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Radical Innocent

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

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...

(The entire section is 1,638 words.)