Upton Sinclair Biography

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.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111206440-Sinclair.jpg Upton Sinclair. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 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...

(The entire section is 2100 words.)

Upton Sinclair Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In 1932, writers and scholars from more than fifty countries signed a petition to nominate Upton Sinclair for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although unsuccessful, the campaign reflected the international consensus that, at his prime, he was the voice of America. During his long career, literary and political luminaries such as Robert McNamara, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Walter Cronkite, Bertolt Brecht, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Leon Trotsky, George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, and scores of others cited him as a source of inspiration. His commitment to literature in the service of society was, perhaps, best summed up by McNamara, secretary of defense in the 1960’s, who said that Sinclair influenced his thinking by identifying many of the problems which, unresolved even in modern times, continued to divide the nation.

Upton Sinclair Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr., was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but reared in New York City. He finished high school at the age of twelve, but he was too young for college and had to wait until he was fourteen before he could enter the City College of New York. While an undergraduate, he helped support himself by writing stories and jokes for pulp magazines. In one span of a few weeks, he turned out fifty-six thousand words, an incredible feat even for a prolific prodigy such as Sinclair. In 1898, after taking his B.A. from CCNY, Sinclair enrolled as a special student in the Graduate School of Columbia University; he withdrew, however, after a professor told him, “You don’t know anything about writing.” In 1900, Sinclair married Meta Fuller and began work on his first novel, Springtime and Harvest, which was written in Canada. Shortly afterward, in 1902, he joined the Socialist Party. The reception of his early fiction gave Sinclair little critical encouragement, and the works gained him very little cash—his first four novels brought him less than one thousand dollars, and the threat of poverty put a strain on his marriage. In 1905, Sinclair, with Jack London, formed the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, an indication of his growing political radicalism.

Sinclair’s first fame came with his fifth novel, The Jungle; he was even invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss the book. With the thirty thousand dollars that The Jungle earned for him, Sinclair founded a utopian community, Helicon Colony, in New Jersey. In 1907, an arsonist burned down the colony and Sinclair’s fortune with it. This was the first actual persecution that...

(The entire section is 698 words.)

Upton Sinclair Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

Sinclair started writing while a student at the City College of New York, which he entered at the age of fifteen. His early novels include Springtime and Harvest (1902, retitled King Midas); Prince Hagen (1903); The Journal of Arthur Stirling (1903); Manassas (1904); and A Captain of Industry (1906). He is best known, however, for The Jungle (1906), a brutally graphic exposé of Chicago’s stockyards that led to the strengthening of federal food adulteration laws. True to his socialist beliefs, Sinclair invested the profits from this, his most successful book, in the Helicon Home Colony, a cooperative community in Englewood, New...

(The entire section is 1138 words.)

Upton Sinclair Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 20, 1878, Upton Sinclair moved with his family to New York City in 1888 and began his career as a prodigy. He finished secondary school when he was twelve and became a student at the City College of New York at the age of fourteen. From the age of fifteen he supported himself in part by writing stories for the pulp magazines. After graduating from City College in the middle of his class, Sinclair attended Columbia University from 1897 to 1900. He had intended to become a lawyer but became interested in literature and left Columbia without a graduate degree. He married Meta Fuller in 1900 and began to write novels. His first five books, published between 1901 and 1906, gave him little...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Upton Sinclair Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

One of the most prolific writers in the history of American letters, Upton Beall Sinclair published ninety books and thousands of essays over...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Upton Sinclair Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Born in a boardinghouse in Baltimore, young Sinclair grew up in poverty. In compensation, he was sent to live for months with rich uncles. Their endless snobbery and flaunted wealth outraged Sinclair, who, at the end of his life, wrote in The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (1962) that everything in his later life confirmed his resolve never to sell out to that class. Aided by phenomenal memory, at the age of five he taught himself to read, devouring whole libraries. Later he maintained that it was Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray who molded his instinct for social justice. At fourteen, he entered City College (now the City College of New York), reading all textbooks in the first few weeks, after which he...

(The entire section is 858 words.)

Upton Sinclair Biography

(Novels for Students)

Upton Sinclair is best known today as the author of The Jungle, which is probably a legacy he would accept, since it is true that this...

(The entire section is 601 words.)