Upton Sinclair’s half-century of raking the muck

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Anthony Arthur is the author of the forthcoming biography "Upton Sinclair: Radical Innocent."

In June 1916, Upton Sinclair apologized before his talk to the ladies of the Friday Morning Club of Los Angeles for failing to get his shaggy hair trimmed -- he joked that he hadn’t been able to spy a barbershop pole in his new hometown of Pasadena because of all the patriotic red, white and blue bunting in support of American entry into the war in Europe. The Los Angeles Times reporter’s account of the celebrated socialist muckraker’s speech turned Sinclair’s casual joke into a slur on American patriotism, infuriating the newspaper’s conservative publisher, Harrison Gray Otis. Sinclair, a Times editorial would fume, was “an effeminate young man with a fatuous smile, a weak chin and a sloping forehead,” a “slim, beflannelled example of perverted masculinity,” guilty of advocating “anarchy, destruction, lawlessness [and] revolution,” who would never have dared to say the things he did before an audience of men.

Fortunately for Gen. Otis’ peace of mind, he died before he had to witness Sinclair’s 50-year run as one of Southern California’s most celebrated -- and controversial -- citizens. He was also one of its most productive: He wrote some 90 books in his 90 years. A photo of Sinclair taken shortly before his death, in 1968, shows him standing beside a stack of books he had written that is taller than he is.

As Lauren Coodley says in the introduction to her new anthology, Upton Sinclair’s “life was a play with many acts, many scenes, including a children’s fantasy about saving the redwoods in the 1930s, an eleven-volume antifascist spy series in the 1940s, and in between, a jaw-dropping campaign for governor of his adopted state that brought popular culture into the heart of electoral politics.”


Her purpose in selecting samples of Sinclair’s writing is to show that he remains relevant for more than his most famous book, “The Jungle,” which led in 1906 to much-needed pure food and drug legislation. Especially for modern Californians “stunned” by the complexities of their state, “Sinclair waits patiently to explain when and how these changes happened” -- a guide, according to the California historian Kevin Starr, no less astute than his longtime admirer Carey McWilliams.

Coodley has selected 14 passages that reflect her thesis, grouping them in four sections. The brief first part, “Political Awakenings,” includes excerpts from Sinclair’s autobiography, “American Outpost” (1932), the most effective of which describes his traumatic childhood with an alcoholic father.

“Impressions of California,” Coodley’s second section, begins with Sinclair’s account of his first visit to the state in 1908, when he stayed with the poet George Sterling in the thriving artists’ community of Carmel. His later “impressions” are vividly captured in excerpts from two works that grew out of Sinclair’s personal experience. The first is the wildly experimental agit-prop play “Singing Jailbirds,” which stemmed from Sinclair’s arrest in 1923 for reading the 1st Amendment to the Constitution at a public rally in support of striking dock workers in San Pedro. The second is “Oil!,” the 1927 novel based on Sinclair’s observation of the booming new oil industry in Long Beach and Signal Hill. The first chapter of “Oil!,” a tour-de-force called “The Ride,” was successfully staged in San Francisco recently by the Word for Word Performing Arts company. Its inclusion here explains why UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell praised “Oil!” as Sinclair’s “most sustained and best writing” and, indeed, “the largest scale of all California novels.”

In her third and most substantial section, “Creating Popular Culture,” Coodley examines Sinclair’s intense involvement with Hollywood and his magisterial novels about the wars of the 20th century, featuring a charming spy called Lanny Budd.

Sinclair had been intrigued with the possibilities of film for raising political awareness since “The Jungle” was released in 1914, with Sinclair himself playing a character based on Eugene Debs. He counted Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks among his friends (it was Chaplin who said that Sinclair disarmed his enemies by always “speaking through a smile”); he wrote a commissioned biography of the disgraced movie mogul William Fox; and, much to his regret, he staked Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt to make a film about revolutionary Mexico. In 1933, Irving Thalberg backed a successful movie based on Sinclair’s novel about prohibition, “The Wet Parade.” Coodley includes an excerpt from the novel, along with studio advertising for the film.

But Sinclair remained a Hollywood outsider. Convinced that “the movies are made for children, and for grown people who have remained at the mental age of children,” he wrote a long short story called “The Golden Scenario” in the 1930s. Unpublished until 1994, its inclusion by Coodley is of interest because it depicts the scriptwriting mills that exploited eager but naive and talentless aspirants to fame.


Coodley’s final section, “The EPIC Movement,” is surprisingly brief, perhaps because its subject is already relatively well known. EPIC was Sinclair’s acronym for his 1934 gubernatorial campaign’s key idea, “End Poverty in California.” (In one of his more optimistic moments during the campaign, he suggested that if he won he would alter the slogan to mean “End Poverty in Civilization.”) He wrote almost all of his own campaign material, most notably the pamphlet “I, Governor of California,” but also a short book called “EPIC Answers.” As Coodley notes, this less familiar work is remarkable for “the simplicity and the directness” of Sinclair’s responses to questions raised during the campaign, and much of what Sinclair says about overproduction, unemployment and land use continues to make sense.

Sinclair’s true metier, of course, was neither film nor politics. It was writing lucid explanations of complicated subjects for the general reader. No subject was more complicated, or more important, in 1938 than the rise of Hitler, which persuaded Sinclair that the world he had known was doomed. In “World’s End,” he dramatized the ideas, personalities and events that led to the 1919 peace negotiations at Versailles, which in turn, he felt, caused the disastrous rise of fascism. Published to considerable acclaim in 1940, that novel grew into a series -- all told through the eyes of a handsome young art dealer, Lanny Budd -- that did not end until 1953. In 1943, Sinclair, who had previously been dismissed by the literary establishment as little more than a good-hearted propagandist, won the Pulitzer Prize for “Dragon’s Teeth,” his account of Hitler’s seizure of power.

Coodley has selected a Lanny adventure from “A World to Win” (1946) that has special relevance for California readers. It is set during the third presidential campaign of Lanny’s friend and boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the fall of 1940. FDR, worried about fifth-column infiltration into the movie world and also about William Randolph Hearst’s rumored sympathy with Germany, sends Lanny to Hollywood. Lanny, posing as an unprincipled playboy and personal friend of Hitler, Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess, meets and impresses Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. An invitation to visit the great man himself in his lair on the Pacific Coast -- Lanny calls him “the Duce of San Simeon” -- follows, allowing the intrepid spy to add another scalp to his belt.

Implausible? Perhaps -- but entertaining and instructive, like the demonstrated facts of Sinclair’s equally implausible but real life, so effectively rendered in Coodley’s imaginative anthology. *