Sinclair, Upton Beall


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Sinclair, Upton Beall

Upton Beall Sinclair was a famous American writer and essayist whose book The Jungle, an exposé of Chicago's meatpacking industry, shocked the nation and led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

Sinclair was born September 20, 1878, to a prominent but financially troubled family in Baltimore, Maryland. Sinclair's father was a liquor salesman who was also an alcoholic. His mother, a teetotaler, came from a wealthy background. In 1888, the Sinclair family moved to New York. Sinclair's father sold hats but spent his earnings on alcohol. Sinclair, who became a teetotaler like his mother, moved between two different financial worlds—the relative life of poverty with his father and mother and the affluence he experienced when visiting his mother's well-to-do parents. He later stated that experiencing the two extremes helped make him a socialist.

Sinclair began to write "dime novels" (books of pulp fiction that sold for 10 cents) when he was a teenager. At age 14, he attended New York City College, financing his education by writing for newspapers and magazines. In 1897, Sinclair enrolled at Columbia University. He continued to write prodigiously, a habit that became lifelong. By the time he died, Sinclair had published close to one hundred books.

In 1901, Sinclair released his first book, Springtime and Harvest, later republished as King Midas. Around the same time, he became involved in the socialist movement. He was an avid reader of socialist classics and Appeal to Reason, a socialist-populist journal. Socialists maintain that inequalities in the distribution of wealth are best solved by either direct state ownership of key industries or through regulation of private business. In 1905, Sinclair joined with authors Jack London and Florence Kelley and labor attorney clarence darrow to establish the Intercollegiate Socialist Society.

During this period Sinclair also became interested in the works of such investigative journalists as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, who publicly exposed corruption in U.S. government and industry. This type of investigative reporting came to be known as "muckraking," thanks in part to Sinclair. In 1904, the editor of Appeal to Reason commissioned him to write a novel about the immigrants who worked in the meat packing industry. After seven weeks of research, Sinclair produced his sixth book, The Jungle, a novel about a young Lithuanian immigrant who finds work in the stockyards of Chicago. Sinclair's frank portrayal of the unsanitary and miserable working conditions of those who labored in the meat packing industry, was serialized in 1905 where it began to create a furor.

"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
—Upton Sinclair

Unable to find a publisher for his book, Sinclair, after six rejections, published the novel himself. He took out an ad in Appeal to Reason, and received 972 advance orders. When the publisher Doubleday heard the numbers, the company took on the book. The Jungle was published in 1906 and immediately sold over 150,000 copies. Over the next few years the book was translated into 17 languages and became an international best-seller.

Horrified at the description of the filthy conditions in which the meat packers worked, and even more dismayed at the offal and other repellant ingredients that were part of the meats they were consuming, the American public demanded immediate and widespread reform. President Theodore Roosevelt met with Sinclair at the White House and launched an investigation into the practices of the meat packing industry. Although the beef industry and other producers of consumable products, including pharmaceutical companies, had vigorously fought federal regulation of their industries, Sinclair's revelations helped turn the tide.

Bowing to the swelling chorus of public indignation, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which prohibited foreign and interstate commerce in adulterated or fraudulently labeled food and drugs. Under the new law, such products could be seized and destroyed and offenders faced fines and prison sentences. Congress also passed the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which attempted to regulate the inspection of the slaughtering and processing of animals sold for human consumption.

Sinclair put his newfound wealth into a cooperative living experiment he established in Englewood, New Jersey. When a fire destroyed the commune in 1907, Sinclair was financially unable to rebuild it. He followed The Jungle with a number of other muckraking novels, including King Coal (1917), Oil! (1927), and Boston (1928). None, however, achieved the same popularity.

Sinclair eventually moved to California where he became actively involved in politics. He ran unsuccessfully for public office on the Socialist ticket and organized a socialist reform movement known as End Poverty in California (EPIC). In 1934, he ran for governor of California on the Democratic ticket, but was defeated by Republican incumbent Frank Merriam.

Sinclair returned to writing in the 1940s, producing his famous Lanny Budd series, which is composed of 11 novels that deal with American politics from about 1913 until 1953. The third book in the series, Dragon's Teeth (1942), recounts the rise of Nazism. It received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1943, the only major literary award given to Sinclair.

In the 1950s, Sinclair moved to Arizona with his second wife, Mary Craig Kimbrough, for health reasons. When Craig died in 1961, the two had been married almost 50 years. Sinclair remarried at the age of 83. He spent his later years writing and occasionally lecturing. In 1962, he released his autobiography. In 1967, a year before his death, Sinclair was invited to the White House by President lyndon johnson to witness the signing of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, which expanded the earlier meat inspection act of 1906. In 1968, the socialist crusader, who proved that one man can bring about reform, died in his sleep on November 25, 1968, in Bound Brook, New Jersey.

Further readings

Ivan, Scott. 1996. Upton Sinclair: The Forgotten Socialist. Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America.

Mitchell, Greg. 1991. Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's E.P.I.C. Race for Governor of California. New York: Random House.