The Sunkist Utopian
One hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, his gut-churning exposé of the meatpacking industry that schoolchildren still read today in their history classes. A well-merchandized sensation, it sold 100,000 copies in the first year, millions after that, was almost immediately translated into seventeen languages, spurred an uptick in vegetarianism, greased the way for the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug acts, and transformed its 27-year-old Socialist author into a celebrity. Teddy Roosevelt called Sinclair a crackpot but invited him to the White House, and meatpacking magnate J. Ogden Armour offered Frank Doubleday, The Jungle's publisher, a huge advertising contract if he would suppress the book. To seal the deal Armour's representative brought a can of preserved meat.
Despite the hoopla--and the royalties--Sinclair wasn't happy. Nothing if not grandiose, he thought his book would end "wage slavery" in the way that Uncle Tom's Cabin ended chattel slavery and convert his readers to socialism in the bargain. No dice. But hundreds of thousands of readers were transfixed by his graphic descriptions of working conditions in meatpacking plants: employees falling into open cooking vats, diseased cattle passing through slaughterhouses, amputated fingers ground into sausage. Here, for instance, in a legendary passage, Sinclair describes the rodent-beef ratio:
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.
To celebrate the birthday of The Jungle, two laudatory biographies have recently appeared, both of them sympathetic to Sinclair's lifelong struggle against injustice and elitism. Anthony Arthur's Radical Innocent and Kevin Mattson's fine Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century scrupulously document Sinclair's odyssey from poète maudit to prolific author of some ninety-odd books, mostly novels but also critiques of religion, consumerism, education and in all cases capitalism. Sinclair is also the man who, with Jack London, founded the Intercollegiate Socialist Society and, later, the Southern California branch of the ACLU; who met both President Roosevelts, corresponded with Harry Truman and called H.L. Mencken, Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin his friends; who backed Sergei Eisenstein's effort to make an epic film in Mexico and then betrayed him; who ran for governor of California in 1934 (as a Democrat), promising to end poverty in the state; and who dabbled in spiritualism, all varieties of vegetarianism and never met a fad he didn't like.
Given his résumé, Sinclair seems a great subject for biography, but like his novels, he comes across as a little dull, definitely priggish and tone-deaf to the needs of others. Still, Anthony Arthur, a professor of literature emeritus at California State University, Northridge, depicts Sinclair as an incurable optimist who, frustrated by a meretricious and uncaring world, found expression for his utopian dreams in art and, later, in socialism. Arthur is also sympathetic to much of the work, snubbed, he believes, by the "literary establishment that failed to appreciate the way he took command of a subject and made it his own." To Kevin Mattson, a history professor at Ohio University, Sinclair is important less for the literary quality of his work--mostly second-rate and unabashedly middlebrow, he concedes--than for the fact that the man volubly expressed what life was like "not just to [Henry] Luce's American century, but to the other American century"--that is, the century of exploitation, racism, war and deep class divisions unsung by today's pundits. As Mattson puts it, Sinclair "loved the impact his work had on the course of American history, and that story deserves telling today, even more so now that it is in danger of being forgotten."
In fact, the danger seems small. Unliterary though it may be--Mattson is dead-on there--Sinclair's writing still packs a punch even for those who haven't read his work, which is, in a sense, the subject of yet another book published this year, Chris Bachelder's hilarious novel U.S.!. Doffing his cap to Dos Passos's U.S.A. in a pastiche of reminiscences, interviews, songs, course syllabuses and letters, Bachelder masters all the biographical sources as well as several of Sinclair's self-serving memoirs to produce a spirited portrait of an addled old man in an addled country. His central conceit is that Upton Sinclair, the good-hearted old Socialist who died in 1968 at the age of 90, just won't go away. ("The Left may be dead, Joe, but the fear and hatred of the Left will never die.") Unkillable, Sinclair is ritually assassinated by American culture and just as ritually (and literally) disinterred, all the while impervious to everything but his need to write another tiresome if well-intentioned novel excoriating capitalist greed. His newest book, A Moveable Jungle!, is an indictment of corporate outsourcing and the plight of foreign employees.
On the whole, Bachelder's perspective on Sinclair's unsinkability seems right. Just last December, Sinclair was resurrected and assassinated all over again when the Los Angeles Times ran a story, bruited in the conservative press, about the recent purchase of a Sinclair letter in which he admitted that one of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti's defense attorneys had told him that the two Italian anarchists were guilty as charged, and yet he published the novel Boston anyway, to peddle sympathy for them. Neither Mattson nor Arthur would be surprised by the revelatory letter. Each of them amply demonstrates that Sinclair doubted the innocence of at least one, if not both, of the defendants. Sinclair's real subject in Boston was not the guilt or innocence of the anarchists but the institutional xenophobia that denied the two immigrants a fair hearing and sent them to the electric chair.