Kevin Mattson: Aha, so on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, Sinclair was a self-promoting liar?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Kevin Mattson is a professor of contemporary history at Ohio University and author, most recently, of Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century (John Wiley & Sons, 2006).]

Upton Sinclair has been in the news lately. And it's not just the 100th anniversary of The Jungle. Seems the man was a liar.

On December 24, 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported that an Orange County lawyer, Paul Hegness, had bought a box of papers at an auction warehouse for $100. Inside there was a letter postmarked September 12, 1929, in which Upton Sinclair confessed knowing that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were guilty. He'd been told so by the onetime defense lawyer for the two Italian anarchists who were tried for armed robbery and murder, then executed by the state of Massachusetts in 1927. The defense lawyer, Fred Moore, had let Sinclair in on it. Sinclair poured his guts out, admitting anguish over the ethical quandary of writing a book that could serve the "cause" of making Sacco and Vanzetti into martyrs.

It seemed like a smoking gun, an admission that Sinclair was willing to lie for politics. The letter constituted, the Los Angeles Times intoned, an "exposé."

But it comes as no surprise to anyone who has spent time, as I have, in the Sinclair archives at Indiana University's Lilly Library. Nor would it shock anyone who has bothered to read the book that Sinclair wrote about the casea two-volume "contemporary historical novel" called Boston.

Don't get me wrong. Upton Sinclair was no saint, and it's impossible to sort out his politics from his self-interest. He was a publicity hound who did whatever necessary to sell his novels, which were often poorly written, sermonizing tracts. But not in the case of Boston, published in 1928. The discovery that Sacco and Vanzetti may not have been innocent led to a nuance often missing from Sinclair's other books.

Sinclair openly discussed the case with friends in letters found throughout the Lilly Library (all accessible to the public). Uppie, as his friends called him, admitted meeting socialists in Boston who believed "Sacco was guilty and Vanzetti knew it." He noted "perjury" on both sides of the case. He worried that Sacco possessed books about bomb making. He refused to make the two anarchists into innocents, no matter what his communist friends pleaded....

The book suggests that Sacco and Vanzetti, guilty or not, would have had a hard time receiving a fair trial.

Still, none of that has prevented conservatives from having a field day with the newly discovered letter. What's better than a socialist and realist muck-raker caught in a lie?

In a nationally syndicated column, Jonah Goldberg of the National Review grandstands about the "clay feet of liberal saints." ...

Perhaps it's unwise to look for ideological consistency when the right wages culture war against what Goldberg called "liberal saints" who reach "icon status." But in the case of Boston, it's unfair to suggest the matter is one simply of Sinclair's lying. Neither the 1920s Communist attempt to glorify Sacco and Vanzetti nor the right's recent attack allow for the complexity that the study of American history should nurture....

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