This Day In Literary History
On September 20th, 1878, the legendary American writer Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a liquor salesman whose alcoholism haunted his son's childhood. When Upton was ten, the Sinclairs moved to New York City.
He would often stay with his wealthy grandparents, and his observations of the differences between the rich and the poor in late 19th century America would influence both his writings and his political convictions. He became a staunch socialist.
When he was thirteen, Upton enrolled at a prep school in the Bronx now known as the City College of New York. To help pay for his tuition, the intellectually gifted young writer sold magazine articles and wrote dime novels. After he graduated, he studied briefly at Columbia University.
a In 1904, Upton planned to write his first novel, the subject of which would be the corruption of the American meatpacking industry and the hardships faced by poor immigrants who come to America hoping to better their lot in life.
Instead, the poor people find the American Dream to be a nightmare of cruelty, corruption, and despair. To research the conditions he would write about, Upton went undercover, working in Chicago's meatpacking plants for seven weeks.
His classic debut novel, The Jungle, was published two years later, in 1906. It told the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a young Lithuanian immigrant who decides to emigrate to America after hearing about all the freedom and opportunity the country allegedly offered.
He moves himself and his extended family to America. Although Rudkus is strong, hardworking, and honest, he's also naive and illiterate. The family falls deep into debt, then falls victim to predatory moneylenders who end up taking their home and meager savings.
When Rudkus and his family find jobs at a meatpacking plant, they're paid slave wages and find that government inspectors, policemen, and judges must all be paid off in order for them to keep their jobs and their freedom.
The family witnesses deaths occur on the job that could have been prevented if it weren't for the horrific working conditions. Rudkus loses all his hope for achieving the American Dream. When his pregnant wife dies because the family cannot afford a doctor, then his son drowns, Rudkus flees Chicago in despair.
Later, he returns and works at various jobs to support himself and his family - some of which require him to sacrifice his integrity. He is haunted by the prospect of turning to crime to support his family.
One night, while looking for a warm and dry place to stay, Rudkus walks in on a lecture being given by a socialist orator. Among the socialists, he finds a sense of community and purpose.
He realizes that socialism and strong labor unions are the keys to overcoming the evils that he, his family, and other workers have suffered. A fellow socialist employs Rudkus, and he is able to support his family, but some of his loved ones are damaged beyond repair.
Although Upton Sinclair had intended to expose the exploitation of workers with his novel, the greatest uproar over The Jungle had nothing to do with working conditions.
The real furor the novel caused was over its exposure of the incredibly unsanitary practices employed by the meatpacking industry to maximize profit. Food safety became more of a concern than worker safety.
Then President Theodore Roosevelt, a fiercely conservative Republican, publicly dismissed the concerns raised by Sinclair's novel and derided the author, calling him "a crackpot." Roosevelt also said:
"I have an utter contempt for [Upton Sinclair.] He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth."
Privately, however, Roosevelt feared there was far more truth to Sinclair's novel than just "a basis." So, he sent two trusted men to investigate, Labor Commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James Bronson Reynolds.
The two men were ordered to make surprise visits to Chicago's meatpacking plants and determine whether or not the conditions described in Sinclair's novel were true. They were revolted by both the working and sanitary conditions they witnessed.
Neill and Reynolds wrote a comprehensive report of all their findings and submitted it to President Roosevelt, who, loath to regulate American business, suppressed it. He was, however, disturbed enough to do something about the issues raised by the report.
Roosevelt dropped hints about the terrible conditions in the meatpacking plants and the inadequacy of government inspections. These hints, Neill's testimony before Congress, and public pressure resulted in the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
Upton Sinclair used the money he made from The Jungle to found the Helicon Home Colony in Englewood, New Jersey. It was an experimental commune for "authors, artists, and musicians, editors and teachers and professional men." It was also a farming commune which would produce its own fruits, vegetables, meats, and milk.
While the commune was not intended to be a socialist project per se, those who wished to live there "would have to be in sympathy with the spirit of socialism." The Helicon Home Colony would last for about a year before it burned down in a fire that was ruled suspicious.
Another one of Sinclair's classic novels, Oil! (1927), was also based on a true story of corruption - the Teapot Dome Scandal of 1922-23, where the notoriously corrupt administration of then President Warren G. Harding was exposed.
The Republican President and his administration had been bribed by oil companies to allow them to acquire valuable government owned oil fields (used to supply the Navy in case of emergency) for peanuts, bypassing the competitive bidding process required by law.
Oil! told the story of James Arnold Ross, a self-made millionaire oilman who becomes a conspirator in the Teapot Dome Scandal. The wealthier and more powerful Ross becomes, the more immoral he becomes.
His son, Bunny, ultimately breaks ties with him and becomes a socialist. Oil! would be adapted as an acclaimed 2007 feature film, There Must Be Blood, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Unfortunately, the film took liberties with the story.
In the 1920s, Upton Sinclair moved his family to California, where he founded that state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He got involved in politics and twice ran for office on the Socialist ticket - once for Congress, once for the Senate. He lost both elections.
When he spoke at a rally in San Pedro to support the Industrial Workers of the World union, whose right to free speech was under attack, he read from the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. He was immediately arrested, along with hundreds of others. Sinclair's arresting officer proclaimed, "we'll have none of that Constitution stuff."
In 1934, Sinclair became the Democratic candidate for Governor of California. He was a popular candidate, but he ultimately lost the election by only 200,000 votes, thanks in part to slanderous propaganda shorts produced by Hollywood studios - fake newsreels featuring actors pretending to be real people being interviewed on the street.
One of them said, "Upton Sinclair is the author of the Russian government, and [communism] worked out well there, and I think it would do so here." Sinclair was not a communist and both the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party publicly denounced him.
The worst of the fake newsreels featured a cast of actors playing transients who have come to California hoping for a handout should Sinclair be elected governor. The propaganda campaign was conceived by Will Hays, head of Hollywood's infamous film censorship office, the Production Code Administration.
Hays was a former U.S. Postmaster General and a former member of ex President Warren G. Harding's corrupt administration, which Sinclair had written about in Oil!. Hays was more than happy to help his fellow Republican, Sinclair's opponent Frank Merriam.
The studios Hays worked for were determined to destroy Sinclair because part of his plan for economic recovery in California called for increased taxes on Hollywood studios and the creation of independent public studios where struggling filmmakers could make movies free of Hollywood's influence.
The Hollywood film studios' propaganda smear campaign worked. Sinclair lost the election and Hays, the studios, and the Republican Party got away with mounting one of the dirtiest political campaigns in American history.
Ironically, years before his failed campaign for governor of California, which he would write about in his memoir I, Candidate for Governor - and How I Got Licked (1935), Sinclair worked as a screenwriter and movie producer after being recruited by the legendary actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin.
Throughout his amazing career, Upton Sinclair wrote nearly a hundred books, most of which were novels. He also wrote plays and nonfiction books on various subjects including politics, a scathing criticism of organized religion, and an autobiography.
Sinclair also wrote books on psychic phenomena, which interested him greatly because his wife was a psychic. He died in 1968 at the age of 90.
Quote Of The Day
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
- Upton Sinclair
Today's video features a complete reading of Upton Sinclair's classic debut novel, The Jungle. Enjoy!