The Sunkist Utopian

The Sunkist Utopian

One hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair exposed the meatpacking industry. Three new books expose Sinclair as an activist dreamer with a messianic streak.


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.

Interestingly, though, both Mattson and Arthur praise Boston, a novel so mind-numbing it manages to squash all interest in Sacco and Vanzetti and depress whatever outrage one might feel at the legal cabal that executed them. But Mattson and Arthur praise it for different reasons. To Mattson, who makes no bones about Sinclair’s work–“I read Sinclair’s novels as political tracts,” he explains, “not as exercises in literary expression”–the enigmas of the Sacco and Vanzetti case augured well for Sinclair’s writing, for they inserted into it a much needed “layer of complexity.” In fact, Mattson argues that Boston supplied the “realist dimension to his politics” that ultimately turned what Mencken called the Sunkist Utopian into a card-carrying Democrat willing to work within the party in order to push it to the left.

Arthur, on the other hand, views Boston as a notable if flawed literary achievement. (It made Sinclair a Pulitzer Prize contender; he won in 1943 for Dragon’s Teeth, a book long forgotten, like most of his work.) According to Arthur, not only did Sinclair collect an enormous amount of material for the book but his creation of a Jamesian narrative center, based on Boston matriarch Elizabeth Glendower Evans, prevented the novel from sinking into the moralistic propaganda of books like The Moneychangers (a denunciation of J.P. Morgan), King Coal (about the Colorado coal strike of 1914) and Oil! (an indictment of the petroleum industry). These are just the sort of books that Bachelder spoofs as plodding and predetermined. “The wonderful thing about America is that you always have a shot,” he writes, “while the dreadful thing about a Sinclair novel is that you don’t.”

The difference of opinion over Boston, one of emphasis, highlights an important distinction between these commendable biographies. Mattson’s real interest lies in the symbolic nature of Sinclair’s life; The Other American Century is a narrative about utopian idealism, democratic faith and literature as political activism. To Mattson biography grants us insight into the historical questions and broader forces shaping the individual. Though Arthur does not shortchange these issues, he cares about Sinclair qua Sinclair, an often unlikable human being, a teetotaler, a failure as a father and a latter-day Puritan (he backed Prohibition) whose irrepressible spirit and moral urgency tend to mitigate his unrelieved selfishness. This Sinclair is a people’s writer who speaks to his audience without condescension or mystification: “He read literature as they did, for instruction, persuasion, and entertainment.” Not for him were the Modernist complexities of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Both authors cogently make their case, and though Arthur’s Sinclair is far more palpable–and fallible–than Mattson’s prudish but indefatigable progressive, read together their books evoke a man of distinctly American stripe: the activist dreamer with a messianic streak. Bachelder sees him this way too: “Sinclair, who has witnessed a century of horror, who has been killed countless times, tells us that for every act of greed, hatred, and violence, for every Ludlow Massacre, he has witnessed one hundred acts of compassion and cooperation. Do not, he says, tell him that we cannot remake our world. Do not!”

Born in 1878 in Baltimore to a family he liked to depict as decayed Southern aristocracy, the son of a well-mannered, stern mother and an alcoholic traveling salesman, Sinclair was a sickly child. “The wider breakdown of genteel culture invaded Sinclair’s boyhood,” Mattson writes, “as if a social and historical virus became a virus inhabiting his little body.” Maybe so. More likely, he was a boy on the make whose family moved to New York City (“a city that loves to display economic disparity,” intones Mattson) when he was 10. At 13 he entered City College, and within three years he was supporting his mother by selling stories and jokes to pulp magazines. (“Bedbugs made him a Socialist,” writes Bachelder. “Bedbugs and Shelley.”) Also influenced by Emerson and Carlyle, Sinclair enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University while working for Street and Smith, the publishing syndicate that churned out juvenile books and dime novels.

By 1900–he was 22–Sinclair had dropped out of Columbia, and with his young wife, Meta Fuller, and their new-born son, he moved briefly to a cabin on the St. Lawrence River. Supporting his family with the scant proceeds of his first novel, Springtime and Harvest (1900), Sinclair had launched himself, after a fashion. The novel did not sell. But he learned that publicity was as important as aesthetic quality in his first real coup: He pretended his novel The Journal of Arthur Stirling (1903) was based on the suicide of a real poet–James Frey in reverse.

Disappointed by poor sales (even the Stirling hoax didn’t guarantee solvency) and cynical about the literary machine, Sinclair joined the Socialist Party. Mattson likens this new passion to a religious conversion, but according to Arthur it was through meeting two rich Socialists–George Herron (a former college professor) and Gaylord Wilshire (the land speculator for whom LA’s Wilshire Boulevard is named)–that Sinclair found intellectual, emotional and financial backing. Herron introduced him to Kropotkin, Kautsky, Veblen and Marx, and provided a coherent framework for his dissatisfaction with American life. Sinclair traced its ills to capitalism, and as a moralist, not a theorist, he firmly believed, as Arthur writes, “change the system, and you will change the people.” His newfound political allegiance meant realism in fiction; no more historical fiction, like the Civil War saga Manassas (1904). Rather, under the sway of an editor at Appeal to Reason, a Populist-Socialist weekly with a circulation of 250,000, Sinclair found his true mission muckraking the Chicago stockyards.

Initially serialized in Appeal to Reason and then promoted by Doubleday’s savvy publicist Isaac Marcosson, the hugely profitable The Jungle allowed Sinclair to undertake an experiment in communal living in Englewood, New Jersey, where he purchased Helicon Hall, a former boys’ school. John Dewey was on the board of directors, Sinclair Lewis lived there briefly, and William James, Lincoln Steffens and Emma Goldman all dropped by. But the venture lasted less than a year because a fire of mysterious origins leveled the place. Sinclair then left his wife and son, and after a well-publicized divorce and a brutal account of the failed marriage in his novel Love’s Pilgrimage (1911), he settled in California permanently with his second wife, Mary Craig Kimbrough, in 1916. As Arthur succinctly notes, “Sinclair’s comparative innocence concerning human psychology accounts for his limitations both as a literary artist and a young husband.”

Indeed. Sinclair’s “radical innocence” is the leitmotif of Arthur’s book (hence its title): A man who hears only what he wants to hear, Sinclair is a babe in the woods when dealing with astute politicians like FDR, and he loses the gubernatorial election in California not just because the conservatives in the film industry, business interests in major cities, Republicans and the Los Angeles Times ranged themselves against him but because Democrats undermined the candidacy of one widely considered a “millennial ass.”

Mattson, who tells the same story, also details the more adroit aspects of Sinclair’s plan to end poverty in California (EPIC), which packaged progressive ideas–the call for self-managing farm and factory cooperatives, aided by the government–in a populist idiom that voters could understand. Impressed by Sinclair’s political acumen and his prescience about the rise of Fascism, particularly in the historical novels Sinclair wrote from 1940 to 1948, Mattson considers him a proto-Ralph Nader partly responsible for the rise of the New Left, or at least its muckraking arm (although Sinclair supported the war in Vietnam and rejected third-party spoiling). To Mattson this was a man willing to fight for what he believed, in literature and in life, and whose life reveals “the possibilities and limitations of radical protest.” Arthur basically agrees. “Sinclair was energetic, principled, and humane,” he concludes elegiacally.

But for all their wistful, beseeching encomiums, these good and purposeful books will not, I’m afraid, revive much interest in Upton Sinclair. His resurrection ultimately belongs to Chris Bachelder’s comic fusion of Mattson’s representative Sinclair with Arthur’s idiosyncratic one. Therein lies an insufferable, lovable and irrepressible believer in no real danger of dying:

I dreamed I saw Sinclair last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, ‘Sinclair, you’re ten times dead’
‘I’m back again,’ says he
‘I’m back again,’ says he.

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