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Sinclair, Upton

in: People

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. (September 20, 1878 – November 25, 1968): Author, Journalist, Socialist and Social Reformer

Upton Sinclair
Upton Sinclair
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID ggbain 00788

Introduction: Upton Sinclair was a famous novelist and social crusader from California, who pioneered the kind of journalism known as “muckraking.” He was one of the best investigative journalists of his era, a prolific author who wrote over 90 books, often advocating his socialist views. He achieved considerable popularity in the first half of the twentieth century for his novel, The Jungle (1906), which dealt with conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry and caused a public uproar that partly contributed to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

Career: Born to an eminent but financially straitened family in Baltimore, Maryland, Sinclair began earning money by writing at 15, and supported himself by doing literary hackwork while doing graduate work at Columbia University. An assignment from a socialist weekly led him to write The Jungle (1906), his sixth novel and first popular success. Published at his own expense after several publishers rejected it, it became an immensely influential bestseller. He used the proceeds to open a socialist colony in Englewood, N.J., which was abandoned when the building was destroyed by fire in 1907.

Sinclair believed that the main point of The Jungle was lost on the public, overshadowed by his descriptions of unsanitary conditions in the packing plants. The public health concerns dealt with in The Jungle were actually far less significant than the human tragedy lived by his main character and other workers in the plants. His main goal for the book was to demonstrate the inhumane conditions of the wage earner under capitalism, not to inspire public health reforms in how the packing was done. Indeed, Sinclair lamented the effect of his book and the public uproar that resulted: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Still, the fame and fortune he gained from publishing The Jungle enabled him to write books on almost every issue of social injustice in the twentieth century.

A long series of other muckraking novels—among them King Coal (1917), Oil! (1927), based on the Teapot Dome Scandal, and Boston (1928), based on the Sacco-Vanzetti trial—followed, but none achieved the popularity of The Jungle. Sinclair again reached a wide audience with his Lanny Budd series, 11 contemporary historical novels constructed around an implausible antifascist hero, beginning with World’s End (1940) and including Dragon’s Teeth (1942, Pulitzer Prize).

Sinclair’s interests ranged over a wide variety of topics, in his many books and articles. He would receive a Pulitzer Prize for a later novel about Hitler’s rise to power. His contemporary, the writer Edmund Wilson, would say of him: “Practically alone among the American writers of his generation, [Sinclair] put to the American public the fundamental questions raised by capitalism in such a way that they could not escape them.”

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr., as depicted on the cover of Times Magazine in 1934.
Upton Beall Sinclair Jr., as depicted on the cover of Times Magazine in 1934.
Photo: Public Domain

The nomination of an avowed socialist to head the Democratic party ticket was more than the California establishment could tolerate. Sinclair’s radical candidacy was opposed by just about every establishment force in California. The media virtually demonized Sinclair through a concerted propaganda campaign based largely on smears and falsehoods. Sinclair’s candidacy also set off a bitter political battle both within the Democratic party and with many groups who were opposed to various aspects of the EPIC plan (End Poverty in California). Sinclair was denounced as a “Red” and “crackpot” and the Democratic establishment sought to derail his candidacy.

Despite all of this, Upton Sinclair was very nearly elected Governor of California in 1934. He probably would have won, except for two last-minute political errors in judgment. When President Roosevelt announced in June 1934 that he would propose a national social insurance system in the next session of Congress, Sinclair quite reasonably declared that he would be willing to defer his plan in favor of the President’s national solution. This was perhaps reasonable, but it was impolitic, as it undermined his strongest issue. Then too, Sinclair felt duty-bound to announce his opposition to the rival Townsend Plan because the Townsend Plan was based on a regressive sales tax. Since the Townsend Plan and the EPIC supporters were often one and the same people, this was in effect an attack on his own core constituency.

When the votes were counted, Upton Sinclair got 37% of the vote, the Republican candidate got 48% and a third-party progressive candidate took another 13%. Had it been a two-man race, or had Sinclair been less intellectually honest and more of a politician, he would likely have become Governor of California and the EPIC pension plan might well have become the California model.

(In a classic exercise in political hubris, Sinclair detailed his EPIC plan in a book published in 1933, with the confident title I, Governor of California And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future. Following the election he would publish another book with the humbled title “I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked.”)

Undeterred by his loss in the 1934 California election–and not really humbled either–in the 1936 election cycle Sinclair authored another version of his “I, Governor” booklet. This one had an even more expansive aim, and an inflated title to go along with it, We, People of America and How We Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future.”

Source: Social Security Online History Pages: