Although he published over 90 books throughout his 65-year literary career, and his novel Dragon's Teeth won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Upton Sinclair is best known for his controversial and often misunderstood novel The Jungle. Sinclair's primary interest was in social change, and his concern for social and moral improvement dominated his prolific writings: Sinclair's novels, plays, pamphlets, and articles reflected social themes.
The honors and output would seemingly have assured Sinclair a favorable place in American literary history; however, this is not the case. Although he was extremely popular during his day, critics focused on his political ideology and did not embrace his work as receptively as the general reading public did. Historically, his peers, such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and fellow socialist Jack London, tended to be the critical favorites, whereas Sinclair's works were often routinely dismissed. Today, The Jungle is the only one of his works that is widely read. The pendulum of perception continually shifts, however, and Sinclair's work is slowly creeping back into favor with contemporary critics. Contemporary scholars look beyond his political agenda when analyzing his literary efforts.
He was born Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr., on September 20, 1878, in Baltimore, into a relatively poor family, although his mother's family had money. Because his father's financial failures mixed with his mother's affluent family, Sinclair was able to experience two diverse lifestyles. As his father continued to face hardships, he succumbed to the temptation of liquor. Sinclair's distaste for alcohol is apparent in many of his works, including The Jungle.
When Sinclair was 10, he moved to New York City. An advanced student and gifted writer, at 14 he entered the College of the City of New York (though called a college, it was closer to a high school) and supported himself by writing routine and often dull novels (called hack or pulp fiction) for popular magazines. Under various pseudonyms he wrote stories for boys' magazines, too. Sinclair saw himself, at this time, as a poet, embracing Jesus, Hamlet, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
While in New York, Sinclair developed his passion for moral and social justice through his relationship with Reverend W.W. Moir, an Episcopalian minister who was a strong influence during Sinclair's adolescent years. Sinclair admired Moir's abandonment of familial wealth for the clergy, and Moir served as a father figure for Sinclair. The relationship, mixed with Sinclair's study of what he considered conflicting messages in official church teachings, resulted in Sinclair's lifelong following of the moral teachings of Jesus while having little use for organized religion. He earned his B.A. from City College of New York in 1897 and subsequently entered a graduate program at Columbia University.
In 1900, Sinclair left his graduate program to write a poetic novel, and later that year married Meta Fuller. This novel, Springtime and Harvest (later published as King Midas) was published a year later, the same year his first son, David was born. During the next three years, he continued writing pulp fiction and worked as a journalist to support his family. These jobs, combined with his interest in socialism, conflicted with his desire to be a poet. Sinclair wanted to use words and language to express universal ideals and truths, but instead he found himself using words and language to amuse, entertain, and pay the bills. He recognized that the life of a poet was not always the life of practicality, but having a wife and son to support, Sinclair needed to be practical and abandoned the life of a poet.
The editor of Appeal to Reason, Fred D. Warren, read Manassas (1904), Sinclair's third novel, and commissioned Sinclair to write about the conditions of the Chicago stockyards for the Appeal, a weekly socialist newspaper. After accepting the assignment, Sinclair lived in Chicago for nearly two months, studying the people and the working conditions of the industrial town. His observations became The Jungle, his next serious novel. After being published as a series in the Appeal, it took the work and financing of fellow socialist and author Jack London to get privately bound versions of the text printed. While Sinclair was publishing his book privately, five publishers rejected it based on content. Some wanted to print the book, provided that Sinclair delete some inflammatory and offensive passages. He refused. Eventually, Doubleday, Page and Company agreed to publish it, after verifying the basic truth of his allegations.
Throughout his career, Sinclair continued to write literature that depicted social issues: Oil! (1927) focused on the illegal leasing of oil reserves known as the Teapot Dome scandal and The Brass Check (1919) is a fictional account of his demonstration and subsequent arrest for speaking out against the 1914 coal mine strike. The extent of the prestige that Sinclair enjoyed during his lifetime is revealed in his 1960 collection of correspondence, My Lifetime in Letters. Included in the compilation are letters from Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Roosevelt, Jack London, H.L. Mencken, and Albert Einstein. Sinclair's career concluded with his final publication, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair.
The publication of The Jungle thrust Sinclair into the national limelight. For the first time in his career, a serious work of fiction made money for him. Sinclair's one major disappointment about his novel's reception was that The Jungle did not ignite the public into a frenzy over socialism.
Sinclair used his earnings to establish Helicon Hall, a commune for writers in Englewood, New Jersey. Helicon Hall was to be the epitome of cooperation, where people would live day to day looking out for the best interests of one another while simultaneously pursuing individual interests. Less than a year into its existence, Helicon burned to the ground, and Sinclair abandoned the project.
In 1908, Sinclair founded a socialist theatre to provide a site for the performance of plays with socialist messages, including his own. He continued to write a number of books, though none captured the fancy of the reading public and most were privately printed. His marriage, which was essentially a sham, continued to be a distraction to Sinclair's writing, and he tried to divorce his wife, but the courts refused his request, so Sinclair moved to Europe. The loss of Helicon Hall, combined with his inability to resolve his differences with his wife, pushed Sinclair harder to pursue a divorce. He later provided a fictional account of his marriage in the novel Love's Pilgrimage (1911). In Europe, he wrote two novels and finally received a divorce in1911 with little difficulty.
Sinclair married again in 1913; his bride was Mary Craig Kimbrough. The same year, he returned to the United States, continued to write, and remained politically active. In 1915, he moved to California where he continued his writing and attempted to establish a political career. In 1923, he founded the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He was the socialist candidate for one of California's seats in the House of Representatives in 1920. Two years later, on the same ticket, he was unsuccessful in his attempt to become a U.S. senator. Three times he ran for governor of California: 1926, 1930, and 1934. His most nearly successful attempt was the only time he ran on the democratic ticket (1934). His platform became known as the EPIC (End Poverty in California) plan. He had an early lead in the polls, but Sinclair had alienated himself from the powers in Hollywood because he criticized their methods and because he was seen as a communist. This prompted an organized effort by production studios, led by MGM Pictures, to defeat Sinclair.
Sinclair's switch from socialist to left-wing democrat was a gradual change. Before the United States' involvement in World War I, Sinclair alienated himself from many of his colleagues because, unlike most American socialists, he favored America's entry into the war, mostly because of the German occupation of France. Later he resigned from the Socialist Party when the official position became one of pacifism. His reaction to socialism mirrored his reaction to organized religion — belief in the ideals but not in the execution of those ideals.
Sinclair's post-World War I period was a combination of an incredible outlay of writing as well as the aforementioned political activisim. In 1927, Oil! was published. Often considered his most effective piece of writing, Oil!, according to critics, illustrated a mark of maturity in Sinclair's writing. Just like the author, the protagonist of the novel rejected the ideals of World War I and was a religious cynic. Oil!, like the majority of Sinclair's fiction, currently is not widely available nor widely read.
During his lifetime, Sinclair received a more generous critical reception abroad than in his homeland. His work was translated into several languages and served, for many Europeans, as an information center about life in the United States. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, considered Sinclair one of the world's great novelists. In 1932, Sinclair was a finalist for the Nobel Prize in Literature, although he did not win the award.
Sinclair continued to print most of his novels privately until Viking Press published the Lanny Budd series in the 1940s and 1950s. This series was extremely popular and had a critical following, too. The most respected book in the series was Dragon's Teeth (1942), which chronicled the rise of Nazism in Germany and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The protagonist in the series — Lanny Budd — is the illegitimate son of a munitions tycoon and witnesses or figures in almost every crucial historical event in a 30-year period, a precursor to the Forrest Gump. Sinclair thought this series of literary history could serve as the texts for school children, but that did not occur.
Sinclair moved to Arizona in 1953 and continued to write. The following year his second wife died. Later that year he married his third wife, Mary Elizabeth Willis. After his wedding, Sinclair published The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair. Willis died in 1967, and on November 25, 1968, Sinclair died. For most of the latter part of the twentieth century, Sinclair was not widely read, primarily because literature with themes of social-change was not regarded as quality literature. Many critics felt that quality literature comments on the human condition but does not explicitly advocate change. That perception may be changing. But even if Upton Sinclair's reputation as an important and significant literary figure does not gain widespread acceptance, The Jungle will undoubtedly remain an American classic.