Upton Sinclair Sinclair, Upton (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Van Wyck Brooks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Cantwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Malcolm Cowley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

George J. Becker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jon A. Yoder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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