Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual, by Lauren Coodley (Bison Books, 256 pp., $28.95)
Upton Sinclair, as every American who has finished high school should know, wrote a famous book in 1906 called The Jungle, which exposed the deplorable conditions of the country’s meatpacking industry and prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to establish the agency that became the Food and Drug Administration. That is about all anyone remembers about Sinclair, but he lived a memorable life.
The Jungle was but one of an astonishing 80 books that Sinclair wrote over the course of his 90 years. One series of his novels was translated into 21 languages, sold millions of copies around the world, and won the Pulitzer Prize. He ran one of the few explicitly socialist campaigns for major office in the United States. He was a friend of virtually everyone who mattered in the twentieth century: Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Irving Thalberg, Henry Ford, Jack London, H. L. Mencken, King Gillette—the list goes on. He was famous enough in his day to merit invitations from three presidents (both Roosevelts and Lyndon Johnson) to dine at the White House.
Yet, apart from The Jungle—which teachers continue to assign in classrooms across the land—virtually none of Sinclair’s books is read anymore, and most are long out of print. His campaign for governor of California in 1934 failed decisively, ending his political ambitions and dooming the Left in the Golden State for a generation or two. All his famous friends achieved a level of immortal eminence of which Sinclair could only dream.
Nevertheless, various fans and partisans have continued to campaign on Sinclair’s behalf, and something of a cottage industry exists among liberals to restore his fame to its previous heights. Though the effort has never really caught fire, Sinclair’s boosters remain optimistic. As recently as 2006, two substantial new Sinclair biographies appeared with the same intent—and the same lack of effect. Now we have another.
Lauren Coodley’s take has the virtue of brevity, with only 181 pages of text, of which the last 10 are an attempt to burnish Sinclair’s “legacy.” She identifies among Sinclair’s “intellectual heirs” Barbara Ehrenreich, Mike Davis, Alice Walker, Michael Moore, and Naomi Klein. Not that you need to read to the end to figure out that Coodley is on the left. First, who but a leftist would write yet another book about Upton Sinclair? Second, her justification for so doing is that hers is the first to show the decisive influence of women and feminism on Sinclair’s thought and activism. She succeeds at the task she sets herself, though not without some unintentional comedy.
Coodley is at pains to deny that Sinclair was in any way a “namby pamby,” apparently a charge that stalked him all his life. At this, she does not succeed. Coodley’s Sinclair is—admirably, in her judgment—a teetotaler, a vegetarian, a prude, and solicitous of women to the point of supplication. Hence it’s not clear what possible objection someone of Coodley’s stripe could have to namby-pambyism. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see a committed feminist admit, if only implicitly, a connection between her creed and namby-pambyism in men. Coodley also details the now under-appreciated connection between feminism and the temperance movement—and sundry other forms of priggishness. H.L. Mencken, of course, saw this from the beginning, and told Sinclair so. They were an unlikely pair, but good friends for a while, which speaks well of Sinclair’s ability—rare on the modern Left—to build and maintain friendships that transcended ideological boundaries.
While Sinclair might have been a bluenose—Time famously described him as “a man with every gift except humor and silence”—he was no hypocrite. He really did live the abstemious life he wanted to impose on everyone else. That’s another way, or really two ways, that Sinclair is so different from the modern Left, which seems to be comprised of those who preach libertinism while practicing discipline (and laughing all the way to the bank), and those who indulge their every wish while insisting on the hair shirt for everyone else. Sinclair actually wrote a small book on the virtues of lifelong monogamy. Can anyone imagine a modern leftist doing that?
The best that may be said of Sinclair is that his character was beyond reproach. He was loyal, curious, industrious, and courageous—willing to go to jail and risk assassination for his beliefs and activism. But good character is not a legacy, at least not a public one. Why, then, should Sinclair be remembered? The best things about his best books were the detailed reportage that went into them. The prose ranges from unremarkable to breathless to maudlin. Sinclair always conceived of himself as more of a propagandist than an artist, and that self-assessment was dead right. There is not enough literary merit to lift his works above the level of agitprop.
What, then, of Sinclair’s political activities? For all his personal virtue, Sinclair seems to have been devoid of any political wisdom, or even good sense. He remained to his last breath a utopian to the core. No practical failure of any scheme was ever enough to dissuade him into moderation or even doubt. He modestly titled his 1934 campaign “EPIC,” for “End Poverty in California.” Former California State Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk once said that EPIC, despite its failure (Sinclair lost by more than 250,000 votes out of only 2.3 million cast), was “the acorn from which evolved the tree of whatever liberalism we have in California.” Perhaps. But if so, it took the tree more than three-quarters of a century to reach maturity.
In truth, there doesn’t seem to be much connection between today’s liberalism and Sinclair’s, beyond a prosaic concern with the material well-being of the poor. Sinclair is firmly a figure of the Old Left—anti-Communist, straight-laced, patriotic. If he had any lasting legacy at all—beyond food safety—it would appear to be helping to give the film industry its first leftward shove. Early Hollywood was firmly conservative and worked hard to sink Sinclair’s campaign for governor. But its unsavory tactics enraged some of the talent; they went against management and remained committed to liberalism after the campaign was over.
That’s not nothing, but does it justify yet another book? The real purpose behind all this “Sinclairiana” (as Coodley calls it) appears to be liberals’ longing for a hero. They certainly could do worse. Though my well-meaning advice would be to imitate more the man’s personal and less his political life. If the personal is indeed the political, our politics would improve if more of us strived to live as uprightly as Upton Sinclair.