Article abstract: Sinclair was a prolific writer, a champion of social justice, a socialist reformer, and a 1934 Democratic candidate for governor of California. His greatest impact came from his muckraking novel The Jungle (1906), which stirred America’s conscience, strengthened the Progressive reform movement, and brought about national consumer legislation.
Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr., born in Baltimore and reared there until age eight, was an only child. His father’s family, Virginia aristocrats and naval officers who sided with the Confederacy during the 1800’s, lost everything in the Civil War. Sinclair’s father, too young to fight and unable, as an adult, to adjust to his family’s downfall, failed as a businessman and succumbed to alcoholism. Dragging his drunken father from saloons would lead Sinclair to favor temperance, fostering a lifelong tendency toward reform.
His dominant, upper-middle-class mother, Priscilla Harden, daughter of a successful Maryland railroad executive and Methodist leader, taught him morality and resistance to temptations (especially sexual ones), instilling a sense of Christian social justice and duty. She often read to Sinclair, who was so captivated by stories that he taught himself to read by age five. Reading became the basis of his early education (he did not attend school until age ten) and offered an escape from his harsh, emotionally contradictory childhood.
Whether in Baltimore or later in New York City, his parents often lived in squalor, moving from one cheap boarding house or hotel to another and sharing rooms with rats and bedbugs. Compared to the homeless children he saw everyday, Sinclair felt fortunate but also angry. During most summers he lived luxuriously in the country with his mother’s wealthy family. This contrast, which instilled a deep antipathy toward the wealthy, heightened his sense of social injustice and his duty to reform society.
After moving to New York City, Sinclair found religious and educational guidance under the influence of William Moir, an Episcopalian minister. Attending public school for the first time, he was ready for college in just two years. At age fourteen he entered a five-year program at the City College of New York, where Sinclair rejected Moir’s theology (but not Jesus Christ) and explored philosophy, literature, and poetry. His greatest sources of inspiration throughout his school years remained Jesus and the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. His later idealistic, romantic, and missionary socialism would stem more from these two heroes than from any systematic doctrine.
During his first year at City College, Sinclair, at age fifteen, stumbled upon professional writing as his life’s work when, in financial need, he sent a children’s story to Argosy magazine, which published it and paid him twenty-five dollars. Thereafter he wrote numerous other children’s stories and became a joke writer. The latter paid well, with Life, Puck, and the Evening Journal buying his humor. His income kept the family afloat. At age seventeen he got his own apartment but continued sending most of his income to his parents.
Sinclair, a physically fit and rather attractive man of medium stature, graduated from City College in 1897. He considered but rejected a law career, instead entering Columbia University to study philosophy and literature. After three years, he moved to Canada where, living in a cabin, he began writing his first novel. Around this time he also met an attractive young woman named Meta Fuller, the daughter of a friend of his mother. The two fell in love and, after much indecision, married in 1900.
Sinclair’s first novel, Springtime and Harvest (1901), failed both commercially and artistically, even when reissued as King Midas. His marriage to Meta, complicated by the birth of a son, David, in 1901 and by Sinclair’s sexual hang-ups, ended in divorce in 1911. By that time Sinclair’s literary career had been established, but only after two more unsuccessful novels, Prince Hagen (1903) and The Journal of Arthur Stirling (1903). Arthur Stirling, a poet of genius who represents Sinclair, commits suicide in the novel, signaling Sinclair’s abandonment of his identity as an American Shelley.
Having jettisoned the poet as well as the priest, Sinclair hungered for a new faith. He found it in socialism, introduced to him by Leonard D. Abbot, Gaylord Wilshire, and George D. Herron. These middle- and upper-class Christian socialists transformed Sinclair’s notion of radical politics as something vulgar into a conception of nobility and justice, with socialism redefined in terms Sinclair understood—a fulfillment of Christianity. Sinclair became a literary realist and resolved to make his writing a force for social justice. He honed his newly adopted literary realism in a novel about the Civil War, Manassas (1904). The book’s condemnation of slavery and its support for abolitionism as a holy...
(The entire section is 2100 words.)