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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 388


This is the grave of Upton Sinclair.

Born in 1878 in Baltimore to an impoverished boozing liquor-dealing father and a strictly religious mother from a very wealthy background who despised alcohol. As you can imagine, this was not a smooth marriage or childhood. However, it did help Sinclair understand class in American society, as his visit to his grandparents’ estate let him into the parlors of the rich compared to the rest of his life. Brilliant, he started at City College in 1892, slightly before he turned 14 and graduated in 1897. He attended Columbia for awhile but turned quickly to writing. His first novel was King Midas, in 1901, which was critically received but sold poorly, a common response his books. He also started getting involved in reform social and political movements: socialism of course but also sexual abstinence. He developed a guru who preached abstinence and they would meet monthly to ensure that he stuck to that path.

In 1904, Sinclair decided to investigate the conditions of meatpacking plants in Chicago. He went undercover and got a job. It wasn’t hard as they would pretty much hire anyone. He worked for seven weeks in those brutal conditions. He then wrote The Jungle to expose how awful it was and to convert people to socialism. Here’s the thing about The Jungle. It is a terrible novel. It’s a total mess. The unrelenting depression, with everything always getting worse for every character, does a poor job of reflecting reality, even granting the terrible lives these people led. There are many, many working-class novels that do a much better job of portraying the lives of the immigrant industrial workers. There is also way too much going on in that novel. It sometimes feels like it is 5 novels crammed into one. But I will give Sinclair this–he effectively demonstrated the unsanitary conditions of the meatpacking plants. This is of course what made his novel a sensation, spurring Theodore Roosevelt to action as he contemplated his morning breakfast meats. This led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in 1906, making The Jungle one of the most important books ever written in the United States, even if not one of the best. Sinclair himself was disappointed, as his purpose was socialism, not food safety reform. But socialism would have required a much better book.

Sinclair took the money from The Jungle and attempted to establish a utopian community in New Jersey that was unfortunately restrictive to white non-Jews only. It didn’t last, as per normal with communtarian idealism. He wrote novel after novel about the exploitation of capitalism and the struggles of workers, including multiple novels about the coal wars in Colorado, as well as Oil!, much later turned into There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the greatest films of the last 20 years. There was a 1914 adaptation of The Jungle that Sinclair appeared in, but it is sadly lost, as is so common with silent film.

Sinclair briefly left the Socialist Party over his support for U.S. interventionism in World War I. But he returned in the 1920s. A pretty rich guy by this point, he moved to California and helped produce Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico!, a great if incomplete film. He helped found California’s first ACLU chapter, spoke out to support the IWW during the Red Scare, and ran as a socialist candidate for office occasionally. He also was still involved in oddball social experimentation; presumably no longer celibacy any longer, as he was married, but telepathy, writing a book in 1930 called Mental Radio about his wife’s telepathic skills. He still did not believed in sex outside of marriage and in marriage strictly for procreation. Of course, that didn’t stop him from having affairs. For that matter, it didn’t stop his second wife either, who had a child in one of her affairs. He was also interested in food faddism, writing a 1911 book called The Fasting Cure, which I guess will work if your goal is to be emaciated.

In 1934, Sinclair decided to run as a left New Dealer on the Democratic Party ticket for the governor of California. This scared the living hell out of the state’s business interests and conservative elite. He ran on a platform called End Poverty in California (EPIC), calling for huge public works programs, guaranteed pensions, and state seizures of farms where the landowner owed back taxes. This came out of two 1933 books he wrote (Sinclair was prodigious if nothing else) laying out his political philosophy and solutions to poverty. Hollywood got involved in the anti-Sinclair campaign as well, as he called for the seizure of unused studio property to allow citizens to make their own movies. Sure, he was crushed that fall, only winning 38 percent of the vote, but this was still far ahead of all other Democratic candidates in the state for many years and several EPIC supporters won election to the state legislature. Incidentally, the editor of the EPIC newspaper was none other than the future science fiction legend Robert Heinlein, who turned to the genre needing money to pay off his debts for his own run on the EPIC platform for state legislature from Beverly Hills and Hollywood in 1938. The Socialist Party considered Sinclair a traitor and expelled him, basically destroying the party in California. The Communist Party didn’t support Sinclair either, calling him a capitalist. In 1935, Sinclair wrote a book about how the forces of conservatism used dirty tricks to destroy him, especially calling out Aimee Semple McPherson’s work in it. In there, he coined the famous phrase, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Sinclair continued writing as he aged. Most of his books are utterly forgotten except The Jungle, but there’s about 100 of them, fiction and non-fiction, a couple of autobiographies, a few plays. I’ve never read anything other than The Jungle and I can’t say I’m really inclined to do so barring a pretty strong recommendation. He died in a nursing home in 1968.

Upton Sinclair is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit more graves of early twentieth century writers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Hamlin Garland is in West Salem, Wisconsin and Sinclair Lewis is in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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