Upton Sinclair : socialist prophet without honour.
Thesis DisciplineAmerican Studies
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
In the last ten years literary historians and critics have begun to reevaluate the career of Upton Sinclair. It had always been prevalent to dismiss him as a pamphleteer, a muckraker and a writer of socialist doggrel. A superficial examination of his 90 year lifetime would tend to support this contention. However if it is possible to separate the writer from the politician, the socialist from the agitator, then a clearer and more accurate picture emerges. Upton Sinclair wrote over a hundred published novels, produced thousands of magazine articles, broadsheets, letters and a multitude of correspondence. He redefined the proletarian novel and accurately captured within his work the sense of the radical experience in the United States during the twentieth century.
This thesis attempts to analyze Sinclair's position within this radical experience. It is not concerned with his literary contribution but more with his role as a socialist and the way in which the attitude of American socialist movement changed towards him. In the period 1900-1934 this attitude changed dramatically. The effect of this change was to leave Sinclair in its wake. He suffered from the unfortunate handicap of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the earlier stages of his career he was stigmatized as a radical and considered dangerous by the more conservative elements of society. By the time the mainstream of literary and political thought had shifted leftwards Sinclair was considered too conservative.
With the publication of his most famous novel, The Jungle (1906) Sinclair became the novelist of the American scene and the recorder of the great industrial movements. This was to be the role he would play for the rest of his career. The other motivating force in his life was his role as a socialist. As Granville Hicks has observed Sinclair was not deflected by any divisions of interests; what interested him as a socialist interested him as a novelist. His own brand of socialism is his most constant theme in his writing.
Sinclair was converted to socialism at the turn of the century. Writing some years later he noted: It was like the falling down of prison walls about my mind; the most amazing discovery after all these years - that I did not have to carry the whole burden of humanities• failure upon my two frail shoulders.
Sinclair remained true to his socialist beliefs. How ever the changing face of both the socialist and radical scene in the United States effectively cut him out of any participation in the twenties and thirties. This thesis traces those changes and tries to offer some reasons for them. When trying to understand the direction of Sinclair's career it is necessary to pinpoint his motivation. Although socialism was definitely important his strongest motivation was as a 'fearless enemy of corruption and injustice'. Cartoonist Ralph Steadman writing in 1984 comes perhaps closest to defining th.is type of reasoning when describing his own experiences during the sixties: When the 1960s got underway I felt pretty hopeful and even dared to imagine that each new drawing was a nail in the coffin of old values or rather old patterns of behaviour which were full of privilege and injustice. It is a strong feeling when you’re young. You really believe things will change. So I-worked with conviction. It genuinely felt like a cause. There was good and there was bad in the world and I was with the good. Knocking things· down was meaningful fun. The legacy of Sinclair’s career is not only his contribution as a writer, and socialist, but as a man who not only recorded the events of his time but took part in them. Sinclair has left a collection of personal papers and correspondence in the Lilly Library which is estimated to weigh over eight tonnes. Historians have only scratched the surface of this material but already a vast amount of valuable information has been unearthed. Throughout his lifetime Sinclair communicated and corresponded with some of the influential and out standing men and women of his age. In the Lilly Library collection there are letters from Joseph Stalin, Gandi, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Lenin, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Jack London, Woodrow Wilson, Eugene V. Debs, Joseph Fox, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman. These offer valuable insight and information. They are the tangible proof of Sinclair's influence and importance in the changing face of American history.