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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Radical Innocent’ Presents Fascinating, Comprehensive Look at Activist Writer Upton Sinclair

Posted by kinchendavid on July 17, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen

Hinton, WV – With 2006 marking the centennial of the publication of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel “The Jungle,” two writers have explored Sinclair’s contributions to literature and political thinking. Kevin Mattson’s “Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century” appeared in April and Anthony Arthur’s “Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair (Random House, $27.95, 16 pages of black and white photos, 400 pages) has just been published.
Anthony Arthur, a retired English professor at California State University Northridge, makes the excellent point that Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) is often confused by even fairly knowledgeable readers with the younger Sinclair Lewis. In point of fact, Sinclair Lewis even worked as a janitor for Upton Sinclair at the latter’s ill-fated Helicon Hall commune in New Jersey about a century ago. After a rocky patch or two, the two became friends.
Books on this important but I’m afraid — argely forgotten – writer and social activist are important because both of the Sinclairs – Upton and Lewis – are in danger of disappearing in the manner of C.P. Snow and other important writers that I devoured years ago. Anthony Arthur has written a comprehensive biography of a wide-ranging author and reformer without neglecting Upton Sinclair’s faults and foibles.
A couple of years before the publication of “The Jungle” by the firm now known as Doubleday, Upton Sinclair was in his early twenties and declared himself a “penniless rat.” With the publication of the expose of meatpacking conditions in the Armour packing plant in Chicago, he became a worldwide celebrity, attracting the attention and praise of Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, President Teddy Roosevelt and many more. In his later years his friends included Albert Einstein, Albert Camus, Charlie Chaplin and Thomas Mann. A year before his death, Sinclair was honored by the third president he met, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Sinclair famously said that the public’s acclaim over “The Jungle” was a disappointment to him: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Pass the salt, please! Nobody, not Ralph Nader, not Michael Moore, not Al Gore was a better self promoter than Upton Sinclair, as Arthur points out. After all, starting with pulp fiction set in the military academies in the late 1890s all the way to his death, Upton Sinclair turned out some 90 books and hundreds of essays and articles. He didn’t have a university position to back up his writing: He did it his way.
My favorite Upton Sinclair books were the 11 Lanny Budd novels beginning with “World’s End” in 1940 and going all the way up to 1953 where art broker/secret agent Lanny Budd becomes a Cold Warrior in “The Return of Lanny Budd.” I often thought the model for Lanny Budd was diplomat William C. Bullitt, but Arthur presents another model, Cornelius “Neil” Vanderbilt Jr. Upton Sinclair won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943 for “Dragon’s Teeth,” the third of the Budd novels, a book describing Hitler’s rise to power.
I remember when you could pick up used copies of the adventures of Lanny Budd in just about any thrift shop; I haven’t seen any for years and most libraries have discarded their copies. As far as I know, all 11 are out of print. Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” books and Gore Vidal’s historical novels are cited by Arthur as being comparable to what I consider to be Upton Sinclair’s most outstanding work, the Budd novels.
The financial success of the heatbreaking tale of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis and his family in “The Jungle” freed Sinclair from financial worry, but his relationship with “three neurotic women” – as his biographer puts it – bedeviled Sinclair almost to the end. The three were his mother Priscilla, his first wife Meta Fuller and his second wife Mary Craig – called “Craig”—Kimbrough.
Only after he married May, his exuberant, outgoing third and last wife, did Upton Sinclair break out of his self-imposed shell. The biographer devotes much space to the estrangement of Sinclair and his only child David, the product of his tumultuous marriage to Meta.
So much took place during Upton Sinclair’s 90 years on this planet that I’m surprised his biographer managed to condense it down to 400 pages. He was involved in the health fads of the early part of the 20th Century at Battle Creek, Michigan, so wonderfully described by T.C. Boyle in “The Road to Wellville.” He lived in another commune, Arden, near Wilmington, Delaware, after Helicon Hall was destroyed by fire in 1907.
Upton Sinclair moved to California during the Wilson Administration and angered many of his socialist friends by supporting intervention in the European conflict. This didn’t help him with Wilson’s Red baiting attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer and others in the Democratic Party – as well as the Republicans – who saw little difference between socialists and Bolsheviks. Sinclair was instrumental in founding the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and he was constantly being attacked by the then-very right wing Los Angeles Times.
Always capable of making sharp turns, Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California in 1934 on the Democratic ticket, with what he thought was the support of the second Roosevelt he met, FDR. The often devious Franklin Roosevelt didn’t really support Sinclair and the activist lost to a mediocre GOP candidate. His candidacy was opposed by his nemesis the still right-wing L.A. Times, under the direction of Harry Chandler. Only after Chandler’s son Otis took over in 1960 did the newspaper switch to become a supporter of many of Sinclair’s goals.
Arthur makes the excellent point that Upton Sinclair’s prodigious output of books resulted in his diminishment by the literary establishment. The large quantity of books resulted in the publication of many works of propaganda, but that was the author’s way of working: Don’t get mad—publish! For instance, he was an early friend of Henry Ford. After Ford became a right-wing, anti-Semite propagandist, Upton Sinclair attacked him in a book titled “The Flivver King.” A “flivver” was a popular description of Ford’s Model-T. Another example was the 1920 publication of “The Brass Check,” an expose of the newspaper business. Many newspapers had pilloried Sinclair during his divorce from Meta and “The Brass Check” was Sinclair’s way of getting even.
Anthony Arthur has drawn on the massive collection of Upton Sinclair’s papers at the Lilly Library at Indiana University and other sources to produce an outstanding biography. I recommend it without reservation. Now, I’m off to Amazon and other sources to find out if those pesky Lanny Budd books are available!
Publisher’s Web site: http://www.randomhouse.com
Author’s web site: www.anthonyarthur.net

Originally published Jun 17, 2006


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