Upton Sinclair

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Upton Beall Sinclair (September 20, 1878November 25, 1968) was a prolific (90 books) American author who wrote in many genres, often advocating Socialist views, and achieved considerable popularity in the first half of the twentieth century. He gained particular fame for his novel, The Jungle (1906), which dealt with conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry and caused a public uproar that ultimately led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. However the main point of the novel, The Jungle, was lost on the public (he lamented: "I aimed at their hearts, and hit their stomachs"). He wrote to demonstrate the inhuman conditions of the workers and the exploitation of the wage earner under capitalism. But the fame and fortune he gained from publishing The Jungle enabled him to write books on almost every issue of social justice in the 20th century.

Family background

His parents came from the Southern gentry, and his father's family had a distinguished naval tradition stretching back to the American Revolution. Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His great-grandfather, Commodore Arthur Sinclair (died 1831), served in the War of 1812. His grandfather, Captain Arthur Sinclair, served first in the United States Navy then resigned to join the Confederate service. When Sinclair was arrested in California for reading the U.S. Constitution in public, he commented that his great-grandfather and he both defended the constitution, Commodore Sinclair the U.S.S. Constitution , and Upton the U.S. Constitution.

Childhood and education

The family fortunes had suffered after the Civil War, and so Upton Sinclair had an unusual upbringing that mixed wealth and poverty. His father was an alcoholic and his immediate family was poor, but he often stayed with his wealthy maternal relatives in New York, allowing him to experience two extremes of American society which later influenced his socialist views.

To pay his way through City College of New York, Sinclair wrote jokes and fiction for magazines and newspapers, as well as dime novels for the firm of Street & Smith. He also attended graduate school at Columbia.

Political and social activism

An early success was the Civil War novel Manassas, written in 1903 and published a year later. Originally projected as the opening book of a trilogy, the success of The Jungle caused him to drop such plans, although he did revise Manassas decades later by "moderating some of the exuberance of the earlier version"; a description - in Sinclair's case - very much of a relative kind.

Sinclair established a socialist commune called Helicon Hall Colony in 1906 with proceeds from his novel The Jungle. One of those who joined was the novelist and playwright Sinclair Lewis, who worked there as a janitor. The colony burned down in 1907 apparantly from arson.

He ran for Governor of California twice. The first time he ran as a Socialist candidate and garnered few votes. The second time, in 1934, as a Democrat. This time around, during the depths of the Great Depression, he began a political movement that he hoped to both combat the effects of the Depression and use as a springboard to the governorship. That plan, known as EPIC (End Poverty in California), galvanized the support of the Democratic Party, and Sinclair gained its nomination. Conservatives in California were themselves galvanized by this, as they saw it as an attempted Communist takeover of their state and used massive political propaganda portraying Sinclair as a Communist, even as he was being portrayed by American and Soviet Communists as a rank capitalist following the Que Viva Mexico! debacle. Sinclair was defeated in the election and largely abandoned EPIC and politics to return to writing. However, the race of 1934, would become known as the first race to use modern campaign techniques, such as motion picture propaganda.

Personal life

Sinclair lived much of his life near Pasadena, California and later in Buckeye, Arizona, but near the end of his life he moved to Bound Brook, New Jersey. He was married three times.

The Lanny Budd Series

Between 1940 and 1953 Sinclair wrote 11 novels about an American named Lanny Budd that, read in sequence, detailed much of the political history of the Western world in the first half of the twentieth century. Almost totally forgotten today, they were all bestsellers upon publication and were published in 21 countries. The third book in the series, Dragon's Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943.

Books in the Lanny Budd Series

Artistic output

From late 1931-1933, Sinclair was principally preoccupied with efforts to get the film Que Viva Mexico!, for which he acted as principal off-site producer, completed by Sergei Eisenstein, who had been commissioned for the project by Sinclair, his wife, and three other patrons of the motion picture arts. Sinclair knew nothing about film production, unfortunately, and was unable to control the situation created by Eisenstein and complicated by the changes occurring within the Soviet Film Industry, and ended up with between 150,000 and 200,000 (sources vary) feet of uncompleted film footage.

The Upton Sinclair House, in Monrovia, California, is a National Historic Landmark.

External links

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