dragon’s Teeth, which made Sinclair win the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. 

The success of Sinclair’s novels also encouraged him to enter the world of politics at a later stage, though he had socialist ideals since his young age participating in the establishment of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in 1905, for instance. At a certain stage of his life, Sinclair started thinking about putting into practice the ideals and the socialist aspirations expressed in his writings. He had already run for congress in New Jersey in 1906 and failed. After moving to California in the 1920s, Sinclair founded the American Civil Liberties Union. In the year 1920, Sinclair ran for the House of Representatives as the candidate of the Socialist Party. He then ran for the Senate two years later.  He was unsuccessful on both occasions. Despite these failures, Sinclair continued his activism and campaigns in California for socialist reforms and for the rights of industrial workers. His best achievement took place in 1934 when he ran for the gubernatorial election as a Democrat, calling his program “End Poverty in California” (EPIC). Although he lost in front of his Republican counterpart who was supported by many anti-socialist Democrats, Sinclair gained around 879,000 votes and the experience was historical any American candidate with socialist tendencies.

During the electoral campaign, Sinclair was attacked by both capitalists and diehard communist. While the former demonized him for his rather socialist reforming program, the latter considered him to be a disguised capitalist. This later failure eventually made Sinclair give up politics and devote all his time and energy to writing. 

Despite his leftist ideology, Upton Sinclair was rather a conservative where marriage and male-female relations are concerned. He openly spoke against sex outside the institution of marriage. He also believed that marriage should necessarily be crowned by procreation. However, Sinclair married three times and was believed to have had an extramarital affair too. His first wife was his childhood friend Meta Fuller from Virginia. Their first child named David was born in 1901. It was Meta who left him in 1911 to marry the poet Harry Kemp. Two years later, Sinclair married his second wife Mary Craig Kimbrough with who he co-authored a number of books. Mary Craig was to accompany Sinclair during most of his life and until her death in 1961. He married his third and last wife Mary Elizabeth Willis. 

After resignation from politics, Sinclair’s publications multiplied while his popularity along with his wealth continued growing. His fiction continued to be centered on real events and real characters. Among his other most successful novels there was Oil! (1927), a muckraking narrative in which he denounces the corruption and manipulation associated with President Warren G. Harding’s administration. In 1928, he published a book entitled Boston which dealt with the famous case of two Italian men named Sacco and Vanzetti who were accused of murder while being believed to be innocent. A bestselling book entitled World’s End was published in 1940 and in 1953 came the last of the Lanny Budd series entitled The Return of Lanny Budd

More books followed and many of the novels were adapted to cinema and produced by Sinclair and his wife Mary Craig. In cinema, Sinclair even collaborated with the historical comedian Charlie Chaplin. By the end, Upton Sinclair’s oeuvre reached more than ninety books by the time of his death on November 25th, 1968. His last station was Bound Brook, New Jersey. He died there in a nursing home to join his wife who died a year earlier in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington DC.