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Upton Sinclair: The Conscience of a Nation

June 26, 2011
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When the extremes of capitalism bring financial hardships or economic depression, the mainstream often takes note of alternative notions about society and economics. There is a rich tradition of Socialist literature imbued with metaphor and theory that can then spill into the mainstream; but more commonly, such literature is confined to the periphery of American culture.

When the general public does get a glimpse of this literature, it is often veiled in fiction or the garb of a particular genre. Such was the case with H.G. Wells, who chose to disguise his socialist theories by camouflaging them in a mysterious cloak of imaginative science fiction.

Some authors prefer the art of penned letters and serialized magazine articles, and once fame has been garnered, only then is the public willing to listen to what they have to say. Helen Keller is a prime example of this. Keller may not have been able to hear, but she could “speak” volumes adequately on many socialist issues of the day.

Still, other authors prefer combining storytelling with deadpan journalism. Such was the path chosen by Upton Sinclair, whose writings, and whose life, exemplify the highest ideals of art and activism as a weapon, and whose craft was a finely honed proletarian sword that cut deep into society and in effect, effected change.

A child of the crumbled old “Gone with the Wind” aristocratic south, Upton was born into a struggling working class family on September 20th, 1878 in Baltimore, Maryland. Little did anyone know at the time that this new life would one day wield a literary meat cleaver to change an entire industry, and in the process, hit a nerve that would resonate with the American public reaching far deeper into the soul of the American psyche than a Texas oil well.

Sinclair, the senior, was a liquor salesman, a real booster of booze, and unfortunately fell madly in love of his own product, the product that in the long run would finally do him in when he expired from the cumulative effects and in the process, literally drank himself to death. Mama Sinclair was liquor free, and a drug free kind of woman. Prior to the drunken demise of Sinclair the Senior, the family left Baltimore and made tracks for New York, where the literary winds blew strong all day long, and filled the young creative sails of Sinclair with magic, so much so that by the age of 15, he had already embarked on his literary voyage and was writing dime novels.

Sinclair attended NYC College and graduated in 1897, then enrolled in Columbia University to study law. He financed his studies by writing hack fiction for pulp magazines, and lighter fare for various boys’ weeklies. He soon became more interested in politics and literature and left the university. He also began studying and mastering the French language, the language of romance. The call of the wild, or rather the call of the wild romance tugged at the heartstrings as the 20th Century dawned and bid a fond adieu to the 19th. By now, Sinclair was hooked into a marriage that was destined to fall apart by 1911. But… as all good writers who write from experience, it led to the writing and publication of “Springtime and Harvest,” about two penniless lovers. The marriage not only gave birth to the small novel, but also gave birth to a son, David.

A few weak attempts at fiction proved unsuccessful, and failure was not a stranger to Sinclair. He felt he was a failed writer, and a failed poet, so he decided to switch gears from romance and poetry, and by 1904 moved towards the realm of realistic fiction. He read socialist classics and literature, and socialist populists weeklies. Though never an avowed Communist, Sinclair was frequently pictured as a violent revolutionary.

He wrote a novel depicting the Civil War, but it was as successful as the Confederacy. Then as in all lives the fork in the road appears, and with Sinclair, that turning point came in 1906 with the publication of the novel “The Jungle” which was a scathing report on the conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry. The book was more than an “interesting read”, it was a sword that cut a swath through an industry and led to the implementation of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Sinclair became, perhaps, the most famous of the investigative journalists of the time, known as muckrakers.

Then President, Big-Stick Bullmooser, Teddy Roosevelt called Sinclair to the White House for a sit down to go over what he had seen and described. They shared a common view, as Roosevelt put it, “to do away with the effects of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.” Roosevelt evidently didn’t like Sinclair, thinking him “too hypersensitive and high strung.”, but promised to look into his accusations.

Needless to say, the public was clamoring for his book and the proceeds enabled Sinclair to establish and support the socialist commune, Helicon Home Colony in Englewood, New Jersey. It was a commune designed primarily for left wing writers, but it burnt down in 1907 and Sinclair was, once again spare-change-broke, down on his literary luck.

But Sinclair was on a roll. The trail he was now blazing dealt with society and its various injustices. “Metropolis” for example, no, not the Fritz Lang film about the False Maria, this “Metropolis” stripped away the knickers and facade of fashionable New York society. “King Coal” followed in 1917, about a Colorado miners’ strike in 1914, and of course, “Oil!”

Then along came the book “Boston.” It was a provocative book about the Sacco-Vanzetti case that caused public outrage in the 1920′s for its defense of them. Other writers who supported them were John Dos Passos and Dorothy Parker. The post war era gave the reading public “Jimmie Higgins”, published in 1919. It was an introspective look at the dilemma facing American Leftists during the conflict who felt temporarily obliged to support the ruling classes of England and France during WWI, affectionately known as “The Great War.”

The Dust-bowl Thirties saw farm foreclosures, poverty, breadlines, hobos riding the rails and of course a hallelujah chorus singing Woody Guthrie songs. Unions were on the rise and Progress politics was winning over farmers and industrial unions. The WPA was full tilt boogie and soup kitchens were ubiquitous. The time seemed right for Sinclair to run as governor of California with its plethora of produce production, farmers, workers, and immigrants who would all likely vote for him on the Socialist ticket in 1934.

His platform, known as EPIC, for End Poverty in California, included a proposal for the state to turnover idle factories and farm lands to the unemployed to enable them to make their own clothes and grow their own food. Remarkably, he ended up winning the nomination for the Democratic Party.

Talk about dirty politics; it was in its heyday back in the day. The campaign was a hallmark in election history. Hollywood and big money came together to create what has been called the “greatest smear campaign” in American history, involving “willful fraud”. California’s major newspapers, run by the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Harry Chandler, attacked Sinclair with amazingly petty, out of context quotes, from his novels, while providing daily positive coverage of the Republican Frank Merriam’s every act and speech. Sinclair was also accused of being a communist and an advocate of free love.

The election was a three-way split. Sinclair received nearly 38% of the votes; the Progressive candidate, Raymond Haight, received 13%; and the winning candidate, the Republican Frank Merriam, received about 48%. Big money and corrupt electioneering prevailed, but Sinclair wasn’t finished.

His pen then became a recruiting tool as witnessed by his novel the Flivver King (1937), which was used in the union organizing campaign of the Ford Motor Company. Then another war, a worldwide conflagration brought about his novel “Dragons Teeth”, in 1943, where he made the comment that “Adolph Hitler looks like Charlie Chaplin, except Hitler has no sense of humor.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts and it is the only literary award he would ever receive.

After the hot war, the chill of the Cold War blanketed the planet in a battle of wills for hearts and minds to join the camps of either Communism or Capitalism. Nukes poised to strike on either side of the planet to obliterate the other side of the planet, and it was during this Cold War that Sinclair started corresponding with Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer about details for a book on the development of the atomic bomb.

Sinclair was wearing down in the literary whirlwinds of salons and NYC, and in 1953 he went to live in a remote Arizona village called Buckeye, there devoting the rest of his days to putting his memoirs to paper. As the psychedelic Sixties dawned, he published “My Lifetime in Letters”, his autobiography where he states, “In politics and economics I believe what I have believed ever since I discovered the socialist movement at the beginning of this century.”

Upton Sinclair died in his sleep on November 25, 1968 in a nursing home. His wisdom, common sense, and compassion, were too important historically to allow his legacy to fade. We, as a society, have a responsibility to remind each new generation of his vision and achievements.  There is no single quote that sums up the power of his pen, but perhaps this one reflects the way his brand of journalistic, social realism resonated with people. He once said of “The Jungle”: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Mike Marino is a freelance writer and the author of four books. He also edits two weekly Northwest Newspapers.

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