The crusader that time forgot

Two new biographies consider the contradictions of novelist Upton Sinclair, the 'most conservative of revolutionaries.'

If there was a major American institution that didn't fall victim to Upton Sinclair's poison pen, it certainly wasn't for his lack of trying. During a career that lasted for most of the 20th century, the indomitable Mr. Sinclair exposed the dirty laundry of the meatpacking, oil, steel, newspaper, and movie industries, while finding time to scorch organized religion, higher education, and capitalism itself. To top it all off, this socialist-firebrand-turned-Democrat ran a credible campaign to become California's first celebrity governor.

Nearly four decades after his death, Sinclair's work is largely forgotten except for his novel "The Jungle," a shocking exposé of Chicago's meatpacking industry. No full biography of him has appeared in more than 30 years.

But as a pair of new books argue, there are plenty of reasons to remember this master muckraker on the 100th anniversary of his most famous work. Sinclair "both witnessed and shaped the history of the twentieth century," writes retired literature professor Anthony Arthur in Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, an engaging and perceptive look at "the most conservative of revolutionaries."

The son of a Southern aristocratic mother and an alcoholic father, Sinclair was a child prodigy who wrote "The Jungle" at age 27. The novel, still read in American high school literature courses as a stunning example of literary advocacy, set off a national panic over unhygienic conditions at stockyards and led to the passage of the landmark consumer legislation. Unfortunately for Sinclair, few readers seemed to notice his attack on capitalism and plea for social justice. "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach," he famously complained.

But the book still launched a career full of quantity – if not always quality – as he pursued his belief that, as Mr. Arthur puts it, "societal flaws were economic in origin, and therefore curable, rather than rooted in unchanging human nature."

Sinclair was more skilled as a propagandist than a fiction writer. His novels were often ponderous, failing to navigate what Arthur calls "the precarious balance between activism and art." At his best, however, Sinclair combined literary acumen with extensive research to paint vivid and damning pictures of the unfairness of American society. His "goal was not simply to document all the sins of our country but to use them as a means of understanding our society's possibilities...," writes historian Kevin Mattson in Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century.

Mr. Mattson does a nice job of putting Sinclair in a political context, but "Radical Innocent" is a richer biography thanks to its sensitive, engrossing, and even amusing exploration of Sinclair's complex private life. Sinclair's personal inconsistencies are particularly fascinating. On one hand, he was hardly the freewheeling party animal that many of his literary contemporaries exemplified. He didn't drink, and even defended Prohibition.

Yet this uptight moralist could be a hoaxer and publicity hound. Before "The Jungle," he created a minor literary sensation by concocting a poet, Arthur Stirling, who supposedly killed himself in New York, leaving a journal behind. He also had a soft spot for women and fell for a Victorian-era flower child. Unfortunately, his first marriage was disastrous and fell apart amid embarrassing headlines about adultery; in addition, he was an awful father to his one son.

Sinclair was also a major critic of modern religious movements, casting aspersions on Christian Science – long before his second wife became an adherent – and Mormonism. But at the same time, he was widely derided as a faddist himself, no surprise considering his embrace of spiritualism and strange diets, not to mention his crea- tion of a commune. But with Sinclair's internal inconsistency came a willingness to castigate not only his critics but his own allies: He was eternally annoying some fellow leftists by questioning violence – although he supported Stalin – or speculating about the guilt of Boston terrorism defendants Sacco and Vanzetti.

Both authors could have done more to explain why Sinclair was – and is – still relevant. After all, many of his favorite targets weren't tamed in his time and remain largely unfettered today, a full century after he started skewering them. (One of his novels attacked the nation's universities and their party-happy students, subsidized athletic programs, strong-arm administrators, and oblivious trustees. Nice to see we've cleared all that up.)

Sinclair's influence in the world of politics isn't clear either. Arthur suggests – but doesn't prove – that Sinclair's failed campaign for governor had much to do with California's transformation from the most conservative state outside the former Confederacy into a liberal stronghold.

Still, Sinclair manages to inspire. Burdened with a clear view of America's faults (and beset by his own), he never lost faith in humanity and hope for his country.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego, Calif.

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