Upton Sinclair Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Upton Sinclair dedicated The Jungle to the “Workingmen of America.” How does this dedication reflect his attitudes in other novels?

A fierce fighter for women’s rights, Sinclair rarely created memorable female characters. Do you find that this detracts from his attempt to portray a full picture of society?

What journalistic or muckraking (investigative) aspects are prominent in Sinclair’s art?

Sinclair is admired for his fine detail of ethnic customs, traditions, and other aspects of immigrant life. Can you identify such passages and analyze their literary technique?

Does Sinclair aim to shock and scandalize or rather portray the people and events in a truthful, albeit unflinching, light?

Some of Sinclair’s fictions resulted in changes to American laws and customs. Can you think of other writers whose works had such impact on the country?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

ph_0111206440-Sinclair.jpg Upton Sinclair. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Between 1901 and 1961, Upton Sinclair wrote or rewrote more than forty novels, but in addition to his longer fiction, Sinclair also wrote and published a massive amount of nonfiction, including pamphlets, analyses of diverse subjects, memoirs, twelve plays, and letters by the thousands. The bibliography of his works is testimony to his amazing fluency, but no one who is so prolific can escape being uneven, and this is indeed the case with Sinclair. His career, which spanned more than six decades, was unified in one respect, however, for both his fiction and his nonfiction were devoted to a single aim—the achievement of social justice. Everything he wrote was written primarily as a means to attain the end he sought, betterment of the conditions of life for all people. Much of what Sinclair produced is thus not belletristic in any full sense, but propaganda to spread his ideas about politics and economics. In books such as The Industrial Republic (1907), he tries to explain how socialism will be arrived at by a natural process in the United States; the theory is based on the premise that social revolutions are bound to be benevolent. During the period following World War I to the onset of the Great Depression, most of Sinclair’s writing was nonfiction. In a number of books that he called his Dead Hand series, in an ironic allusion to Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” of laissez-faire economics, Sinclair deals with the destructive influence of capitalism...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Upton Sinclair’s literary remains weighed in at eight tons when they were collected for donation to Indiana University Library. Of modern American writers, Sinclair is among the most widely translated, his works having been published in forty-seven languages in thirty-nine countries, yet his literary reputation steadily declined after the 1940’s, despite the fact that The Jungle was still widely read in high school and college classrooms. Moreover, Sinclair himself has historical importance for the role he played in the American radical movement.

Sinclair’s recurring theme as a novelist was class conflict, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, of labor by management, of the have-nots by the haves. With few exceptions, the rich are depicted as useless, extravagant, and unprincipled, while the poor are essentially noble characters who are the victims of capitalistic society. Sinclair’s literary method, which came to be called “muckraking,” was intended to expose the evils of such a society. Apart from The Jungle, which is the best-known example of this genre, there is the Lanny Budd series—ten historical novels that trace the history of the world from 1913 to 1946. Dragon’s Teeth, the third in the series, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1942 by virtue of its vivid portrayal of conditions in Nazi-dominated Europe. In addition to these, the most widely read of Sinclair’s novels, he produced novels on almost every topic of then-current social history, including coal strikes in Colorado in King Coal, exploitation by the oil industry in California in The Wet Parade, and the legal injustices of the murder trial of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti case in Boston. All of Sinclair’s fiction was aimed at the middle-class liberal, whom he hoped to convert to his idealistic vision of a fellowship of labor. Sinclair was thus a spokesman for the progressive era of American history; a chronic protester and iconoclast, he tried to stir the conscience of his nation and to cause change. In only one case, The Jungle, was he successful in prompting the desired changes through legislation. As a propagandist writing in the spirit of Thomas Paine and in the idiom of Karl Marx, Sinclair made a permanent impact by what he said, if not by how he wrote, and to this day, he still serves as one of the chief interpreters of American society to other nations.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Arthur, Anthony. Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair. New York: Random House, 2006. A well-researched, balanced and thorough portrait of Sinclair that tracks the ups and downs of his career and personal life. Includes 16 pages of black and white photos.

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.

Colburn, David R., and George E. Pozzetta, eds. Reform and Reformers in the Progressive Era. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. Examines Sinclair’s position as a muckraker and his role in inspiring Progressive reforms. Unlike other journalistic writers, Sinclair was personally and ideologically committed.

Dell, Floyd. Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest. New York: AMS Press, 1970. Dell’s treatment of Sinclair’s career analyzes the apparent discrepancy between his literary position in the United States and throughout the rest of the world. Personal incidents and psychological insights are intertwined with evaluations and interpretations of specific works. Contains a bibliography of out-of-print books and an index.

Harris, Leon. Upton Sinclair: American Rebel. New York:...

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