Upton Sinclair and the Other American Centuryby Kevin Mattson
"I look forward to all of Kevin Mattson's works of history and I've notbeen disappointed yet. Upton Sinclair is a thoughtful, well-researched, and extremely eloquently told excavation of the history of theAmerican left and, indeed, the American nation, as well as a testamentto the power of one man to
Praise for UPTON SINCLAIR and the other American Century
"I look forward to all of Kevin Mattson's works of history and I've notbeen disappointed yet. Upton Sinclair is a thoughtful, well-researched, and extremely eloquently told excavation of the history of theAmerican left and, indeed, the American nation, as well as a testamentto the power of one man to influence his times. Well done."
--Eric Alterman, author of When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences
"A splendid read. It reminds you that real heroes once dwelt among us. Mattson not only captures Sinclair's character, but the world he inhabited, with deft strokes whose energy and passion easily match his subject's."
--Richard Parker, author of John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics
"From the meat-packing houses of Chicago to the automobile factories of Detroit to the voting booths of California, Upton Sinclair cut a wide swath as a muckraking writer who exposed the injustices rendered by American industrial capitalism. Now Kevin Mattson presents a much-needed exploration of this complex crusader. This is a thoughtful, provocative, and gripping account of an important figure who appeared equal parts intellectual, propagandist, and political combatant as he struggled to illuminate the 'other American century' inhabited by the poor and powerless."
--Steven Watts, author of The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century
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Upton Sinclair and the other American Century
By Kevin Mattson
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-72511-0
Chapter One"A VERY DEVOUT AND EARNEST LITTLE BOY" 1878-1892
The old universe was thrown into the ash-heap and a new one created. -HENRY ADAMS, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS
He tends to live his private emotions in public. -HAROLD LASKI ON UPTON SINCLAIR
Upton Sinclair made plenty of enemies over the course of his long life. It was simply the way he lived. Some hated his writing, believing his books were hastily assembled, overly contrived, and overtly political. Some thought him naive and moralistic. Some thought him puritanical. Some considered him an opportunist, obsessed with self-promotion rather than telling the truth. Some tired of his proselytizing the gospel of socialist politics (especially, as Lincoln Steffens once grumbled, before they could have their morning coffee-one of many drinking habits Sinclair abhorred). Sinclair recounted once, "I never could give up the effort to make everybody into a Socialist; naturally I annoyed a great many people." One of his numerous critics was the famous journalist and opinion leader Walter Lippmann, whom Sinclair called an "old friend" since they had known each other when both were socialists. But before World War I, Lippmann decided socialism was unrealistic, and in 1927 he wrote an essay that skewered Sinclair's utopian flair. Having dumped his youthful socialism, Lippmann couldn't understand why others hadn'tas well. Writing for the Saturday Review of Literature, he lobbed some of the complaints mentioned above and then argued that Sinclair was fast becoming irrelevant to national public discussion.
No matter what one thinks of Lippmann's charges, one claim goes to the heart of Sinclair's biography. "The child," Lippmann explained about his old friend, "has been father to the man." Much of Sinclair's adult life can be understood from a brief examination of his childhood and the world he grew into. There is an inherent danger in a biographer's playing the role of psychologist, putting the subject under a microscope and examining a detail of family or a parent and then reading too much into those things, rushing to a conclusion that only a biographer's hindsight can provide. But in Sinclair's case, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Examine any photograph of Sinclair from his childhood. There's one of him at age eight where all the criticisms of Sinclair the man are already apparent on the face of the child. He is outfitted in the swankest duds, which, undoubtedly, his mother had dressed him in, probably hand-medowns from the wealthier members of her family. As usual, Upton's lips are pursed and stiff, like a clenched fist. He stands with his elbow perched on a chair, his posture more like that of an adult, suggesting his precocious nature. He wears the self-assuredness that many an only child possesses, especially those whose mothers are convinced of their future greatness. There's a smugness that would not be expected from an eight-year-old. He is a boy with all the answers, an orientation he retained until the end of his life. Still, his photograph is similar to photographs taken of other children at the time. Appearing against a backdrop of gentility, the child appears to have a sense of dignity and purpose that being born into the upper ranks of society brought with it. Sinclair's eyes seem to stare ahead at some point beyond the photographer's studio. There's a sense of a world where certain expectations are a given: a nice sweet world or at least the appearance of a nice sweet world. But if Sinclair had looked out, he would have seen a world in the process of changing, a world that would shake the foundations of his perceived security.
Eighteen seventy-eight, the year Sinclair entered the world, was a time when the United States was still overcoming the most cataclysmic event in its history. The Civil War was thirteen years past, but in its wake the country had gone through the painful process of figuring out how to put itself back together. By the time Sinclair was born, Americans were hoping that a period of reconstruction was over. They hoped that the South could redeem itself by escaping the scrutinizing eyes of the "Radical Republicans" who wanted to use their military dominance over the region to ensure that African Americans would become the equals of white southerners. Some, both northerners and southerners alike, hoped that the country could leave behind the world of plantations and slavery and national strife and unify around a new system that could ensure America's economic growth-a new age in which every worker labored for his own wages in factories that pumped out products for bustling national markets.
The new forces unleashed during Sinclair's childhood were just as tumultuous as the gunfire of the Civil War. The railroad roaring to life-with its speed and its ability to unify disparate communities throughout the country-symbolized this most of all. Transcontinental lines were being established, connecting the old frontier of the West with the already developed East. The trains traveled more quickly than anything people had seen before. Wealth accumulated at a faster and faster pace, with Sinclair's own grandfather a living testimony to this fact, having grown rich from managing rail lines just outside of Baltimore. The transcontinental railroads helped a city like Chicago, a city that made Sinclair famous later in his life, grow at breakneck speed. The United States was experiencing the power of what Henry Adams called the "dynamo"-new machinery, speed, and power that tore apart older ways of life.
The railroads not only produced new markets and rapid change, they also consolidated levels of wealth never before seen. Suddenly in the midst of the American social scene appeared robber barons, men who sat at the top of great industrial empires possessing vast sums of money and power. Cornelius Vanderbilt, for instance, built his wealth "step by step, from the manipulation of small railroad stocks, wresting profits many times the millions he originally possessed in short order, until his system of iron rails was fixed in the industrial heart of the country, all entrenched at its key positions." The big bankers of the time, especially J. Pierpont Morgan, stood ready to lend money; his credit allowed even further expansion of wealth. America's iron and oil production-so central to an industrializing country-thrived, and so grew the wealth of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Both of these robber barons wanted strong control over the way they produced their goods. They exerted power from the top down, demanding faster output from the workers they employed, ultimately generating labor conflicts that were as much a mark of the Gilded Age as was the consolidation of wealth.
One year before Sinclair was born, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 erupted, one of the most violent and shocking strikes in history. It was a great spontaneous outpouring of anger, coming as it did before the formation of national labor unions that could coordinate labor protest. Workers simply walked off their jobs, no longer willing to work long hours for meager wages. Word spread throughout the nation and started a whole wave of strikes. The world of "free labor" that the United States hoped to rally around after the Civil War began to seem less and less promising. As the historian Alan Trachtenberg notes, "The 1880's witnessed almost ten thousand strikes and lockouts; close to 700,000 workers went out in 1886 alone." The country seemed on the verge of chaos and breakdown.
At the same time, southern and western farmers were becoming discontented with the conditions they faced after returning from the Civil War. In the South, they returned to burned-over farms and to bankers who charged them more and more to pull themselves out of this situation. They returned to find railroads increasingly important for shipping their wares, and they found these railroads charging more and more to ship their goods, cutting into their profits and killing the notion that the small farmer was the backbone of the nation's economy. When these farmers grew fed up like the workers on the railroad lines, they declared themselves Populists-believers in the ordinary worker fighting against odds determined by pernicious wealth. Their anger seethed during Sinclair's early years and then erupted into political organizing by the time Sinclair's picture was taken at the age of eight. The Populists bellowed their disgust at the world that surrounded them, complaining in 1892 of a "nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin." The anger of the farmers, and of the railroad workers before them, would shatter the stability that many Americans longed for after the bloody Civil War was over. Sinclair was too young to know of these things, but they would come to shape his life in profound ways. The secure world of an upright boy in knickers could no longer hold.
The Fighting Sinclairs
Sinclair's family tried, but ultimately failed, to keep these changes at bay. As with all good Victorian families of the time, there was a desire to ensure that the outside world would never invade their haven. They had reason to believe the barriers might hold. The big city, the steam machine, the speed of railroads-these were things associated with the American North, while Sinclair was born and bred a southerner. In 1904 he would write, "I am a Southerner and dearly love the South." Though Sinclair never really knew the Deep South, his family extended from a lineage of well-to-do Virginians, the sort of family that would prefer to ignore the plight of small, poor southern farmers or urban workers.
If Sinclair was not born into wealth, he was born into at least the pretension of wealth. "I was born in what is called the upper middle class; my parents were members of the ruined aristocracy of the South," he explained. Here you get a sense of how the outside world invaded Sinclair's life from an early stage. Sinclair explained in his autobiography: "The family had lived in Virginia, and there had been slaves and estates. But the slaves had been set free, and the homestead burned." As a child, Sinclair poked around his family's houses and once pried open an old trunk to discover "reams of Confederate paper money, now useless." The time of the South's greatness and, to a certain extent, its distinctiveness had passed-that was the lesson of his family's fall from grace in the wake of the Civil War. The "New South" of Sinclair's boyhood was a time not of plantations but of industrialization, when the South tried to fill in the holes of northern development by extracting its crude resources and then sending them north, where factories would finish them. Cotton growing, coal mining, logging forests, and crude textile mills-these were the harsh industries of the New South that ensured that it would remain poorer than the North, even as it watched the plantations and the world of slavery burn away. The arm to the forehead as the big house burned down, and people wondering what they would do next in life-this was the world of young Upton Sinclair.
The change might have been easier for the Sinclairs if the family had not been so bound to the southern tradition of honor and military virtue. Sinclair's family was noted for its naval officers-one after another of the elder male Sinclairs got on boats and fought it out, all the way up to the Civil War itself. This military prowess found itself unmoored in the new world of industrialism. In celebrating factories, railroads, and markets, the British sociologist Herbert Spencer and his American disciple William Graham Sumner pointed out, the captains of industry now rightfully displaced the captains of the military. Gun-fueled heroism now paled in comparison to the world of pursuing one's own self-interest by piling up wealth and reinvesting it in the making of more wealth. A world was dying, and though people like Spencer and Sumner celebrated it, others hated it. Critics of northern industrial capitalism-not just socialists-worried about what would happen to the virtues that only war and its sacrifice could teach young men. Sinclair, as a boy, first dreamed of becoming the "driver of a hook-andladder truck" but then soon decided he wanted to go to Annapolis, to follow in the footsteps of his male predecessors and fight wars on battleships. When he took up a pen instead, many of his earliest stories dealt with naval cadets training to become officers or with navy officers escaping enemy enslavement. Stories about fighting heroes conquering enemies came naturally to Sinclair. As he matured, he became a swashbuckling captain himself, fighting evildoers in the realm of wealth and of finance, the perfect revenge for a boy who watched capitalism displace military prowess.
Sinclair's father was one of the first men in the family to pursue a career outside of the military (he had himself done his fair share of fighting). His career could not symbolize the new forces of capitalism better. He became a traveling salesman, hawking liquor on the road. It was a manly profession in its own right-the bartering, cajoling, and talking over cigars and, of course, drinks. His father looked and acted the part well. He was sociable and jolly, a short man who had the appearance of the "southern gentleman" and who, in Sinclair's own words, was a "swell dresser." Even though a charmer, Sinclair's father had slipped from the world of hearty military heroes into the ranks of drunken salesmen-next to the southern gentleman, one of America's most classic character types. Hawking wares, drinking away one's disappointment in life, slapping a client on the back, and returning to drink. It was especially hard because the men on Sinclair's maternal side of the family-Upton's uncle Bland especially-were doing extremely well in the new world of competitive markets and acquisitive individualism. As Upton's father watched his own fortunes sag and the rest of the family's rise, there was plenty of reason to despair.
Because his father was an alcoholic, young Upton developed a strong sense of responsibility early on. After all, he had to pick his father up out of the gutters of the Bowery and off the tables of saloons. Sinclair remembered mustering the courage to walk into a smoke-filled saloon and past drunken, sometimes violent, imbibers-the "Highway of Lost Men," he would later call it-and then try his best to carry his father home, if he was lucky enough to locate him. In later life Sinclair still remembered the name of one saloon owner to whom his father was indebted and whose establishment was "just around the corner from the place where we lived at that time." This was fifty years after the time it happened, and still it haunted Sinclair. These ghosts lived on well past Sinclair's childhood. As much as he believed that his commitments in later life drew from the southern tradition of honor, they also drew from having a father who was unreliable and the hope that he could create a world of security that his father had never provided.
No doubt, Sinclair got much of his courage to go into those saloons from his mother. She was moralistic and stern, upright and proud. In the simplest of terms, Sinclair was what we would today call a mama's boy, often sleeping alone with her in a single-room boardinghouse, when his father was falling down drunk into gutters. His mother wanted Upton to be an Episcopal bishop, and she took him to church every Sunday, scrubbing behind his ears and getting him into his pretty clothes-outfitting him as a Little Lord Fauntleroy. This would cause problems later and no doubt do some psychological damage, and as an adult, Sinclair resented his mother, seeing her as pushy and demanding, the sort of mother who ate her young. But it's also true that, in Sinclair's case as in that of many others from his generation, the "memories of maternal love," to quote the historian Casey Blake, helped nurture his belief that there could be a better world than the one his father offered the family.
When Sinclair's father became a drunk and his mother tried her best to compensate, the family played out a larger change in American history-the crippling of what some call late-Victorian America. During the late nineteenth century, upper-middle-class families struggled with the changes wrought by industrialization. Henry Adams would write one of the most memorable books in history, his autobiography, in which he recounted how his own aristocratic lineage was devastated in the face of the "dynamo," the small world of Boston torn asunder by railroads and factories. Adams came from one of the most famous political families in American history, and he knew that the world of railroads accelerated the ascent of business over those, like his grandfathers in the past, who managed America's public affairs. Adams told a story of decline. It was a story that Sinclair knew, though his world had the added dimension of the fallen South. His childhood witnessed a father unable to cope with the changes of the new world, while his mother tried to uphold an illusion of stability. (Continues...)
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Meet the Author
Kevin Mattson is the Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University. He writes regularly for publications such as The Baffler, Dissent, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. He has also served as a commentator on NPR, and appeared on Hannity and Colmes.
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