September 20th – Upton Sinclair

“All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescabably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda.”

Upton Sinclair

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr was born September 20, 1878 in Baltimore Maryland. His father was a liquor salesman, and an alcoholic. His father’s family was also from the South, and had lost their money after the Civil War, while his mother’s family was wealthy. Sinclair moved between the two worlds of money and poverty throughout his childhood. He loved to read, but did not start school until he was ten years old.

In 1888 his family moved to New York City and Upton entered City College of New York just before his 14th birthday. He paid his tuition by writing jokes, dime novels and magazines articles in boys’ weekly and pulp magazines. 

He graduated from high school in 1897 and studied at Columbia University, still supporting himself writing adventure stories and jokes, writing up to 8,000 words of pulp fiction a day (while studying and going to class). But he was disillusioned by the University’s lack of answers to social problems, and quit school as well as writing for pulps – turning his attention to becoming a serious novelist in order to change the world. 

In 1900 he went to Lake Massawippi in Quebec to work on a novel. There he was reintroduced to a childhood friend, Meta Fuller, and they married October 18, 1900. Sinclair was terrified of his wife becoming pregnant so the newly married couple practiced abstinence. One slip up was all it took, and meta became pregnant, giving birth to their only child, David, December 1, 1901. 

Sinclair wrote five novels over the next few years,  Springtime and Harvest and King Midas published in 1901, Prince Hagen (1902), The Journal of Arthur Stirling (1903), and a Civil War novel, Manassas (1904).

None of his early novels were commercially successfully, and his marriage was in trouble (abstinence and poverty not helping). Sinclair turned himself more toward politics, and by his mid-twenties had become a socialist, establishing himself as a columnist for the leading American socialist paper Appeal to Reason. In 1904 the editor, Fred D. Warren, gave Sinclair an advance of $500 to write a novel about “wage slavery” in America’s industrialized cities. Sinclair was 26 years old, and sure that his work was going to change history. The Jungle ran as a weekly serial in Appeal to Reason from February to November 1905. The book form of the novel was rejected by five publishers before Doubleday agreed to print it in 1906, just as Sinclair was self-publishing (he did release a self-published ‘Sustainer’s Edition” funded by donations.) The Jungle sold 25,000 copies in the first six weeks. Although Sinclair set out to write a book to change the systemic exploitation of the working-class, it instead had its most major impact in improving conditions in the meat-packing industry and food safety. Sinclair said “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Sinclair used some of the proceeds of his book to buy an abandoned boy’s school in New Jersey, in which he formed a utopian community of writers, artists and intellectuals (as long as they were white and in good moral standing). Around 40 adults and 15 children lived there until it burned down in 1907, including the young writer Sinclair Lewis.

The story his early marriage and birth of their child was documented in his 1911 work Love’s Pilgrimage. Both Upton and Meta went on to have affairs on the side, and eventually Meta left Sinclair for the poet Harry Kemp.

In 1913 Sinclair married Mary Craig Kimbrough and they remained married until her death in 1961. After she died he married Mary Elizabeth Willis the same year. 

Sinclair also ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a nominee for the Socialist Party, and was the Democratic candidate for Governor of California in 1934, during the Great Depression, but was defeated. After his defeat he returned to writing. 

Sinclair wrote more than 100 books during his lifetime, and many of his novels can be read as historical works. King Coal (1917) involved John D. Rockefeller Jr’s role in the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, The Flivver King illustrates Henry Ford’s rise in the auto industry, including his anti-semitism, and Boston (1928) about the Sacco and Vanzetti case. He won the 1963 Pulitzer for his novel Dragon’s Teeth, a novel about Hitler’s rise to power. Sinclair himself would admit that many of his books are propaganda, mostly intended to persuade people with politics ideals rather than portray human emotion or experience. 

Upton Sinclair died November 25, 1968 at the age of 90 in a nursing home in New Jersey, not far from his son David, who was a research physicist. 

Lesson from Sinclair:

Everyone has a specific calling. Sinclair wasn’t trying to write the great American novel or fancy flowery books, he was trying to educate people and change their minds. That’s what he felt called to. Many of his books have been completely forgotten now that their relevancy has passed, but they still had a purpose. And also – at least one is considered a classic and has sold millions of copies, and changed the food and labor industry. So maybe a couple of flops along the way are okay. 

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