Upton Sinclair’s literary remains weighed in at eight tons when they were collected for donation to Indiana University Library. Of modern American writers, Sinclair is among the most widely translated, his works having been published in forty-seven languages in thirty-nine countries, yet his literary reputation steadily declined after the 1940’s, despite the fact that The Jungle was still widely read in high school and college classrooms. Moreover, Sinclair himself has historical importance for the role he played in the American radical movement.
Sinclair’s recurring theme as a novelist was class conflict, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, of labor by management, of the have-nots by the haves. With few exceptions, the rich are depicted as useless, extravagant, and unprincipled, while the poor are essentially noble characters who are the victims of capitalistic society. Sinclair’s literary method, which came to be called “muckraking,” was intended to expose the evils of such a society. Apart from The Jungle, which is the best-known example of this genre, there is the Lanny Budd series—ten historical novels that trace the history of the world from 1913 to 1946. Dragon’s Teeth, the third in the series, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1942 by virtue of its vivid portrayal of conditions in Nazi-dominated Europe. In addition to these, the most widely read of Sinclair’s novels, he produced novels on almost every topic of then-current social history, including coal strikes in Colorado in King Coal, exploitation by the oil industry in California in The Wet Parade, and the legal injustices of the murder trial of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti case in Boston. All of Sinclair’s fiction was aimed at the middle-class liberal, whom he hoped to convert to his idealistic vision of a fellowship of labor. Sinclair was thus a spokesman for the progressive era of American history; a chronic protester and iconoclast, he tried to stir the conscience of his nation and to cause change. In only one case, The Jungle, was he successful in prompting the desired changes through legislation. As a propagandist writing in the spirit of Thomas Paine and in the idiom of Karl Marx, Sinclair made a permanent impact by what he said, if not by how he wrote, and to this day, he still serves as one of the chief interpreters of American society to other nations.