Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), the author of 79 books, including the novel The Jungle (1906), the most celebrated muckraking work of its time and the only one widely read a century later, is enjoying something of a revival these days. It is not difficult to see why. Sinclair popularized the social-scientific ideas developed by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class, and Americanized Benjamin Disraeli’s notion of “Two Englands,” a phrase coined by the 19th-century English novelist and political genius to describe the division between rich and poor. In the manner of Disraeli, Sinclair wrote unceasingly of two Americas, a disgrace to the national ideals of freedom and equality.
This theme has enjoyed a long life, surfacing most recently in the high rhetorical dudgeon of John Edwards in his campaign for the presidency and cropping up in the fulminations of other candidates against the evils of Exxon and Halliburton. It thus hardly seems coincidental that, in 2006, the centenary year of The Jungle, two biographies of Sinclair should have appeared: Radical Innocent,1 by Anthony Arthur, a professor emeritus at California State University at North-ridge, and Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century,2 by Kevin Mattson, who teaches history at Ohio University and is a regular contributor to the left-wing magazines Dissent and the Nation.
Making even more of a splash has been the film There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and based loosely on Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!. Its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, won an Oscar for best actor this February, and Penguin has issued a new paperback edition of the novel with a cover photograph of Day-Lewis brooding satanically over his petroleum empire. But if it is no great mystery why Hollywood should have found Sinclair congenial to its purposes just now, the more interesting question concerns whether Sinclair, much of whose career was spent as an ardent socialist, still speaks to the substantial part of the nation that does not take its political direction from leftist demagoguery.
Sinclair’s reading of Veblen only confirmed and gave intellectual form to his own experience growing up in Baltimore and New York. His father, descended from an illustrious line of naval heroes, did not live up to his pedigree: the elder Sinclair was an alcoholic failure of a salesman whose improvidence took the family down with him into the gray misery of cheap boardinghouses and rank saloons. But since his wife came from money, and since her sister married the wealthiest man in Baltimore, young Upton became intimate with both near-destitution and conspicuous consumption. Acquiring leisure-class tastes, he became a fair violinist and a crackerjack tennis player.
But he also learned early to pay his own way, selling jokes and stories to magazines from the age of fifteen. His undergraduate career at City College of New York and graduate work at Columbia were little more than distractions from his writing. At nineteen he was turning out 8,000 well-paid words a day, composing a series of dime novels about a West Point cadet and a young naval ensign. At twenty-one he used his savings to go off to the Quebec woods for the summer and write a serious novel, Springtime and Harvest (1901), the tale of “a woman’s soul redeemed by high and noble love.”
The novel would sell only 2,000 copies, but that summer a beautiful young woman, Meta Fuller, came to his cabin door offering high and noble love. She changed his life, not entirely for the better. The pair were married in the fall of 1900. Sinclair had always been wary of the snares of lust—he had given up the study of Renaissance art because the beckoning nudes were more than he could safely take—and now, terrified that a child would be deadweight on his literary career, he proposed that man and wife live together as brother and sister. Sexlessness proving impossible, Meta became pregnant all too soon.
The next few years brought continued literary failure and family unhappiness; one night in their cabin near Princeton, Sinclair awoke to find his wife holding a cocked pistol to her temple. Poverty also inclined him toward socialism as the cure for what ailed him. In 1904 he wrote a letter to Lincoln Steffens, dean of the muckrakers, praising his The Shame of the Cities while chiding his failure to propose socialism as the remedy for rampant evildoing.
Sinclair’s newfound social conscience soon got him noticed. He began to write for Appeal to Reason, a socialist weekly newspaper with 250,000 subscribers. His article urging the workers in the Chicago stockyards to persist in struggle despite their recently failed strike led to a deal for a serial novel on “wage slavery.” Sinclair headed off to Packingtown on Chicago’s South Side, where he spent seven weeks gathering material.
The Jungle, which traces the career of the Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus as he spirals deeper and deeper into the capitalist inferno, is a novel of the rawest emotional violence. In the stockyards Jurgis works and works at hellish jobs but falls ever backward, cheated at every turn. His lovely young wife is coerced into whoredom by her leering boss, and eventually dies in childbirth; his son drowns in an unpaved and flooded street; a nephew is eaten alive by rats. The conditions in the abattoir are unspeakable:
There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.
Jurgis takes to drink, batters the scoundrel who pimped out his wife, goes to jail, becomes a tramp. The biblical Job had a cakewalk by comparison. But of course Job did not have the Socialist Party of America—a force wiser and more potent than the voice from the whirlwind—to point the way to redemption. For it is not just the meatpacking industry but the entire social order that is a mass of systemic corruption. Every enterprise is tainted; the fix is always in; and democracy is a scam run by smooth operators for the lining of their own pockets. Only in the radiant socialist future will decency and science triumph, enabling a man to work but a single hour a day to earn his living. (There are scams and there are scams, and Sinclair was not on to all of them.)
In their biographies, both Arthur and Mattson compare The Jungle with Uncle Tom’s Cabin for earnest clumsiness and nerve-searing power. Chicago’s meatpacking industry tried hard to prevent the book’s publication, and with good reason: its appearance propelled Sinclair to world fame with stupendous suddenness. The novel was promptly translated into seventeen languages; in England, Winston Churchill, another young man on the way up, wrote a glowing 5,000-word review. The White House received a hundred letters daily about the book, and President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a writer of some accomplishment, sent Sinclair a three-page critique, deploring his socialism (as did Churchill) but inviting him to the White House for a chat.
The uneasy alliance between author and President helped to see the Meat Inspection Amendment and the Pure Food and Drug Act through Congress. Arthur declares that the legislation was Roosevelt’s doing far more than Sinclair’s, and Mattson adds that Sinclair thought it insufficient to cope with the prevailing foulness. For him, nothing less than government-run slaughterhouses would do.
Sinclair earned $30,000 from sales of The Jungle—the equivalent of $600,000 today—and he quickly sank much of his newfound wealth into a utopian project to transform private life, which he saw as a desperate public concern. He founded a commune in New Jersey where residents, almost all of them writers and intellectuals, would grow their own food, share the domestic burdens of child-rearing and kitchen work so that women could flourish in spirit, and engage in high talk before the huge central fireplace.
A few months after it began, the would-be idyll ended when a fire destroyed the residence building. Although the likely culprit was a faulty boiler, Sinclair cried arson, blaming Andrew Carnegie and the Steel Trust. They, he charged, had learned there were documents in his possession proving the use of “rotten steel” in battleship construction. Arthur dismisses this conspiracy theory, which, he writes, damaged Sinclair’s “reputation for accuracy and common sense, somewhat compromised by excessive zeal. Now the zeal predominated.”
Subsequent novels, including The Metropolis (1907) and The Moneychangers (1908), did not sell, and Sinclair’s marriage headed inexorably down the tubes, speeded by Meta’s growing passion for her husband’s best friend, the poet Harry Kemp. When Sinclair sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery in 1911, the case made flaming headlines around the country. By 1913, Sinclair, having sought out new love, married an aspiring writer from Mississippi named Mary Craig Kimbrough. (Her autobiography is titled Southern Belle.)
In April 1914, combat between militia and striking miners in Ludlow, Colorado, left 24 dead, including thirteen children. The mine being struck was a Rockefeller enterprise, now in the hands of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a more tractable sort than his granitic father. Picketing in front of the Standard Oil Building in New York won Sinclair a three-day stretch in The Tombs. He subsequently spent three weeks in Colorado assessing the situation, and on his return addressed a protest meeting in which he called Rockefeller a murderer for the sake of higher dividends.
Days later, a nineteen-year-old fellow protester was one of four people killed when a bomb intended for the Rockefellers blew up prematurely. Speaking out of one side of his mouth, Sinclair insisted the bomb-maker had been goaded to violence by the brutality of the police and an attacking mob; out of the other, he rejected any recourse to violence in pursuit of a just cause. Eventually he would contend that the threat of assassination likely compelled Rockefeller to negotiate with the miners and improve working conditions. He would also write two novels about the affair, King Coal (1917) and The Coal War (1918).
But now a far more destructive war had come to occupy his attention, turning him away from his earlier doctrinaire pacifism and thus separating him from the socialist flock. While his sometime brethren saw the Great War as an internecine capitalist conflict, Sinclair thought that Germany, under the thumb of a “barbarian caste,” must be defeated for its own good and the good of civilization; after all, in a conquered Germany, socialism might find its true home. So in 1917, in the interest of saving socialism, he very publicly resigned from the Socialist party and the next year began publication of a monthly magazine sup- porting the war effort. But then the war ended, the magazine expired after ten issues, and in short order Sinclair returned to the fold.
There followed a decade emphatically not to his taste. His antipathy to the institutions and achievements of capitalist society was never more charged than in the 1920’s. In a series of books—The Profits of Religion (1918), The Brass Check (1920), The Goose-Step (1923), The Goslings (1924), Mammonart (1925), and Money Writes! (1927)—he fried organized godliness, journalism, universities, high schools, and literature old and new, which to his mind represented a “dead hand” choking the life out of a putatively free society.
In 1923 he was arrested in Los Angeles for publicly reading the First Amendment at a rally in support of a strike by the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1927 the censors of Boston banned the sale of Oil! on account of a few racy passages. Sinclair paraded on Boston Common selling a special Fig Leaf Edition. The novel sold 75,000 copies; partly in gratitude, perhaps, he called his next novel, about the Sacco-Vanzetti murder case, Boston (1928).
The highlight of the ensuing decade was Sinclair’s run for governor of California in 1934. He had stood for Congress in 1920, the Senate in 1922, and the governorship in 1926 and 1930, always as a Socialist and in each case winning laughable numbers. But in 1934 he became a registered Democrat and handily secured the nomination of his new party, which had been out of power in California for a generation. His campaign program, called EPIC (for End Poverty in California), aimed to fight overproduction or underconsumption by means of a state program to provide the unemployed with productive labor. Mattson declares that “Sinclair did not talk about socialism when he outlined EPIC,” but one might be forgiven for calling it socialism all the same: beside the state’s getting its hands on the means of production, the program featured a steeply graduated income tax, confiscatory inheritance taxes, and the intent, in Arthur’s words, “to tax wealthy landholders out of existence and greatly increase public-utility taxes.”
For a delirious moment, Sinclair thought that he had convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to support him. But FDR had only given the impression of support, and then left Sinclair unprotected against a relentless Republican opposition led by the Los Angeles Times and Hollywood moguls. MGM’s Irving Thalberg produced phony newsreels with actors impersonating detractors in man-on-the-street interviews. At a mass rally, the evangelist and tarnished angel Aimee Semple McPherson histrionically lowered the Stars and Stripes and raised the hammer and sickle to signify the effect of a Sinclair victory. He lost to the Republican candidate by 49 to 38 percent. Mary Craig wept in relief.
Sinclair, too, was relieved to return to writing. In 1939 he completed World’s End, the first in an eleven-volume series known as the Lanny Budd novels. Lanny is a breathtakingly accomplished hero who encounters most of the principal historical actors of the first half of the century, employing his varied talents first as a spy against Hitler and later as a die-hard enemy of the Kremlin. Dragon’s Teeth, the third novel in the series, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. Thomas Mann observed: “Some day the whole cycle will certainly be recognized as the best-founded and best-informed description of the political life of our epoch.” Diana Trilling, harder to please, pronounced the work “fatuous.”
The main point is that, after World War II, Sinclair, like his hero Lanny, had become an implacable cold warrior. The exact cause of this about-face—although never a Communist, he had certainly been friendly to the great experiment in human betterment allegedly being conducted in the Soviet Union—is unclear. It may well have had something to do with Sinclair’s outrage at Communism for sullying the good name of the socialist cause, as a comment by Arthur suggests:
Sounding like the Orwell of “Politics and the English Language,” Lanny [in The Return of Lanny Budd (1953)] says the Communists “have taken up all the good words and poisoned them. You can’t say ‘liberal,’ you can’t say ‘democratic,’ you can’t say ‘people’s,’ you can’t say ‘workers’ any more.”
Whatever triggered his disaffection, Sinclair crossed out all the names of Communists in his address book and thundered in a letter: “I have broken off all connection with the Soviet Union and its supporters and all those who let themselves be duped by its campaign of falsehood and treachery.” His enduring political belief, he added, hallowed “social justice brought about by honest means, by free and open discussion, and by the democratic process which we in America know and have practiced for centuries.”
In his personal life, Sinclair’s fidelity was tested and proved golden as Mary Craig began to fail; during seven years of heart disease that turned them both into recluses, he nursed her with tender attentiveness. Her death in 1961 rocked him, but with typical resilience he re-married six months later. A strong supporter of the Vietnam war, he was invited to Lyndon Johnson’s White House in celebration of a bill tightening federal meat-inspection regulations. Ralph Nader came up to the wheelchair-bound old lion and said, “We’re continuing your work, Mr. Sinclair.” Sinclair answered, “I see that you are. Keep watching them.” Two months after his ninetieth birthday in 1968, he died.
What has Sinclair’s achievement amounted to? Among his books, The Jungle remains the most significant. Nor is it entirely a period piece. On February 17 of this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture recalled 143 million pounds of beef from the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in California, which had violated government regulations and butchered cows that could not walk. Although for decades meatpacking workers’ unions were strong and the jobs well-paid and well-policed, today most jobs are non-union, and many of the workers are illegal immigrants pretty much at their employers’ mercy; they still go through the grinder, if less horrifically than in Jurgis Rudkus’s time.
Other examples of Sinclair’s proudest muckraking, however, are plainly outdated. The Brass Check, his jeremiad against journalism, sneers at the newspapers for bowing abjectly to the ruling classes: “in every department and in every feature they favor the rich and powerful, and reveal themselves as priests of the cult of Mammon.” Today’s accolades shower instead on journalists who bring down the rich and powerful and highlight the plight of the poor. In The Goose-Step, a broadside against university miseducation, Sinclair paints college presidents and the professoriate as bond servants of the plutocracy, finding their ideas ready-made by the business class and perpetuating greed and intellectual nullity. Miseducation in our time continues apace, but the political polarities have been reversed; Sinclair’s dream of bringing radical leftism into the intellectual centers of power has largely been realized, to distressing effect.
Distress of another, purely aesthetic kind can assail the reader whenever Sinclair starts blowing his socialist horn. In the play Singing Jailbirds (1924), written the year after his arrest for reciting the Constitution aloud, he presented the suffering of incarcerated Wobblies in dialogue riddled with agitprop slogans meant to be taken at face value. By contrast, Lanny Budd elicited some of Sinclair’s better writing. Dragon’s Teeth, set in the early days of Hitler’s regime, is a moving account of liberty defiled and decency extinguished. A scene in which Lanny is forced to watch the whipping of a Jewish businessman is especially harrowing, as is the bargain with Hermann Goering that Lanny makes in order to spring a young Jewish socialist who has been frightfully tortured.
As for Oil!, it, too, though not as rich as Dragon’s Teeth, has many things to recommend it. The two sympathetically drawn main characters are Dad, a fundamentally decent oil tycoon compelled by ruthless competitors to sacrifice his scruples in order to do business, and his son Bunny, the quintessential man of good will who acts from the best of motives and feels the pain of every sufferer as though it were his own. Sinclair understands the mad pathos of businessmen at the top of their game chained to an endless enterprise with no goal but turning out more and more, and the still greater sadness of good men not allowed to become what they long to be. Since this is Sinclair, there is of course no shortage of affluent savages as well, who control the whole predatory system, dominate the well-meaning Dad and Bunny, and brutalize the honest poor.
When, however, today’s Hollywood gets its hands on Oil!, the rich oil men are all savages. None is more so than the Dad character, renamed Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. The film bears the scantest resemblance to the book, and although it opens superbly, with scenes of hard men trying to wrest wealth from hard country, it degenerates predictably into a screed against the violence and hypocrisy of business and religion, the Left’s pre-eminent bugbears.
Daniel professes his business creed when he says he does not want to see anyone else do well. On the religion front, when a young preacher, Eli Sunday, learns that the godless Daniel has murdered a man pretending to be his long-lost brother, he blackmails Daniel into being baptized at his church and begging for forgiveness. Daniel hypocritically goes through with the ceremony but gets his revenge: when Sunday comes to him seeking help with a business deal, Daniel demands he shout out over and over that his religion is all lies; after Sunday has complied, Daniel tells him the deal is off, and proceeds to bludgeon him to death with a bowling pin. In the America of the film’s writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, the tycoon and the evangelist are equally loathsome in their reciprocal mendacity, and both get what is coming to them.
The rhetorical blaze of those purportedly scandalized by the Two Americas has never burned hotter than now, when there has never been less good reason for the heat. At least Sinclair railed mostly against widespread and palpable wrongs, some of which he helped to ameliorate. And, particularly during the cold war, he knew and named real totalitarianism when he saw it. Neither of these things can be said about the likes of Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, and other presumed keepers of Sinclair’s flame. The current dark ardors of the Left are more caught up in the sheer pleasure of burning, an infernal pleasure indeed.
1Random House, 380 p.p., $27.95
2 Wiley, 294 p.p., $25.95.