Upton Sinclair Essay - Critical Essays

Upton Sinclair American Literature Analysis

In the first half of the twentieth century, Upton Sinclair was the United States’ most important writer. He was not necessarily the best, in the sense of leaving the most enduring and aesthetically accomplished body of literature. However, he was more responsible than most for changing the way in which Americans saw themselves, their lives, and their expectations of these lives.

When Sinclair was starting out, few basic rights existed for Americans: no minimum wage, no maximum working hours, no employer liability for accidents, no right to bargain collectively, no pure food and drug act, no strong unions, no voting rights for women, no birth control or venereal disease education, no health insurance, no unemployment compensation, no provisions against price fixing, and no supervision of financial institutions such as banks, stock exchanges, or insurance companies. These are only some of the domains in which Sinclair’s writing and tireless public campaigning brought about reform. Despite initial fame and notoriety, Sinclair’s reputation has declined since his heyday, although it was revived briefly in 1988 and again in 2003 with the release and then re-release of the lost first edition of The Jungle. A brief survey of the criticisms that have dogged his career helps cast them in proper light as well as illuminate his body of work.

The most common censure is that Sinclair is not a litterateur but rather a muckraking journalist or, at best, a social chronicler of American life. As if to make the point, his writings have been taught in literature as often as in sociology, history, political science, and economics. If anything, however, that merely testifies to his literary range and power. Journalistic and historical veracity are fitting companions for literature that aims to reflect and engage contemporary affairs. Even though the label “nonfiction novel” had to wait until Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965), Sinclair’s prose proves simply that he was ahead of his time. Indeed, his journalistic and historical descriptions of the inner workings of social groups, the public arena, or industrial practices are often among his best prose (though their factual accuracy was occasionally called into question).

Much debate of Sinclair’s literary merit has centered on socialism and whether it brands him as too ideologically foreign and immersed in revolutionary politics to be a good writer. On inspection, however, there is nothing foreign or revolutionary about the themes and issues in his novels. From The Jungle to King Coal to Oil! A Novel, Sinclair’s brand of litterature engagé aims to refurbish the homegrown socioeconomic system, making his brand of socialism akin to Benjamin Franklin’s homegrown, commonsense, liberal pragmatism. Indeed, Jurgis’s can-do refrain from The Jungle, “I will work harder,” is Horatio Alger and the rags-to-riches work ethic writ large, albeit cast in ironic light. Social and political activism, in fact, allows Sinclair to break away from the conventions of literary naturalism and, consequently, from the bleak negativity of Theodore Dreiser or Stephen Crane. Instead of existential and socioeconomic determinism (if not Darwinism), Sinclair dishes out solutions to well-defined social problems, often with a view to a broader and, ultimately, more complex picture of society.

Sinclair’s prose has often been maligned as simplistic and repetitive. Indeed, next to high modernism that swept the United States following the 1913 New York Armory Show, his novels are linear and stylistically conservative, free of experiments in point of view or prosody characteristic of William Faulkner or John Dos Passos. Instead of self-reflexive modernistic high jinks, the narration is fast-paced and plot-oriented, with characterization playing second fiddle to an encyclopedia of background detail. Though in a 1951 letter to poet William Carlos Williams, Sinclair defended himself by saying that the goal of writing is never to make communication difficult, in truth, his style is at best uneven. He is capable of rich passages of camera-eye ethnographic detail, such as in the veselija (wedding) from the opening of The Jungle. He is capable of arresting minimalist impact, such as in the scenes from the working life in Packingtown. Yet, more often than not, these are interspersed with sentimental melodrama and overt commentary that threaten to overwhelm a work of literature with the ardor of a political pamphlet. This uneven quality owes much to his speed of composition and the almost superhuman volume of output (there are nine tons of papers in the Sinclair Collection at the University of Indiana alone, including a quarter million letters).

One of Sinclair’s notable shortcomings is characterization. The writer who wanted to record the whole truth about the human condition...

(The entire section is 2013 words.)