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 biography into 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.