Upton Sinclair Biography
Upton Sinclair was a complicated figure, at once a success and a failure. On one hand, he was an influential author. The Jungle, Sinclair’s 1906 novel about the meat-packing industry, was extremely popular and led to the passage of laws revising the standards of food processing. On the other hand, Sinclair held unpopular (at the time) political views and beliefs that overshadowed much of his career as a prolific writer. Sinclair made several unsuccessful bids for office under Socialist tickets that damaged his reputation. Though he never gave up his activism, he did recognize how hard it was to get people to share his views. Sinclair famously stated, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.”
Facts and Trivia
- Sinclair used his earnings from The Jungle to create a commune dedicated to his principles. It lasted just one year.
- One member of Sinclair’s commune was the similarly named writer Sinclair Lewis, who would later make Upton a character in one of his own novels.
- His novel Boston tied him to the controversial case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists who were found guilty of murder and executed in 1927. Some of Sinclair’s personal writings led later scholars to consider that the two famously innocent men might actually have been guilty, but that position has largely been refuted.
- Sinclair wrote an eleven-book saga featuring the character Lanny Budd. The third novel in the series won the Pulitzer Prize.
- In 2007, writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson adapted Sinclair’s book Oil as the Golden Globe-nominated film There Will Be Blood.
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...
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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 crusade foreshadowed the author’s mature muckraking style by linking 1850’s abolitionism with early twentieth century Progressivism. Manassas marked Sinclair’s entry into American radicalism and led directly to The Jungle.
Fred D. Warren, editor of the United States’ premier socialist journal, Appeal to Reason, read Manassas and suggested that Sinclair produce a book detailing the horrors of wage slavery as convincingly as he had done with antebellum slavery. Appeal to Reason gave Sinclair a $500 advance, with which he moved his family to a New Jersey farm and then traveled alone to Chicago to investigate the economic, social, and environmental conditions facing the city’s meat packers.
When Sinclair arrived in Chicago late in 1905, the Meat Trust was still under fire for the Spanish-American War “embalmed meat” scandals, and it had further fanned the flames of discontent by crushing a meat packers’ strike just weeks earlier. Chicago citizens eagerly supplied Sinclair with information. His investigation lasted about two months. He stayed in workers’ homes (both native-born and immigrant); interviewed meat packers, barkeeps, social workers, doctors, policemen, politicians, and journalists; and prowled the neighborhoods and stockyards. He also inspected the packing plants, first as an official visitor and then, in muckraker fashion, disguised as a worker. His findings shocked him.
After returning to New Jersey, Sinclair wrote one of the most influential books in American history, The Jungle (1906), which Jack London called the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery. The Jungle exposed the dehumanizing, despairing world of the working class. Its story centers on Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, and his young wife Ona, who have come to the United States seeking their dream only to find a nightmare. After Jurgis is hurt at work and laid up, he loses his meat packer’s job. He finds another job, but it pays far less, while Ona, also underpaid, is forced into prostitution by her boss under threat of dismissal. Jurgis discovers this, beats her boss, and lands in jail. After weeks in prison, he returns to find his family homeless and his wife dying in childbirth. He continues struggling until his oldest son, still a child, drowns in Chicago’s unpaved streets. Jurgis then gives up, becoming a bum, thief, even a strikebreaker. Sinclair’s clear message is that in capitalist society, workers have no hope and no chance. In the concluding chapters, however, Jurgis discovers socialism, and with it all problems are solved, Jurgis is happy, and hope reigns.
While the American public rejected Sinclair’s socialist solution, they totally accepted his powerful exposé of the Meat Trust. Sinclair’s graphic depiction of meat processing, which included the use of rotten meat disguised with chemicals, general filth, and dead rats, dung, and even human appendages thrown into the meat, appalled the nation. Sinclair knew he had missed his mark when he said, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.” In doing so, Sinclair struck a blow worldwide for consumer rights. After reading The Jungle, President Theodore Roosevelt demanded meat inspection and pure food and drug legislation. As Progressivism’s new champion, Sinclair became famous, wealthy, and admired.
In 1913, Sinclair married poet Mary Craig Kimbrough, and the couple moved to California in 1915. Sinclair continued to write realist, socialist-inspired novels. Three of his best works were written in the 1910’s and 1920’s: King Coal (1917), which explored labor issues in the Western mines; Oil! (1927), based loosely on the Teapot Dome scandal, which French critics considered a masterpiece; and Boston (1928), a powerful treatment of the Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti case, which led Arthur Conan Doyle to label Sinclair America’s Émile Zola.
During the 1930’s, Sinclair’s writing became more political as he attempted to win election as governor of California. With the Great Depression gripping the nation, left-wing voices rose in protest while capitalism faltered and democratic governments, even Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, responded slowly to human needs. In 1934, after being approached by a California businessman, Sinclair shocked his friends and admirers by abandoning the Socialist Party, registering as a Democrat, and running in the primary election. Behind a program entitled End Poverty in California (EPIC), Sinclair defeated eight other Democrats and won the nomination.
EPIC, based on Sinclair’s book I, Governor of California—And How I Ended Poverty (1934), powerfully indicted capitalism and vaguely outlined a socialist plan for redistributing wealth. Sinclair’s vision, power of persuasion, moral character, and deep belief carried him far. Yet the forces aligned against him: Big money men and film moguls who conducted a multimillion-dollar smear campaign and threatened to fire actors who supported Sinclair proved too powerful. Roosevelt’s refusal to endorse Sinclair as a Democrat also hurt badly. Sinclair lost the election (by about 200,000 out of about 2.3 million votes cast), but in another sense he carried the day, locally and nationally, as the Republican winner, Frank Mirriam, and President Roosevelt later signed into law a number of programs strongly resembling Sinclair’s proposals.
Following the election, Sinclair returned to fiction writing, composing more than thirty new novels during the next three decades. Included in this long list were the commercially successful Lanny Budd novels: eleven historical narratives, written from 1940 to 1953, covering the years from World War I to the early Cold War. In these books Sinclair becomes increasingly sympathetic toward capitalism, hostile toward communism, and lukewarm toward reform socialism. In his post-Lanny Budd novels, Sinclair even questions the power of reform literature and his life’s work. A teetotaler, nonsmoker, and vegetarian, he died in 1968 at age ninety.
Although he wrote over eighty books, Upton Sinclair is not considered one of the literary giants of twentieth century America. His fiction was sometimes stylistically and structurally shallow but nevertheless had distinctive strengths. A successful popularizer of ideas more than an original thinker, a journalist more than a poet, Sinclair was a diligent realist who used interviews, notes, and world events as sources. His novels more often than not accurately reflected the United States’ social and cultural landscape. As historical fiction, Sinclair’s books are among the twentieth century’s best in their depiction of events and in their ability to evoke thought and, sometimes, action.
Working for social justice and against abusive power was his life’s mission. His literary skill was almost single-mindedly harnessed to this purpose. He exposed abuses, evoked sympathy for those suffering injustice, and elicited societal reform. Nowhere was this more visible than in The Jungle, with its ability to bring about consumer protection legislation. Though Sinclair has been downgraded as a literary figure and his novels go largely unread, continued twentieth century demands for consumer protection legislation remains as Sinclair’s lasting testimonial.
Bloodworth, William A. Upton Sinclair. Boston: Twayne, 1977. This short, sympathetic, yet balanced literary biography examines Sinclair’s place in American literary radicalism and the writer as social activist. Includes a bibliography.
Dell, Floyd. Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest. New York: George H. Doran, 1927. A sympathetic contemporary biography with a strong Freudian critique that nevertheless applauds Sinclair’s vision and protests.
Harris, Leon. Upton Sinclair: American Rebel. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975. At 435 pages, this thorough, well-researched, and sympathetic biography relies heavily on Sinclair’s own words and emotions. Extensive annotated notes included.
Mitchell, Greg. The Campaign of the Century. New York: Random House, 1992. At 665 pages, this excellently researched book details Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign from August to November, stressing the media’s key role in defeating Sinclair and ushering in a new era of media politics. Includes notes.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. 1905. Reprint. New York: Signet, 1990. Sinclair’s great muckraking novel on meat packing that spurred consumer legislation and gave him worldwide notoriety.
Sinclair, Upton. The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. At 342 pages, this is the most important source on Sinclair’s early life and a useful mirror of his personality.