In the prologue to his biography of Upton Sinclair, Anthony Arthur notes that the string of failures after Sinclair’s astonishingly successful early novel, The Jungle (1906), made some people regard him as a one-book wonder. However, says Arthur, Sinclair eventually went on to have other successes, including a popular series of adventure novels that he wrote in his sixties and a near-win in the 1934 election for governor of California.
It is understandable that a biographer would try to see as much success as possible in his subject, and Arthur is especially committed to Sinclair’s late adventure novels, the Lanny Budd series (1940-1953), as evidence that Sinclair shifted in his later years from writing propaganda to being a writer of serious art. However, the Lanny Budd series, though popular in its day, soon went out of print, and at the beginning of the twenty-first century Sinclair, in fact, remained known almost exclusively as the author of The Jungle.
One interesting comment Arthur makes at the beginning of his biography is that the success of The Jungle was so sudden that Sinclair himself had trouble understanding it and attempted to explain it more than once in later years. It would be even more interesting to learn what those explanations were, or to hear an explanation from Arthur himself, but this is just one of the tantalizing moments in the biography that promises more than it delivers.
Arthur is, however, good at presenting the facts of the matter. In what is perhaps the best section of the book, he describes how the young socialist Sinclair came to be commissioned to write a series of articles on “wage slavery” for the socialist magazine Appeal to Reason and how he transformed that commission into a fictionalized account of the unsavory practices of the meatpacking industry in Chicago.
Although his main intent was to show the suffering of the workers, Sinclair would later complain, the public, including President Theodore Roosevelt, seized on his descriptions of the unwholesome way meat was produced, leading to improvements in the inspection process and the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Sinclair famously commented that he had aimed for the public’s heart but had somehow hit it in the stomach. In fact, Arthur shows that Sinclair deliberately focused on the issue of adulterated food, knowing that it would be easier to win support about what was going into the food everyone ate than to stir up sympathy for immigrant workers.
One of the interesting things that Arthur reveals is that there were limits to Sinclair’s sympathy for workers. He worried over how to interest readers in the tale of disease-ridden foreigners, indicating a less than perfect identification with the group whose cause he was supposedly trying to advance, and Sinclair himself was no member of the working class. It is true he grew up in poverty as the son of an alcoholic salesman in New York City, but the family had wealthy connections in Baltimore, and Sinclair in his youth could see the contrast between rich and poor, a contrast that, he said, helped raise his interest in social justice and socialism.
This persuasive explanation of the source of Sinclair’s socialist inclinations actually is not found in Arthur’s book; to discover it one must turn to the earlier, 1975 biography by Leon Harris, a fuller account in some ways of Sinclair’s life. Though Harris presents some of his information awkwardly, often quoting large chunks from Sinclair’s writings, he does at times present more than Arthur does. Arthur, at times, skimps on certain aspects of Sinclair’s life that are dealt with at greater length by Harris, for example, Sinclair’s socialist activities, his relationship with his first biographer, the writer and socialist Floyd Dell, and his early almost mystical attachment to art, which gave way in his mid-twenties to his belief in socialism.
Above all, in part by quoting so much of it, Harris gives a stronger sense of how much correspondence in which Sinclair engaged with leading figures of his day, from writers like George Bernard Shaw and Jack London to political figures such as both Presidents Roosevelt and even Joseph Stalin, the Soviet premier, not to mention Albert Einstein, Charles Chaplin, and the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, with whom Sinclair embarked on an ill-fated film project about Mexico.
Arthur’s focus is more on Sinclair’s personal life, his troubled first marriage, the scandalous affair that broke it up, his reclusive second wife, and his estrangement from his son. Arthur is also committed to seeing the development in Sinclair away from socialism and away from the view that Sinclair expressed in his early works that all art is propaganda. In this Arthur differs from Harris, who sees the shifts in Sinclair’s later life as largely cosmetic, as attempts to find a better vehicle for his largely unchanged views.
For Arthur, Sinclair’s departure from the Socialist Party of America in order to run for governor of California as a Democrat signaled a move by Sinclair in the direction of the establishment, whereas for Harris it was mainly a means to bring the socialist message to a public that recoiled from the word “socialist.”
Similarly, Arthur focuses on the Lanny Budd adventure series as evidence that the old propagandist had finally begun to put story and character ahead of ideas. For Harris, the series seems to be just another example of Sinclair seeking a better vehicle for self-expression. Whereas Arthur declares the Lanny Budd series to be Sinclair’s greatest literary achievement, Harris cites three of Sinclair’s earlier, more openly ideological works as his best: The Jungle first of all, along with Oil! (1927), Sinclair’s novel about the oil industry, and Boston (1928), his novel about the Sacco-Vanzetti case (the trial and execution of two accused Italian American anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, on what observers on the left saw as trumped-up charges).
Even Harris notes that Sinclair estranged himself somewhat from others on the left by writing an ambiguous ending to Boston suggesting uncertainty about whether Sacco and Vanzetti were indeed innocent, but Arthur is stronger on this and persuades the reader that if there was a shift in Sinclair’s thinking, a key moment in that shift was his discovery in the Sacco-Vanzetti case that things were not as simple and straightforward as he might have thought. However, in the end Arthur says it is not entirely clear what produced the shift in Sinclair’s views.
Arthur’s greatest achievement is to make Sinclair seem interesting. He presents a man who wrote nearly ninety books, not just novels of social protest but nonfiction studies of everything from education, the press, and religion to classic literature, contemporary writers, and the way to a good life. He shows a man caught up in diet fads and spiritualism, someone eager to comment on just about every aspect of life, in public columns in the newspapers or in private correspondence.
Arthur also shows what an interestingly contradictory personality Sinclair was. He perhaps pushes his thesis about Sinclair’s “innocence” a bit too hard, but he does show the interesting combination of perception and gullibility that went into Sinclair’s makeup, not to mention such contradictions as Sinclair being both a puritan and an opponent of the institution of marriage. He was a very conservative revolutionary, one of his wives said, and as he himself once commented, like many reformers and believers in helping people in the mass, he was not always very good or helpful in his own personal relations. He was notably hard on his son, whom he did not see for years at a time. He was also estranged from both of his parents.
At certain points in his biography, Arthur tries to draw parallels between Sinclair’s time and the early twenty-first century, even suggesting at one point that Sinclair’s views on art as propaganda resembled those of the later postmodernists. However, what Arthur succeeds in demonstrating is something almost entirely the opposite. He conjures up an era that seems quite different from the early twenty-first century, an era in which the left consisted of earnest puritanical socialists like Upton Sinclair rather than ironic postmodernists like those found a century later in academic institutions.
Sinclair was no admirer of academic institutions, a point on which Arthur feels the need to disagree with him, and Sinclair had no time for obscurity and jargon, always trying to communicate with ordinary readers as clearly as possible an approach quite alien to later postmodernists. His great talent, says Arthur, was in taking complex situations and rendering them understandable to a popular audience, an earnest working-class audience. Despite his connections to the aristocracy of the Old South and some lingering snobbery, in the end Upton Sinclair seems to have been a sort of populist, or at least a popularizer, a frank, open, friendly guide to the mysteries of life, seeking to connect with the common people in order to help them better themselves.
It is an appealing portrait that Arthur paints, and though one might wish he had fleshed it out a bit more by going into more detail about Sinclair’s ideas and political activities, his success lies in interesting the reader in Upton Sinclair and making one want to read some of Sinclair’s writings. What might be useful would be to publish a collection of Sinclair’s correspondence to bring out in even greater detail the interesting era he lived in and helped to shape.
Booklist 102, nos. 19/20 (June 1-15, 2006): 24.
Columbia Journalism Review 45, no. 2 (July/August, 2006): 58-60.
Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 6 (March 15, 2006): 269.
Library Journal 131, no. 7 (April 15, 2006): 85.
National Review 58, no. 15 (August 28, 2006): 45-46.
The New York Times Book Review 155 (July 2, 2006): 10-11.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 11 (March 13, 2006): 50.
The Wall Street Journal 247, no. 135 (June 10, 2006): P8.