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Upton Sinclair

One of the strangest and most poignant rags-to-riches stories is that of author/social activist Upton Sinclair.  Born on September 20, 1878, in Baltimore, Maryland, Sinclair came from a family evolved from the ruins of the Southern aristocracy.  His father's family had a distinguished naval tradition dating back to the Revolutionary War.  Following the Civil War and the devastation of the South, the family suffered huge economic losses.

Although Sinclair's immediate family was poor, he had wealthy grandparents in New York; so, he grew up with the unique perspective that living both in poverty and in wealth provided.  His father was a liquor salesman whose alcoholism played a major role in the son's early childhood. 

When Sinclair was ten, the family moved to New York, where he began writing dime novels, ethnic jokes, and pulp fiction for various magazines.  A religious child with a great love of literature, Sinclair had two great heroes--Jesus Christ and poet Percy Shelley--whom he felt influenced his life and helped him do well in school. 

In 1897, Sinclair enrolled in Columbia University, determined to succeed while producing one hack novelette a week for various boys' weeklies.  In 1900, he married his first wife.  It was an unhappy marriage that led to the writing of Springtime And Harvest (1901).  He followed up his first novel with The Journal of Arthur Stirling (1903), Prince Hagen (1903), Manassas (1904), and A Captain of Industry (1906), none of which sold well.

In the early 1900s, Sinclair turned to socialism after reading books such as Merrie England (Robert Blatchford), The People of the Abyss (Jack London), Appeal to the Young (Peter Kropotkin), and Octypus (Frank Norris).  In September, 1905, he joined with Jack London, Clarence Darrow, and Florence Kelley to form the Intercollegiate Socialist Society.  The work of Frank Norris especially influenced him.  He later spoke about how Norris had "showed me a new world, and he also showed me that it could be put in a novel."  Sinclair was also influenced by the investigative journalism of Benjamin Flower, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker.

In 1904, Fred Warren, editor of the socialist journal, Appeal to Reason, commissioned Sinclair to write a novel about immigrant workers in the Chicago meat packing houses, which were renowned for their abuse of their workers, as well as the animals.  Julius Wayland, the journal's owner, gave the author a $500 advance, which was substantial for the times.  After researching the subject for seven weeks, Sinclair wrote the novel, The Jungle

But attempts to find a publisher proved unsuccessful.  One editor at Macmillan wrote: "I advise without hesitation and unreservedly against the publication of this book which is gloom and horror unrelieved.  One feels that what is at the bottom of his fierceness is not nearly so much desire to help the poor as hatred of the rich."

Undeterred, Sinclair decided to publish the book himself.  After advertising his intentions in Appeal to Reason, he received 972 orders.  When he told Doubleday of the orders, it decided to publish the book; and in 1906, the book became a publishing success, selling over 150,000 copies.  Within the next few years, it had been been published in seventeen languages and was a best-seller all over the world.

Serialized in the magazine in 1905, the book helped to increase the circulation of Appeal to Reason to 175,000.  It won the author fame and fortune and led to the implementation of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

One of the book's more prominent supporters was president Theodore Roosevelt, who read The Jungle and ordered an investigation of the meat-packing industry.  He also met Sinclair and told him that, while he disapproved of the way the book preached socialism, he agreed that "radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist."

With the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906), Sinclair showed that novelists could help institute change.  His social success inspired new growth in the fledgling field of investigative journalism.  Roosevelt became concerned at this development and described it as muckraking.

By now a well-known national figure, Sinclair accepted the offer of the Socialist Party to become its candidate for Congress in New Jersey.  But the author's first political venture was a flop.  He received only 750 out of 24,000 votes.

In 1906, Sinclair decided to use some of his royalties from The Jungle to establish Helicon Home Colony, a socialist community at Eaglewood, New Jersey.  One of those who joined was Sinclair Lewis, who worked there as a janitor.  Lewis was greatly influenced by Sinclair's views on politics and literature.  But four months after it opened, Helicon burned to the ground.  Sinclair blamed his political opponents for the fire.

Sinclair's next few novels, including The Overman (1907), The Metropolis (1908), The Moneychangers (1908), Love's Pilgrimage (1911), and Sylvia (1913), were commercially unsuccessful.  So, in 1914, he moved to Croton-on-Hudson, a small town close to New York City where there was a substantial community of radicals, including Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Robert Minor, Boardman Robinson, and Inez Milholland.  He also pleased his socialist friends with his anthology of social protest, The Cry for Justice (1915).  John Reed wrote to Sinclair that his "anthology has made more radicals than anything I ever heard of."

When World War I broke out, many members of the Socialist Party argued that it was the result of an imperialist competitive system, and they lobbied against U.S. intervention.  But news of the atrocities carried out by German soldiers in Belgium convinced some members that the United States should join the Allies against the Central Powers.  Sinclair was one of them and argued his case in the radical journal, The Masses.  Its editor, Max Eastman, who had been to both the Western and Eastern fronts as a war reporter, publicly disagreed.  The issue split the Socialist Party, eventually leading to Sinclair's resignation.

After the United States declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, the Espionage Act was passed, resulting in several of Sinclair's socialist opponents being imprisoned for their opposition to the war.  Sinclair took up their cause, and when Eugene Debs was imprisoned, the author wrote to Woodrow Wilson, arguing that it was "futile to try and win democracy abroad, while we are losing it at home."

Sinclair continued to write political novels, including King Coal (1917), based on an industrial dispute, and Boston (1928), about the Sacco-Vanzetti Case.  He also wrote books about religion (The Profits of Religion, 1918), newspapers (The Brass Check, 1919), and education (The Goose-Step, 1923, and The Goslings, 1924).

In 1926, Sinclair rejoined the Socialist Party and ran unsuccessfully for the position of governor of California.  The following year he wrote an article for The Nation where he admitted that he had been wrong about the First World War.  In 1934, Sinclair once again became a candidate for governor of California and once again lost, although his EPIC program (End Poverty in California) gained considerable support.  This time, he garnered 879,537 votes against the winner's 1,138,620.

In 1940, World's End launched Sinclair's 11-volume novel series on American government.  His Dragon's Teeth (1942) about the rise of Nazism won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.  By the time Upton Sinclair died in November, 1968, he had published more than ninety books.

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