Sinclair, Upton (Vol. 11)
Sinclair, Upton 1878–1968
Sinclair was an American novelist, journalist, essayist, and playwright known for his radical criticism of social injustices. His work exposes many forms of human exploitation, but focuses often on the wrongs inflicted by industry. Though prolific in his literary output, Sinclair remains best known as the author of The Jungle. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for Dragon's Teeth, and has written under the pseudonyms of Clarke Fitch, Frederick Garrison, and Arthur Stirling. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Walter B. Rideout
Both in life and in writings Sinclair has attempted, as did Dickens, to be the persuading intermediary between the contending classes. With admirable sweetness of temper, considering his lack of success, he has continued to argue that the owning class should perform a revolution by consent, that the capitalist should give up his profits and power in exchange for citizenship in an industrial democracy. But in the novels that he has so prodigally brought forth year after year since the publication of The Jungle, the lamb of his Christian spirit has rarely been able peacefully to lie down with the lion of his Marxian vocabulary. As a result, although Sinclair is the only one of the Socialist novelists who continued … to write Socialist novels, his is the classic case among them for unresolved discrepancies between his fictional structure and the "message" that he is trying to convey…. (pp. 36-7)
Despite his artistic limitations … Upton Sinclair has built up over half a century a body of work which is a whole tradition in itself. The outstanding Socialist novelist of the first two decades, in the lonely twenties he almost was radical American literature. In the thirties the young Leftists, when they were not damning him as a "social fascist" in accordance with some current "Party line," admitted that his novels and tracts had been and still were instrumental in teaching them the facts of capitalist life. But Sinclair's...
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Peter A. Soderbergh
[Obituaries asked us] to remember "Uppie" for three achievements: (1) the Federal interest in food inspection stimulated by his 1906 work The Jungle; (2) his EPIC (End Poverty in California) program of the early Depression years; and (3) the anti-Nazi novel, Dragon's Teeth (1942), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. It was recalled also that for a generation Sinclair was one of the most feared and vilified homegrown Victorian Socialists in modern history. (p. 173)
Generally overlooked has been Sinclair's running battle with Hollywood, which reached its peak in the 1930's. No other private citizen outside movie circles has provoked the film colony into such a frenzy…. All his adult life Sinclair was trying to tell America something: That social injustice could be redressed only by public faith in, and a total realization of, the concept of economic equality. Such a message is more palatable today. Between the two World Wars it reeked of that virulent strain of Anarchism which many Americans felt would demolish cherished institutions. For the better part of a decade Sinclair, the middle-aged word-merchant from Pasadena, was the personification of that destructive force in the minds of his wealthy neighbors in nearby Hollywood. (pp. 173-74)
Had movie-makers seen Sinclair as something more than another eccentric busybody with radical daydreams they might have felt less ambushed in 1934. Evidence that he was dead serious was there for all to see well beforehand. (p. 175)
When Sinclair scored the "ignorance and prejudice, deliberately created and maintained by prostitute journalism," in The Brass Check (1919), it should have been fair warning that Hollywood could not be far behind. It was only a matter of time until the man who called Los Angeles the "City of Black Angels" focused on the city's best-known commodity: The movies.
Sinclair chose books as his weapons: Money Writes! and Oil!, both published in 1927. In the former, a scathing survey of the state of American literature, he was unsparing. He deplored the "cinema excrement" that oozed forth in the name of art. (pp. 175-76)
Sinclair saw his novel Oil! as a portrait of the "moral and political breakdown of our ruling classes." Into it he poured every ounce of talent and conviction at his command. The result was a brilliant example of Sinclair at his best, if one cared for Sinclair. In terms of what was "acceptable" thinking in America in the 1920's his hero, J. Arnold "Bunny" Ross, did everything wrong. Ross rejected the idealism of World War One, operated in the darkness between Socialism and Radical Bolshevism, financed a "Red" newspaper, betrayed his own middle class affiliations by slashing out at Big Businessmen, was unashamed of his religious cynicism and sexual experiments,...
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Sinclair's [Boston] is a fascinating, if flawed work—baldly partisan pieces frequently are—a cut below The Jungle and others of his books. (p. 475)
For those reading [Boston] for the first time, the story moves on two levels—that of the Sacco-Vanzetti case itself, and that of a wealthy Boston family that is touched by events….
[You'll] enjoy renewing contact with Upton Sinclair, that intense, junior Bernard Shaw with the American-Socialist vision. Sinclair writes with insight and passion—style and wit, as well. I challenge anyone not to chuckle at his portrayal of the Boston of the Brahmins and the old Transcript, the newspaper that served the city's most proper. (p. 476)
John Deedy, in Commonweal (copyright © 1978 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), July 21, 1978.