Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair

Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair

by Anthony Arthur

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Few American writers have revealed their private as well as their public selves so fully as Upton Sinclair, and virtually none over such a long lifetime (1878—1968). Sinclair’s writing, even at its most poignant or electrifying, blurred the line between politics and art–and, indeed, his life followed a similar arc. In Radical Innocent: Upton

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Few American writers have revealed their private as well as their public selves so fully as Upton Sinclair, and virtually none over such a long lifetime (1878—1968). Sinclair’s writing, even at its most poignant or electrifying, blurred the line between politics and art–and, indeed, his life followed a similar arc. In Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, Anthony Arthur weaves the strands of Sinclair’s contentious public career and his often-troubled private life into a compelling personal narrative.

An unassuming teetotaler with a fiery streak, called a propagandist by some, the most conservative of revolutionaries by others, Sinclair was such a driving force of history that one could easily mistake his life story for historical fiction. He counted dozens of epochal figures as friends or confidants, including Mark Twain, Jack London, Henry Ford, Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Camus, and Carl Jung.

Starting with The Jungle in 1906, Sinclair’s fiction and nonfiction helped to inform and mold American opinions about socialism, labor and industry, religion and philosophy, the excesses of the media, American political isolation and pacifism, civil liberties, and mental and physical health.

In his later years, Sinclair twice reinvented himself, first as the Democratic candidate for governor of California in 1934, and later, in his sixties and seventies, as a historical novelist. In 1943 he won a Pulitzer Prize for Dragon’s Teeth, one of eleven novels featuring super-spy Lanny Budd.

Outside the literary realm, the ever-restless Sinclair was seemingly everywhere: forming Utopian artists’ colonies, funding and producing Sergei Eisenstein’s film documentaries, and waging consciousness-raising political campaigns. Even when he wasn’t involved in progressive causes or counterculture movements, his name often was invoked by them–an arrangement that frequently embroiled Sinclair in controversy.

Sinclair’ s passion and optimistic zeal inspired America, but privately he could be a frustrated, petty man who connected better with his readers than with members of his own family. His life with his first wife, Meta, his son David, and various friends and professional acquaintances was a web of conflict and strain. Personally and professionally ambitious, Sinclair engaged in financial speculation, although his wealth-generating schemes often benefited his pet causes–and he lobbied as tirelessly for professional recognition and awards as he did for government reform. As the tenor of his work would suggest, Sinclair was supremely human.

In Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, Anthony Arthur offers an engrossing and enlightening account of Sinclair’s life and the country he helped to transform. Taking readers from the Reconstruction South to the rise of American power to the pinnacle of Hollywood culture to the Civil Rights era, this is historical biography at its entertaining and thought-provoking finest.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A hundred years ago, 27-year-old Upton Sinclair became an overnight sensation with the publication of his novel The Jungle, an indictment of the meatpacking industry that would usher in legislation like the Pure Food and Drug Act. The social reformer went on to shock his friends by leaving the American Socialist Party and winning the 1934 Democratic nomination for governor of California, although he lost the election. And at 65, despite a string of failed novels, the resilient author won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Dragon's Teeth, the second in an 11-book series of historical novels featuring the hero Lanny Budd. Particularly interesting are the portrayals of Sinclair's friendships with luminaries like President Theodore Roosevelt, Sinclair Lewis and Albert Einstein; his ambitious experiments in communal living; and his shattering divorce from his first wife and estrangement from his son. Also noteworthy are his unsuccessful campaign for the Nobel Prize and his problematic business dealings with Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Arthur (Warring with Words: Famous Literary Feuds in America) draws a well-researched, balanced and fascinating portrait of a self-centered feminist who didn't understand women, a muckraker whose na vet left him constantly vulnerable to human treachery, and a complex, bestselling celebrity who was often dismissed as a propagandist by the literary establishment. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (On sale June 6) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This spring marks the centennial of the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, an anniversary being noted with the publication of two new biographies of the prolific journalist, novelist, socialist, and politician. Both Mattson (contemporary history, Ohio Univ., Athens) and Arthur (literature, California State Univ., Northridge) make excellent use of previous scholarship and primary sources to examine the life of this muckraker and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who became an icon of the Progressive Era. Yet they provide readers with two distinct perspectives on the man's life and times. Mattson seamlessly weaves the social, cultural, economic, and political events into his engaging biography, which expands on Floyd Dell's 1927 biography, Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest, as well as the autobiography Sinclair published in 1962. Arthur's book, on the other hand, focuses primarily on how Sinclair used political and personal events to develop his literary projects; Sinclair's writings, along with his political activism, were driven by the Progressive Era's ideals of improving life for ordinary Americans. Arthur's well-written book uses Sinclair's writing to provide a detailed and enlightening chronicle of his life. Both books enrich our knowledge of the life and times of Upton Sinclair and will do much to spur renewed interest in his literary works. Mattson's book is suitable for both academic and public libraries, while Arthur's book would be particularly welcome in academic collections.-Diane Fulkerson, Univ. of West Georgia, Carrollton Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Lively, unsparing look at the turn-of-the-century muckraker, social critic and novelist who changed the way America did business. Upton Sinclair lived a long, full life (1878-1968), and what it lacked in razzle-dazzle he amply made up in usefulness to the humanitarian cause. The only child of respectable Southerners, Sinclair moved among unsavory New York City boardinghouses as a child, while his salesman father was increasingly incapacitated by bouts of alcoholism. Cramming his school years into a short period, he was seized early on with a "burning sense of mission" and embarked on various zealous tracks that eventually led to his career as a self-described propagandist of socialism. Already married with a young baby (his wife's eventual adultery provoked the scandal of his life), Sinclair wrote several forgettable novels before discovering his strength as a preacher of the conflict between idealism and materialism in America. He set off to Chicago, determined to write something popular and join the muckraking journalists like Lincoln Steffens (The Shame of the Cities, 1904) who were his heroes. Casting about for his story, Sinclair wandered into the back of the meat-packing yards and witnessed a Lithuanian wedding party that became the opening scene of The Jungle, his scathing indictment of the commercial slaughterhouses. Later, moving to California, he devoted himself to socialist causes in religion, education and the unions, and ran for governor in the mid-1930s. When he won the Pulitzer Prize for Dragon's Teeth in 1942, a friend declared triumphantly, "The world is catching up with you." Arthur (Literature/California State Univ.; Literary Feuds, 2002, etc.) organizes his biographyinto chapters reflecting Sinclair's various crusading "selves"-e.g., The Warrior, The Pilgrim of Love, etc.-and uses a deft, light touch. An immensely readable biography.

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