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Lauren Coodley's Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual

03/05/2015 11:27 am ET | Updated May 05, 2015

Can a dedicated socialist have a significant impact upon American life? Lauren Coodley's biography of prominent novelist Upton Sinclair shows that it's 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, and Sinclair grew up in cheap boarding houses. When he was ten years of age, his family moved to New York City, where he expanded his intellectual horizons and, at the age of 14, sold his first story to a popular adventure magazine. Eventually, Sinclair decided to abandon this "hack work" and become a serious novelist ―a decision that, 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 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.

Sinclair now produced a series of articles on the ravages of child labor, founded a cooperative community to pool resources and childcare responsibilities, and wrote a play about the renunciation of great wealth. In the aftermath of the Ludlow Massacre, he organized picketing of the Rockefeller headquarters in New York City, where he was arrested and incarcerated. Sinclair also turned out a film version of The Jungle ― the first full-length, pro-labor motion picture produced in the United States.

In 1923, Sinclair not only participated in a massive 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, which led to his arrest. Upon his release, Sinclair wrote another 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 win election as California's governor and implement a leftwing program, End Poverty in California (EPIC). The popular response was enormous, and he received more votes in the 1934 Democratic primary than his six opponents combined. 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. Nevertheless, Sinclair was nearly elected, receiving twice the number of votes of any Democrat in California's previous history.

In subsequent decades, Sinclair grew somewhat more mainstream, attaching himself to the Democratic Party. Nonetheless, he settled into the party's liberal wing, 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 opposed the Soviet dictatorship, "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. Consequently, a substantial number of his 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. During Sinclair's California gubernatorial race, 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.

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 initially rejected by publishers. Ultimately, these anti-fascist novels won Sinclair the Pulitzer Prize, were translated into 20 languages, and sold millions of copies.

Although many literary critics have viewed Sinclair with condescension, his roughly 80 novels, written along with his numerous articles, plays, and poetry, drew a vast readership. 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, including Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Mohandas Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, Margaret Sanger, Helen Keller, Eugene Debs, H.L. Mencken, Thomas Mann, and George Bernard Shaw.

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 "much influenced by women." 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 by drawing upon copious sources.

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

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com) 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?