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Sinclair, Upton 1878–1968
Sinclair was an American novelist, playwright, journalist, and essayist. His strong political and social views color all his writing, most notably, The Jungle. His works suffer, it is agreed, under the weight of his polemic: his characters and themes are too often presented with an oversimplification that mars the power of his prose. He has published under the pseudonyms of Clarke Fitch, Frederick Garrison, and Arthur Stirling. Sinclair received the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1942 for Dragon's Teeth. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
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It is natural that Mr. Sinclair should be popular with the dispossessed: they who are so seldom flattered find in his pages a land of milk and honey. Here all the workers wear haloes of pure golden sunlight and all the capitalists have horns and tails; socialists with fashionable English wives invariably turn yellow at the appropriate moment, and rich men's sons are humbled in the dust, winsome lasses are always true unless their fathers have money in the bank, and wives never understand their husbands, and all those who are good are also martyrs, and all those who are patriots are also base. Mr. Sinclair says that the incidents in his books are based on fact and that his characters are studied from life…. But Mr. Sinclair, like the rest of us, has seen what he wanted to see and studied what he wanted to study; and his special simplification of the social scene is one that almost inevitably makes glad the heart of the victim of our system. It fills this victim with emotion, the emotion of hatred and the emotion of self-pity. Mr. Sinclair's novels sell by the hundred thousand; the wonder is they do not sell by the million.
But suppose now that one wishes to see the dispossessed rise in their might and really, in the name of justice, take possession of the world. Suppose one wishes to see the class-system abolished, along with all the other unhappy things that Mr. Sinclair writes about. That is Mr. Sinclair's own desire; and he honestly believes that in writing as he does he contributes to this happy consummation. One can hardly agree with him. In so far as his books show us anything real, they show us the helplessness, the benightedness, the naïveté of the American workers' movement. Jimmie Higgins, who does not exist as a character, is a symbol, nevertheless; and one can read reality into him. He is supposed to be the American worker incarnate; and was ever a worker so little the master of his fate? That, in point of fact, is just the conclusion that Mr. Sinclair wishes us to draw. But why is he so helpless? Because, for all his kindness and his courage, he is, from an intellectual point of view, from a social point of view,… the merest infant; he knows nothing about life or human nature, or economics or philosophy, or even his enemies. How can he advance his own cause,… how can he become anything but what he is…? [Mr. Sinclair's novels] arouse the emotion of self-pity. Does that stimulate the worker, or does it merely console him? They arouse the emotion of hatred. Does that teach him how to grapple with his oppressors, or does it place him all the more at their mercy?… [These] false simplifications of Mr. Sinclair, these appeals to the martyr in human nature, are so much dust thrown in the eyes of his readers. (pp. 293-95)
One might … maintain that the only writers who can aid in the liberation of humanity are those whose sole responsibility is to themselves as artists. (p. 296)
[When Mr. Sinclair] tells us that "the struggles of crude and illiterate men for their daily bread and their common rights have more meaning and more interest for the future than all the graces and refinements of the 'cultivated class'" … we feel that his mind suffers from a certain confusion…. It was the "graces and refinements" in the characters of the novels of Dumas, of all writers in the world, let Mr. Sinclair remember, that aroused in Maxim Gorky his first revolutionary feeling…. [The] cause of justice is always served, in unexpected ways, by writers who are true to any part of reality in themselves. (pp. 296-97)
Mr. Sinclair says that a critic, in order to understand the task of a revolutionary novelist, should "go and get himself a job in a West Virginia coal-mine."… [But if a writer] cannot understand the dispossessed without sharing the conditions of their life, he reveals his own incompetence, he reveals a lack of just that intuitive power which justifies his choosing to be a writer: one calls to witness Zola, who, before committing La Terre to paper, spent one afternoon exploring the region with which his book was concerned. That was all the physical, corporeal Zola required, in the way of "seeing life," in order to contribute his mite to the cause of the workers: the sufferings through which this document came to birth were internal, spiritual sufferings, and that is why the results have really told. (pp. 297-98)
Van Wyck Brooks, "Upton Sinclair and His Novels," in his Sketches in Criticism (copyright © 1932 by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.; copyright renewed 1960 by Van Wyck Brooks; reprinted by permission of the publisher, E. P. Dutton), Dutton, 1932, pp. 291-98.
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Van Wyck Brooks's criticism of Sinclair's novels [see excerpt above] was that they create a mood of self-pity—that they invite a workman to feel sorry for himself rather than to develop his intelligence and study the world around him and the forms of action that are possible for him. The point is good, but it is not very relevant: Sinclair has scarcely attempted to interpret working-class life since The Jungle. His typical story is that of a rich young man who gets mixed up in the radical movement, and the drama lies in the dissolution of his ruling-class dogmas—the pattern of King Coal, Roman Holiday and Oil! His strongest and most original characterizations are middle-class types like Bunny's father in Oil! or the cranky old single-tax millionaire of Mountain City—people more or less akin to the George Herrons and Gaylord Wiltshires of his early days as a writer—while the miners around Hal in King Coal, or the oil workers around Bunny in Oil!, or the rank and file of the coöperative movement in Co-Op, serve primarily as background high-lighting the situations of the aristocrats. For a decade after The Jungle, Sinclair's fiction dealt almost entirely with upper-class life—in The Metropolis, The Moneychangers, Sylvia and Sylvia's Marriage—and he did not return to working-class subjects and working-class characters until he wrote King Coal in 1917.
Their influence is hardly more apparent in Sinclair's work than in that of his less politically conscious contemporaries. In Oil!, for example, Sinclair found it possible to write an exhaustive study of the industry, including a long and vivid description of how wells are drilled, without giving an account of what the oil workers themselves actually do. The limitation does not merely result in a general one-sidedness in his panorama—it accounts for a blurring of the technical descriptions and an elementary sort of vagueness in the prose. In Roman Holiday the same limitation is more strikingly dramatized—the young millionaire has come into direct conflict with the workers and has been responsible for the death of a working-class leader, whereupon the novel breaks in two, with its second section laid in ancient Rome and its ruling-class dilemma repeated in that antique setting.
Out of Sinclair's later works you get a definite impression that his attention is focused on the upper-class world that he usually describes with a mixture of heavy-handed satire and emotional appeals to reform itself. His imagination is filled with [exact and intricate details of] the intrigues and maneuvers and hypocrisies of capitalists…. But his exposés are never as enlightening as they promise to be, and his reiterated explanations of frame-ups and wirepulling never really explain much.
All his works of this sort came to a climax in his account of the EPIC campaign, when he was himself not only on the inside but at the very center, and so in a position to know at first hand the secrets of capitalist political control. And I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked is a frank and conscientious record of those consequential weeks that tells everything except how Sinclair was defeated. It is filled with disclosures of what went on in hotel rooms and law offices and newspaper offices … giving an interesting picture of a political campaign from the inside and a warning of what a genuinely popular reform move is up against. But it contains no disclosures of what went on in the ramshackle halls and the rented houses where the EPIC movement grew, and no disclosures of what was going on in the minds of the masses who suddenly took political initiative out of the hands of professional politicians. Nor does it reveal what the anonymous thousands of volunteer workers said to each other as, in the space of a few months, they created a political party out of nothing, or what they said as they … held together in spite of the sickening slanders in the press and the routine treacheries of the politicians—although their unstudied words might conceivably be more meaningful and interesting, as well as more deeply felt, than Roosevelt's unkept promises.
These paradoxes in Sinclair's writing and in his career are a measure of the difficulties in the task he set for himself. He is the first important American novelist to see in the struggle between capital and labor the driving force of modern industry; he has hammered away for a lifetime at the cruelties and injustices of exploitation as well as at the grossness and insensitivity of life among the exploiters, and his books, with all their unevenness and vacillations, have a simple literal honesty about them that makes the work of most of his contemporaries seem evasive and affected. He has done more than any other American novelist toward breaking the path for a full and realistic treatment of working-class life in fiction—the battles he has been engaged in, the enemies he has attracted and the silence and persecution with which his books have been met being his personal cost for that pioneering work. In his concern with the moral aspects of exploitation, his strong religious feeling, his indifference to Marxian theory, his reformism and his hope for a peaceful solution of the class struggle, he has been the outstanding literary representative of the Second International, in the way that a writer of the type of André Malraux—intense, defiant, scornful—promises now to become the voice in fiction of the hard-pressed and violent life of the Third. (pp. 44-7)
Robert Cantwell, "Upton Sinclair" (originally published in After the Genteel Tradition: American Writers since 1910, edited by Malcolm Cowley, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1937), in After the Genteel Tradition: American Writers, 1910–1930, edited by Malcolm Cowley (copyright © 1936, 1937, 1948, 1964 by Malcolm Cowley; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 37-47.
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Although there are some critics who admire Love's Pilgrimage and Sylvia, and though there is much in both books to show the diversity of Sinclair's talent, it seems to me that King Coal (1917) is the first book after The Jungle to indicate his full power as a novelist of the social scene. If the people of the upper class are sometimes stiff and inhuman, the workers have great vitality; and so has Hal, the aristocratic hero. What is most impressive in King Coal, however, is the evidence that Sinclair had learned how to assimilate the vast quantities of information his restless mind collects. There are no solid blocks of exposition in King Coal as there are in The Jungle; the documentation is there, but it is an essential part of the story.
Rather surprisingly, Sinclair did not continue the artistic advance made in King Coal. The fiction written between 1917 and 1927, when Oil appeared, is mostly trivial and inferior. But within that decade Sinclair did write his great series of pamphlets…. All of these books have the same virtues and the same faults. For example, both The Brass Check and The Goose Step, which had the greatest influence, are tremendous collections of facts—facts of the most startling import to anyone who had believed that our great newspapers and our great universities were as impartial as they pretended to be. To have these facts brought together was sensational and extremely useful. On the other hand, as many critics gleefully pointed out, trivial incidents, often out of Sinclair's experience, were treated in as much detail as scandals of national magnitude, and the very quantities of factual material tended to get in the way of an understanding of journalism or education as such. Yet, whatever their faults, these books stand as examples of muckraking at its best: the patient quest for information that men have done their best to conceal and the fearless publication of what these same men are determined, by whatever means necessary, to keep unknown. (pp. 214-15)
No Pasaran (1937) is the work of a man interested solely in getting quick results. Even when it was published, when it caught so immediately at the emotions the Spanish struggle was arousing, it seemed superficial, and today it seems ludicrous…. [The little novel is] almost a burlesque. It is as good an example as any of what an acute social conscience can do when literary conscience is nonexistent. (p. 215)
Sinclair has always had the ability to withdraw himself from the struggle and to write with an astonishing degree of objectivity. He has not always exercised that gift, as No Pasaran and many other books show, but in the major novels he portrays the events he has taken part in, if not from all sides, then at least from more sides than one. Even here he is still the partisan …, but he is also the historian, doing his best to discover how things happened and why. He will lecture you for all he is worth, but he will not conceal from you anything he sees—and he sees a great deal. (pp. 215-16)
What the [Lanny Budd] series makes clear, in the first place, is that Sinclair is primarily a historical novelist whose field is contemporary history…. The Jungle, King Coal, Oil, and Boston—four novels generally regarded as his best—are all concerned with important contemporary events [as are most of his works]…. The use of documents, the combination of fact and fiction, the treatment of background—all these follow the pattern of the conventional historical novel. (p. 216)
We may as well accept the fact that Lanny and all the other characters in the series are … "flat."… "These imaginary persons," Upton Sinclair says, "are more real to me than the people I meet in the outside world." Conceivably that is true…. It is indicative that some of [his] best characters …—Basil Zaharoff, for instance, and Isadora Duncan—are historical persons with well-documented lives. The highest type of creative imagination leaves documents far behind.
But flatness of characterization is, I think, an inherent defect of the genre in which Sinclair is writing. In the historical novel, whether its subject is in the remote or the recent past, if the emphasis in on history, attention is directed outward rather than inward…. One cannot say that Sinclair has a meager imagination, for there are magnificent passages to prove the contrary; but one can say that the very nature of both his practical and his literary interests will not allow him to exploit his insight.
Less inherent in the form are other shortcomings. The writing, if seldom downright bad,… is not distinguished. Years ago Sinclair perfected a fluent, lucid style, easy to read and probably not very hard to write, and, as he says, he can turn out his thousand words a day with no Flaubertian agonies. No experimentalist of these recent years, in fact no writer of the twentieth century, has influenced his style. He editorializes as readily as any Victorian, is not afraid of clichés, uses and sometimes misuses the colloquialisms of the day. It is a style rather painful to those who crave either artifice or art, but it is clear and it does move. (p. 217)
I am willing to grant that Sinclair's aim, in the Lanny Budd series and in almost all his novels, automatically bars him from the highest range of literary achievement. I am willing, as I once would not have been, to grant that great art transcends the purely local and topical not by soaring off into some never-never land but by pushing downward deeper and deeper into reality. One need not raise the old question of eternal values to justify the assertion that there are such qualities as depth and breadth. And Sinclair is committed to the relatively shallow and the relatively narrow. Yet, what he has done, he has done well, and it is time to stop depreciating him…. If Tolstoys came by the dozen, we could afford to smile at Upton Sinclair, but the actual state of contemporary literature scarcely warrants condescension.
The reader is not likely to be deeply moved by the Lanny Budd books, and if he is moved, it is probably because of what he personally associates with the events described and not because of anything Sinclair has written. Yet one reads the books with constant interest and, moreover, with a constant feeling of recognition: this is the world one lives in That is not a feeling one gets from the greater part of modern fiction. The average person enters the world of Wolfe or Hemingway or Faulkner—to say nothing of the worlds of Joyce and Proust and Mann—with a sense of strangeness; one believes but is baffled. The world Sinclair describes, though it is physically remote from us and the characters live in circumstances very different from ours, is perfectly recognizable. It is the world we read about daily in the newspapers.
Not in the deepest sense, but still in a real one, the reader lives through the great historic events of the past quartercentury. One becomes, not a participant, but, like Lanny Budd, a spectator. One sees and, at least to a point, understands. (p. 218)
[There are other, better novels that give] a more vivid and abiding sense of [Nazi] terror than does Dragon's Teeth. Qualitatively, therefore, they may give a deeper insight into fascism than Sinclair gives…. [But what] these novels reveal to the reader is the nature of oppression and brutality, [and] oppression and brutality, unfortunately, are not restricted to Germany; … the most telling scenes … might have taken place in many ages and in many lands. Thus the authors … escape the topical and local, but at the same time they lose something I suspect they wanted to get—the peculiar quality of fascism. And this Sinclair does get, precisely because he is rooted in time and place. (p. 219)
Granville Hicks, "The Survival of Upton Sinclair," in College English (copyright © 1943 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of Russell & Volkening, Inc., as agents for the author), Vol. 4, No. 4, January, 1943, pp. 213-20.
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I respect [Upton Sinclair] because he says exactly what he thinks, even if it often sounds foolish to others and will eventually sound foolish to himself; he is willing to confess his mistakes. I respect him because he has acquired a great deal of sober wisdom about political affairs, and because he talks better sense than the people who laugh at him. And I respect him, too, because he has retained an old-fashioned and innocent love for mankind….
Perhaps [his] colorless picture of human motives was less of a fault in [the] earlier novels that I haven't read. But [in Wide Is the Gate] he is dealing with a period of moral dissolution, marked by the reappearance of deliberate evil—of Satan himself, you might say, stalking the earth in a form that he hadn't assumed since the Middle Ages. Sinclair doesn't believe in Satan; at heart he doesn't even believe in Heinrich Himmler. He is a capable writer when explaining the connection between economics and politics, but he never casts much light on the connection between politics and the human soul. You never feel in reading him that men, through committing political crimes, have been turned into monsters, or that they come to enjoy cruelty for its own sake, or that the political chaos in Europe—and in America too—was paralleled by a moral chaos. Instead you feel dull and slightly uplifted, as if the editorial page of an old-fashioned Socialist newspaper had been rewritten in terms of action and dialogue, but without being dramatized.
Malcolm Cowley, "Man of Good Will," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1943 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 108, No. 2, January 11, 1943, p. 58.
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There are two general approaches which Sinclair makes in [his] novels. One is a close, documented study of the working of some specific economic mechanism; the other is a charge of general conspiracy for the maintenance and extension of privilege on the part of the beneficiaries of the system. The Jungle is relatively successful because it leans heavily on the former technique, though the charge of conspiracy is implicit throughout. The later novels are much more flabby and give the reader a sickening sense of the injustices of the economic system only when they fall back on the straight reportorial method.
Most ambitious of Sinclair's social chronicles is the monster work which occupied him throughout the 1940's, the so-called Lanny Budd series. There are eleven volumes in this series…. (Actually the publication of the tenth in 1949 rounded out the series in its original conception. The Return of Lanny Budd four years later is outside the logical and aesthetic unity of the work and will largely be ignored in the discussion that follows.) These volumes constitute a fictional history of our era comparable to Zola's Rougon-Macquart or Romains' Men of Good Will, though they are inferior as fiction to either of these. What the author has here undertaken is to explain our times to those who, living in them, suffer from the double blinders of proximity and acceptance of capitalism as the only form of society. His story is cast in the form of a morality play, with the forces of good pitted against the forces of evil. It is a curious dialectic which he has contrived and the effect is not precisely what his doctrinal purpose should have achieved. For, while the forces of good as represented in the hero, Lanny Budd, win all the local engagements, the war goes on without sensible diminution in the strength of the adversary, since as the Nazi-Fascist enemy is destroyed, the Stalinist monster takes its place, and the battle for a better world is still to win. There is even at the end a tacit admission that in this fight there is little that avails the man of good will, who is notable more for his continued struggle against odds than for the resounding victories that he wins. (pp. 135-36)
[Lanny's life story] cannot be called a novel of an education, for as in the case of the author's other heroes of privileged birth, Lanny's conversion is too speedy and too automatic to be interesting. However, having achieved his faith, he is unwavering in adherence to it, incapable of the slightest deviation to right or left though beset by every ideological pitfall. That is what makes the Sinclair gospel so interesting and so irritating: it is all too simple to be a man of good will, and everybody else is obviously and maddeningly wrong.
As usual, the author uses his narrative to highlight the selfishness, futility, and decadence of capitalist society and its privileged products. The major social attack is, as always, against the tight conspiracy of wealth, set forth this time on an international scale….
It is the battle between the … fictional characters and the historical villains which provides the drama of these works. Whatever the simplicity and shallowness of conception with respect to the forces of history, it is here that these novels take on vigor and a certain grandeur. Upton Sinclair is a born storyteller when he lets himself go, and here he has high and exciting events to deal with. (p. 136)
[Now] we come to the real problem of evaluation of the lifelong effort of Upton Sinclair. He has been our most prolific, our most persistent, and possibly our most effective critic via fiction. What has he achieved? A serious man, he has the reputation of being a crank. A constant man, he is charged with inconsistency A seeker after truth, he is accused of constructing a picture of society so oversimplified as to be false. There can be little doubt that abroad, where his books have been widely translated and read, he has had more influence than at home, precisely because the foreigner is more ready to accept the pattern Sinclair imposes on events, since he is not close enough to them to be troubled by the oversimplification. The American is bound to be resistant to the formulas of Socialism as Sinclair preaches them, and they are not made any more acceptable by palpable and childish simplification. Yet for all that it is possible that Sinclair has helped his countrymen to think in terms of economic process and to gather some sense of the broad sweep of events which make up recent history.
At times during his life Sinclair has felt that his propaganda was availing nothing; he pointed out, for example, twentyfive years after publication of The Jungle, that that book had not advanced the condition of the packinghouse worker one iota. Certainly he has come to see that amelioration cannot be brought about all at once and must wait upon events and the felt need among the people, provided of course that the democratic process is allowed to continue. He has learned too that the clear beacon which has led him on is not so alluring to all men. For him at the end of the day there is less of hope, though more of wisdom, than there was in the morning, but the sincere and selfless aspiration which animated him at the beginning has run through all his works and still is dominant. (pp. 139-40)
George J. Becker, "Upton Sinclair: Quixote in a Flivver," in College English (copyright © 1959 by the National Council of Teachers of English), Vol. 21, No. 3, December, 1959, pp. 133-40.
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[If] literature is an attempt to place ideology before readers in an understandable way, an obvious spokesman becomes a convenient tool rather than a literary liability. In this way Sinclair hoped to produce "propaganda of vitality and importance"—propaganda defined by Sinclair as the spreading of democratic socialism. (pp. 12-13)
Far from a foreign ideology, Sinclair's concept of American socialism retained every significant aspect of an idealism often referred to as the American Dream. Sinclair's sermon was not advocation of dictatorship of an American proletariat by means of violent revolution. Rather than overthrowing traditional American values, he urged his audience to return to the vision that had, in his opinion, made American mankind's noblest attempt to achieve human brotherhood. (p. 13)
[The Jungle] called the attention of the world to Upton Sinclair. For his portrayal of Lithuanian peasants who come to America vividly suggests that our melting pot is less appetizing than the terms offered on our Statue of Liberty. (p. 31)
The immigrants, as Sinclair describes them, are faced with the difficult task of retaining desirable aspects of an old way of life … within a new setting that affords, supposedly, the chance to succeed economically via personal efforts. According to scholars such as Oscar Handlin, this effort was doomed to fail from the time they got on board the boat in Europe….
Not only do old ways fall victim to new conditions in Sinclair's novel, but the promise of equal economic opportunity for which these old values were sacrificed turns out to be fraudulent….
Sinclair's title indicates that American society, in his analysis, had returned to the law of the jungle, where might makes right in a brutal survival of the fittest. (p. 32)
Rather than praising competition as a healthy and natural process—with cream always rising to the top—Sinclair accepted the contradictory value of cooperation. Competition, the socially inadequate law of the jungle, turns men into brutes in his novel…. (pp. 32-3)
By the end of [The Jungle the protagonist] has become a thoroughly convinced socialist, part of the social movement that he and Sinclair expected to turn Chicago into a place fit for Americans.
Sinclair's novel is remembered, and rightly so, for its graphic descriptions of working conditions in Packingtown. But only about half of the book is concerned with the meat-packing industry, and even this half is used as a vehicle for Sinclair's larger message. What had happened to the spirit of America? What devil had tempted the American mind to substitute cash for value, thus allowing this intended Garden of Eden to go to seed—nourished by the heat of industrialization into a jungle of greed and grease and despair?
For Sinclair, bringing democracy to industry represented an answer to both economic and spiritual questions. (pp. 38-9)
Sinclair visited Colorado four times to gather data about the working conditions of miners. Supported by sworn testimony taken under government supervision, Congressional Committee Reports, and a decision by the Colorado Supreme Court regarding fraudulent Colorado elections, Sinclair's novel, King Coal (1917), illustrated his belief that … the entire system of capitalism was to blame, ultimately, for conditions leading to the extended coal strikes.
Violence, in Sinclair's view, becomes inevitable when democratic avenues for change are closed as a matter of official policy. Class conflict will become combat when unions are not allowed to organize, when rights to public assembly are denied, when public elections are turned over to private corporations so that the ballots of illiterate voters can be marked for them by company officials. (pp. 57-8)
Far from becoming a revolutionist, Hal [the protagonist of King Coal] concludes that actual enforcement of current laws regarding working hours, safety conditions, and union organization would be satisfactory. But the enforcers of law are on the company payrolls too….
In King Coal, Sinclair charges that when a mine catches fire the mine is sealed—suffocating the fire (and the men trapped below) before it can burn much of the resource material. More than one hundred men are caught in the incident Sinclair narrates…. (p. 59)
While researching and writing King Coal, Sinclair was also busy compiling The Cry For Justice, an anthology of protest literature…. In addition, throughout these years Sinclair was gathering data for a series of books that attempted to expose the corruptness of basic American institutions—the church (The Profits of Religion), the press (The Brass Check), and the schools (The Goose-step, The Goslings).
But before he could continue his attack on the system, Sinclair had to confront a basic issue. What does a social reformer do when the society to be reformed is threatened with collapse? More precisely, what does an American socialist do when confronted by an international situation steadily degenerating into World War I? Sinclair joined his Dutch friend, Fredrick van Eeden, in the formation of the International League—a coalition of intellectuals attempting to "stave off" the war. But as this sort of effort failed, as it became clear that America would enter the European conflict, Sinclair felt increasingly alienated from a Socialist Party that continued to argue that American workers had no reason to help British capitalists fight German capitalists.
In July of 1917 major newspapers printed Sinclair's letter of resignation from the Socialist Party, a letter which contended that "the ability to think consists in the discovery of differences in things which appear alike…. It is fatally easy to say that all capitalist governments are alike, and that all must be opposed in the same way."
As would be expected, Sinclair's personal concerns show up in his publications. He depicts the dilemma faced by American socialists quite effectively in Jimmie Higgins (1919)—a novel offered for the contemplation of those who consider Sinclair completely simple-minded. For in this book no obvious solutions are proposed. The direction Jimmie eventually moves in turns out to be ideologically and personally disastrous. And no alternatives emerge to indicate that Jimmie could have done something better. (pp. 60-1)
[Socialist] publications were unwilling to publish [Sinclair's] defense of American policy. So in 1918 he began his own magazine, Upton Sinclair's: For a Clean Peace and the Internation. While publishing Jimmie Higgins in serial form in this magazine, Sinclair's enthusiasm began to sour, and he turned the end of his novel into another direction. (pp. 62-3)
The reader's last view of Jimmie reveals a barking, growling creature who gnaws off the ends of his fingers just as wild animals chew off their own limbs to escape from a trap.
Sinclair too was trapped by the position he had felt forced to take during the war. Ten years after his resignation from the Socialist Party, embittered at the agreement Wilson signed in Paris, Sinclair admitted his error:
… if at the beginning of 1917 I had known what I know today, I would have opposed the war and gone to jail with the pacifist radicals…. I cannot forgive him [Wilson]; it is not merely that he made a fool of himself, but he made a fool of me!
So in 1920 he wrote 100%, The Story of a Patriot, a caustic satire about a labor-union spy. Although not a significant novel, 100% shows Sinclair dropping his defense of the American government and returning to his more familiar role of critic…. Sinclair's primary attack during these years was to be made outside the realm of fiction. (pp. 63-4)
[The] 1920s ended with Sinclair still crusading, still hoping for brighter tomorrows, still believing that writers could educate a national mentality, still expressing the liberal dilemma in a critical but sympathetic way. As the nation moved from disillusion to depression, Sinclair's views remained constant. But he experimented widely, trying to find the best means of expression. He maintained an average of at least one novel per year during the 1930s, but none of them seem to be of lasting value or current interest. He wrote a few more plays, but as a dramatist Sinclair never had a significant success. So Upton Sinclair's contribution to the great-depression decade is to be remembered primarily by a book on mental telepathy [Mental Radio (1930)], an autobiography [American Outpost (1932)], two rather biographical works [on William Fox and Henry Ford], a financial fiasco, and a political campaign that is still being discussed and imitated. (p. 85)
Sinclair's concept of liberalism perceived constant tension between pragmatism—the ability to function effectively in the real world—and the other liberal values that reject totalitarian behavior. The irony is clear and frustrating. Liberal values get suspended "for the duration" of national emergencies because the existence of a nation set up to incorporate liberal values is perceived to be at stake.
Lanny Budd, Sinclair's American liberal, is a self-diagnosed schizophrenic. Seeing himself as caught between his idealism and his definition of realism, he sacrifices the first for the second, fully expecting his acute discomfort to be only temporary and anticipating the American postwar return to normalcy. Most of the series is written within this context. (p. 96)
To write complete plot synopses of the books in the Lanny Budd series would be to paraphrase the front pages of the newspapers published between World War I and the Korean conflict, adding a central character who is in attendance at most of the significant political events of those decades, who knows the principal characters intimately, who is loved by all, and who influences world history to move in the directions desired by American liberals…. Lanny, in the opinion of his crusading creator, consistently fights the good fight as American liberals should—reluctantly but well. (p. 97)
Sinclair served the public … as a reflector of the condition of the American liberal by recording what liberals were thinking for half a century—including both optimistic and cynical periods. In terms of his own goal, the production of liberal propaganda, few American authors have been more successful. Certainly his presentation and personification of the complex liberal dilemma remains the most exhaustive analysis on record. (p. 113)
Jon A. Yoder, in his Upton Sinclair (copyright © 1975 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1975, 134 p.
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