Review of Lauren Coodley’s “Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual”

tags: book review, Upton Sinclair, Lauren Coodley

Dr. Lawrence Wittner ( is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, "What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Can a dedicated socialist have a significant impact upon American life? Lauren Coodley’s biography of prominent socialist novelist and agitator Upton Sinclair shows that, with a lot of talent and fortitude, that kind of influence is possible.

Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore in 1878―the son of a railroad baron’s daughter and a whiskey wholesaler. Although both parents were descended from the Southern aristocracy, the alcoholism of Sinclair’s father shattered their economic standing, leaving Sinclair to grow up in cheap boarding houses, sleeping at the foot of his parents’ bed. When Sinclair was ten, his family moved to New York City, where Sinclair―when not hunting down his father in saloons―expanded his social and intellectual horizons and, at the age of 14, sold his first story to a popular men’s adventure magazine. After selling a number of articles to similar publications, Sinclair decided to abandon this “hack work” and become a serious novelist. It was a decision that, at least for a time, plunged him back into poverty.

Meanwhile, in 1902, friends in New York introduced him to socialism. The young Sinclair already had socialist values, but found the existence of a socialist movement electrifying. He recalled, with tongue in cheek: “Now I did not have to carry the whole burden of humanity’s future!” Sinclair promptly joined the Socialist Party and, together with Jack London, organized the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. When the meatpacking industry crushed a strike by its workers in Chicago, the socialist Appeal to Reason commissioned him to travel to that city and produce a novel about wage slavery.

The result was the appearance of The Jungle, a devastating exposé of economic exploitation in the meatpacking industry. Published in book form in 1906, The Jungle was reprinted 67 times over the next 26 years and inspired 17 translations within months of its appearance. Although Sinclair hoped to turn Americans against the mistreatment of workers under capitalism, the book’s more immediate impact was congressional passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

Gearing up for a protracted struggle, Sinclair now produced a series of articles on the ravages of child labor (which a leading popular magazine refused to publish), founded a cooperative community to pool resources and childcare responsibilities (Helicon Hill), and wrote a play performed in San Francisco (in which John D. Rockefeller was portrayed as agreeing to stop hoarding his wealth and set up cooperatives). In the aftermath of the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, Sinclair organized picketing of the Rockefeller headquarters in New York City, where, to his delight, he was arrested and incarcerated in the city’s prison, “The Tombs.” Sinclair also turned out a film version of The Jungle (in which he played the role of Eugene V. Debs)―the first full-length, pro-labor motion picture produced in the United States.

In 1923, Sinclair not only participated in a massive, IWW-led strike of longshoremen in San Pedro, California, but defied the official ban on their street speakers by reading aloud the First Amendment to the Constitution―an action that led to his arrest and being held incommunicado in jail for the next two days. Upon his release, Sinclair wrote a play, Singing Jailbirds, that publicized the plight of political prisoners and funded the establishment of the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

A decade later, in the depths of the Great Depression, Sinclair began a campaign to capture the Democratic nomination for Governor of California, win election, and put into effect a program― “production for use” rather than “production for profit”―that he called End Poverty in California (EPIC). The popular response was enormous, and he received more votes in the 1934 Democratic primary than his six opponents did combined. Thereafter, the groundswell grew ever greater. Over 800 EPIC clubs were formed, and his campaign pamphlet became the best-selling publication in the history of California. But the state’s leading industrialists were determined to defeat him and, ultimately, they did. Even so, Sinclair was nearly elected. Indeed, he received twice the number of votes of any Democrat in California’s previous history, and 50 other EPIC-backed candidates won their races for the state legislature.

In subsequent decades, Sinclair grew somewhat less radical, no longer backing Socialist Party candidates for office and attaching himself to the Democratic Party. Nonetheless, he found his home in the liberal wing of the party, becoming a staunch anti-fascist, a critic of nuclear weapons, and a keen supporter of civil rights. At the height of the Cold War, he observed that, although he was opposed to dictatorship in the Soviet Union, “I am not willing to shut my eyes to the defects of the economic system we have at home.”

There is little doubt that Sinclair paid a high price for his leftwing views. Book publishers often refused to publish his writings. As a result, a substantial number of his many novels were self-published. In fact, Doubleday would not have published The Jungle had not Ogden Armour incensed Frank Doubleday by offering him a bribe to limit the book’s distribution and publicity. When the film version of The Jungle appeared, industry forces successfully limited its distribution. Variety sniffed contemptuously: “The Jungle is not a feature picture of wild animals, just about wild socialists, that’s all―and the Lord knows that’s enough.”

During Sinclair’s race for Governor of California, the state’s biggest businessmen ran a massive public relations campaign to defeat him, including the distribution of 6 million pamphlets (designed to prove that Sinclair was an atheist who advocated revolution, Communism, and free love), 200,000 anti-Sinclair billboards, and fake newsreels (which movie theaters were blackmailed into running by MGM’s threat to block the distribution of its films). Popular fundamentalist preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, handsomely paid by the business conspirators, staged an anti-Sinclair rally just before election day. Called “America Awake! The Enemy Is at Your Gates!” the event featured McPherson lowering the American flag and hoisting the flag of the Soviet Union. Ironically, the Communist Party was busy at the time condemning Sinclair for failing to meet its own standards of political purity.

Even Sinclair’s famous World’s End series of the 1940s―proposed when he was already one of the best-known novelists in America―was repeatedly rejected by publishers until a friend finally wangled a contract for it from Viking Press. This anti-fascist series won Sinclair the Pulitzer Prize, was translated into 20 languages, and sold millions of copies.

Similarly, many literary critics and academics have viewed Sinclair with condescension. This contempt for the novelist might have resulted from the fact that Sinclair was always more concerned with the political impact of his writings than with their esthetic qualities. But it might also reflect their discomfort at his ceaseless attempts to change the world―or maybe just their jealousy at his enormous success in reaching a mass audience.

He certainly reached that audience on a broad range of issues. Sinclair’s roughly 80 novels included King Coal (about the Colorado coal strike), The Brass Check (about what he called “prostitute journalism”), The Goose Step (about the corruption of higher education), The Goslings (about business control of the public schools), Oil! (about the establishment of the California oil industry), Boston (about the Sacco-Vanzetti case), The Wet Parade (about alcoholism), The Gnomobile (a children’s book about ecology), Co-op (about the cooperative movement), No Pasaran! (about the struggle against fascism in Spain), and the eleven-volume World’s End series (about fascism as a menace to world peace). Written along with his numerous articles, plays, and poetry, some of these novels secured an enormous readership. The United Auto Workers distributed 200,000 copies of The Flivver King (a critique of Henry Ford) to workers for educational purposes. When Sinclair’s voluminous papers were obtained by Indiana University, they included 800 volumes of foreign translations, from 85 countries, in 60 languages.

Another measure of Sinclair’s success was his association with prominent individuals. His circle of friends and correspondents included Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Mohandas Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, Margaret Sanger, Helen Keller, Eugene Debs, H.L. Mencken, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Thomas Mann, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Douglas Fairbanks, Vera Brittain, George Bernard Shaw, Mary Beard, and many other luminaries.

The author of this fine biography, Lauren Coodley, is an historian who has written on aspects of California history. In this book, she not only does a superb job of pulling together the many strands of Sinclair’s remarkable life and influence, but demonstrates what previous biographers have largely ignored: Sinclair’s feminism. This extraordinary novelist, she notes, “was a radical much influenced by women.” Like many men, he embraced women’s suffrage. But his support for communal living and communal childcare was quite unusual for a man of his time, as was his deep interest in temperance and diet. Female friendship, Coodley adds, played a central role in Sinclair’s life, and she demonstrates this fact, as well as many others, by drawing upon Sinclair’s letters and a broad range of other scholarly sources.

Our own era, Coodley concludes, is “startlingly similar to that of Sinclair’s early twentieth century,” and “his life and passions compel our attention.” There is no better way to learn of them than through Coodley’s concise, lucid, and interesting biography.      

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