It's a jungle in there
A look into the complex life and opinions of the prolific and controversial Upton Sinclair
Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair
By Anthony Arthur
Random House, 380 pp., illustrated, $27.95
Theodore Roosevelt dismissed him as ``hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful." Mary Craig Kimbrough, his second wife, opined that he ``can write -- but nothing else! Oh yes, he can cook a beefsteak ." The author of 90 books, including ``The Jungle," an exposé of conditions in the meat packing industry that helped pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, Upton Sinclair was a complex and self-contradictory man: a Victorian obsessed with sex; a shameless self-promoter critical of celebrity culture; a genial man who spoke through a smile but saw himself as a frustrated artist, trampled on by family, friends, and the American public; and a self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist, who got the Democratic nomination for governor by promising to end poverty in California. No wonder the eminent literary critic Van Wyck Brooks thought Sinclair ``a very difficult person to be right about."
But he is a splendid subject to write about. Sinclair had a long life, filled with drama, melodrama, and a Dickensian cast of kith and kin. A denizen of utopian communities, he was fascinated by diets, fasting, water cures, rest cures, and mental telepathy. Among his many friends were Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein. Sinclair supported Prohibition and US participation in World War I. He was arrested for blocking traffic while reading the Constitution during a dock strike. He bankrolled Sergei Eisenstein's film ``Thunder Over Mexico," then took heat for emasculating its radical politics to recoup his investment. And he denounced John D. Rockefeller as a killer, wrote controversial books about oil, steel, higher education, newspapers, Henry Ford, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Jesus Christ, and then in an authorized biography of movie mogul William Fox made a hero out of a capitalist.
In ``Radical Innocent," Anthony Arthur, a professor emeritus at California State University at Northridge, argues that Sinclair's lack of psychological sensitivity about others was his ``greatest handicap" as a writer . Sinclair's ``conversion from the religion of art to the religion of socialism," he adds, unconvincingly, made him a better, more selfless person, equipped ``to do the work that would bring him fulfillment ." Fortunately, Arthur does not let his thesis get in the way of a good story. ``Radical Innocent" offers few fresh interpretations of Sinclair's work. But Arthur does serve up a bracing biography.
Sinclair's success with ``The Jungle," Arthur demonstrates, was the product of pluck and luck. Asked to write a book on ``wage slavery" for serial publication in a socialist magazine, Sinclair went to the Chicago stockyards, toured the P.D. Armour plant, lived at Jane Addams's Hull House, and interviewed Chicagoans from every walk of life. After he happened on a Lithuanian wedding, he created his main character, Jurgus Rudkus. A preachy book, ``The Jungle" commanded attention with precise, compelling descriptions of meat packing. He had aimed at the ``public's heart," Sinclair later acknowledged, with a book about the exploitation of workers, ``and by accident I hit it in the stomach ."
Concerned about the unrelieved misery in ``The Jungle," Macmillan reneged on its promise to publish. But thanks to Isaac Marcosson, an enterprising editor at Doubleday, Page, ``The Jungle" reached the public. When Armour offered Frank Doubleday a bribe if he stopped promoting the book, the publisher decided instead to push it. With Marcosson's help, Sinclair met President Roosevelt at the White House, leaked findings of a commission investigating meat packing to the press, and dared Armour to sue him. Doubleday, Page sold 100,000 copies of ``The Jungle" in 1906. At age 28, Upton Sinclair was a star.
Sinclair never repeated his success with ``The Jungle." But he came close. ``Boston," his fictional treatment of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1928. He won the prize in 1943, for ``Dragon's Teeth," one of several Lanny Budd novels set in contemporary Europe. And, of course, he wrote about his experiences as a gubernatorial candidate. ``I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty " rehearsed his proposals to turn over unused agricultural land to the unemployed, repeal the sales tax and taxes on property worth less than $3,000, impose a graduated income tax and a 100 percent inheritance tax on all assets over $50,000, and provide $50 a month to every senior. It sold over a million copies. ``I, Candidate for Governor , and How I Got Licked" documented the opposition.
Sinclair remained astonishingly productive despite a troubled personal life. Or perhaps because of it. He wrote about the bondage of love when institutionalized in marriage. Toward his first wife, Meta Fuller, he felt ``like the man who sat in a furnace shrieking for an iceberg, then after half an hour on the iceberg is dying to get back into the furnace."
Life calmed down a bit when Sinclair married Kimbrough, but she insisted that he keep his son, David, at a distance. Father and son had rarely seen eye to eye. David lived with Kimbrough's family in Mississippi, attended college far from home. Between 1934 and 1955 the Sinclair men did not see one another at all. They conducted an epistolary war during that time, with David as an anti-Stalinist and America Firster, and Upton an apologist for Uncle Joe and an anti-Nazi. Without his father's permission, David published the correspondence. Reconciliation came when Sinclair was a very old man.
A literary engine that knew no rest, Sinclair was a classic sublimator, driven to his study less by the religion of socialism than as a refuge from family responsibilities. Whatever his personal peccadilloes, as a public man, speaking truth to power, Arthur concludes, Sinclair did not rust unburnished, he shined ``in use."