We regret that we missed the opportunity to commemorate Upton Sinclair’s birthday last month on the 20th. So as a belated recognition we publish this bio from Writer’s Almanac (NPR).
Today is the birthday of Upton Sinclair, born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1878. A precocious child whose heroes were Jesus Christ and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of 14. He paid for his tuition and housing by publishing stories in newspapers and magazines. And by the time he was 17, Sinclair was doing well enough to pay for his own apartment and still had money left over to support his parents. But after he married and had a child of his own, his income was no longer adequate. He self-published his first novel, Springtime and Harvest (1901), with the help of a loan from his uncle. Several more books followed, and although some of them got decent reviews, they didn’t sell well.
Sinclair was deeply troubled by the disparity between rich and poor. He witnessed the income gap in his own extended family: his grandparents were extremely wealthy, and his parents were destitute. Sinclair eventually joined the Socialist Party of America, and his political philosophy became linked with his writing as he became inspired by investigative journalists. Sinclair said, “The proletarian writer is a writer with a purpose; he thinks no more of art for art’s sake than a man on a sinking ship thinks of painting a beautiful picture in the cabin; he thinks of getting ashore — and then there will be time enough for art.”
In 1904, a socialist newspaper hired him to write an exposé of the meatpacking industry and the exploitation of its immigrant workers. So Sinclair moved to Chicago’s stockyards district for seven weeks. He took detailed notes on the miserable working conditions there, and then returned to the East Coast to transform his investigative journalism into fiction. The Jungle was serialized in the paper, as planned, but six different publishers declined to publish the manuscript in book form unless he lost the “blood and guts.” Sinclair decided to self-publish once again, and he began taking advance orders. Encouraged by his brisk sales, Doubleday agreed at the last minute to publish the book on the condition that its claims could be verified. The publisher’s lawyer traveled to the Chicago stockyards to witness for himself the dreadful state of affairs, and The Jungle caused an almost instant sensation when it was published in 1906. Sinclair received $30,000 in royalties in the first year alone.
Although Sinclair had intended to highlight the mistreatment of the workers, readers recoiled instead to his descriptions of what exactly went into their food supply. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair remarked, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” President Theodore Roosevelt received a hundred letters a day demanding the reform of the meatpacking industry. Sinclair and Roosevelt began a correspondence, and while the president was critical of socialism, he hastened to add, “But all this has nothing to do with the fact that the specific evils you point out shall, if their existence be proved, and if I have power, be eradicated.” Roosevelt was true to his word, and he passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act, and the Meat Inspection Act, in 1906.
Although none of his later books matched the success of The Jungle, Sinclair continued to write books with socialist agendas, like Oil! (1927), about the Teapot Dome scandal; and Boston (1928), about the trial of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. His 1942 novel, Dragon’s Teeth, about the rise of the Nazi Party, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.