Upton Sinclair
California Socialist,
Celebrity Intellectual

Lauren Coodley
(University of Nebraska Press)
Time magazine once reported that Sinclair Lewis "had every gift except humor and silence." This is doubtful since Lewis got his start as a writer of humor bits for student magazines. They were right about the silence business, though. Sinclair was incapable of it. In his ninety years, he wrote ninety novels. That's one-two-three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine ... with a little zero after it. Plus seventeen non-fiction works, six plays, and one anthology.

Meanwhile, he sent himself through college, married three times, ran for the House of Representatives, then for the U. S. Senate, and, finally, governor of California (he got almost 900,000 votes). He spent his spare time speaking out in favor of contraception, socialism, labor unions, equality of the races --- and against bad food, whiskey, the oil industry, yellow journalism, the death penalty, and censorship. He even had a book banned in Boston because the phrase "birth control" appeared on one page --- although Sinclair was quite the prude.

He was friend to many of the radicals of his day, including Jane Addams of Hull House, Big Bill Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, the anarchist; and John Reed, the future Communist. He also knew Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, Jack London, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, George Bernard Shaw and, surprisingly, managed to be fast friends with Henry Ford and King Gillette --- of razor blade fortune. He met with Franklin D. Roosevelt at the president's home in Hyde Park, where improbably, according to Coodley, Roosevelt did all the talking and Sinclair did all the listening.

Sinclair had the ability to be unpretentious. A writer for Today magazine wrote of meeting with him. His house was described as "shabby."

    Sinclair opened the door in his bathrobe. His face showed only faint lines of fatigue, and he answered one question after another sharply, concisely, and soothingly. His words rang with urgency but his voice was soft, his manner boyish, charming, bemused.

Evidently it was hard for people to dislike Sinclair, although he did get on a few nerves. When he published The Jungle they tried to get him together with Teddy Roosevelt, but TR told his publisher. "Tell Sinclair to go home and let me run the country for a while."

Still, it was impossible for Sinclair to carry a grudge, even against those who treated him badly. During the writer's campaign for governor, Ed Ainsworth, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was delegated to carefully cull quotes from Sinclair's books to convince the voters that he would turn the state Communist, with free love for all. Yet years later, while living in Monrovia, Sinclair and Ainsworth met. Ainsworth wrote,

    My wife said to me, "Why can't you quit harboring grudges and go meet him and learn to like him? I've gotten to know him, and he's a sweet, kind, courtly old gentleman."

I suppose Sinclair could drive a soul mad. Kind, good, gentle, forgiving --- all those virtues that tend to make one crazy. He could be wrong, disastrously wrong: unlike Henry Ford, he supported World War One, sending out letters "that endorsed the war from a socialist perspective." In late life, he was all in favor of the Vietnam war, but that may have been because he had been invited twice to meet with President Johnson, and he died before the country was to rise up against further bloodshed.

§   §   §

Sinclair was able to pour out such a gusher of books because he learned when he was still in his twenties to dictate. He kept two secretaries busy for forty years, and didn't stop writing until a few years before he died. His great regret was that people mistook his causes. The Jungle was written from the perspective of the workers in the meat-packing plants, pointing out how they were getting screwed with lousy working conditions, terrible pay, all along, forbidden to unionize. That wasn't what people wanted to hear. One of the most appalling passages in The Jungle told of a worker who "fell into a lard vat and disappeared." Since most Americans didn't want to be eating their scrambled eggs mixed with meat-packer workers, the result was no change in labor's bargaining power or status, but rather, the Pure Food and Drug Act which only regulated the quality of our meat pies, not the insufferable working conditions.

Upton Sinclair is a mildly interesting book but Lauren Coodley has to deal with the intractable problem that is faced by all those who write about writers. Can she --- or any of us --- make this guy more interesting than he (or his writings) already were? Even a bare recitation of the facts (114 books; 879,000 votes; ninety years; three wives) exhausts the reader ... and the imagination. This guy was larger than life; and I suspect that a book doing full justice to him would, also, have to be larger than life.

--- Fran Winter
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