Books by Sinclair, Upton

Sinclair, Upton. Dragon's Teeth. Vol. 1. Safety Harbor, FL: Simon Publications, [1942] 2001. ISBN 1-931313-03-2.
Between 1940 and 1953, Upton Sinclair published a massive narrative of current events, spanning eleven lengthy novels, in which real-world events between 1913 and 1949 were seen through the eyes of Lanny Budd, scion of a U.S. munitions manufacturer family become art dealer and playboy husband of an heiress whose fortune dwarfs his own. His extended family and contacts in the art and business worlds provide a window into the disasters and convulsive changes which beset Europe and America in two world wars and the period between them and afterward.

These books were huge bestsellers in their time, and this one won the Pulitzer Prize, but today they are largely forgotten. Simon Publications have made them available in facsimile reprint editions, with each original novel published in two volumes of approximately 300 pages each. This is the third novel in the saga, covering the years 1929–1934; this volume, comprising the first three books of the novel, begins shortly after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and ends with the Nazi consolidation of power in Germany after the Reichstag fire in 1933.

It's easy to understand both why these books were such a popular and critical success at the time and why they have since been largely forgotten. In each book, we see events of a few years before the publication date from the perspective of socialites and people in a position of power (in this book Lanny Budd meets “Adi” Hitler and gets to see both his attraction and irrationality first-hand), but necessarily the story is written without the perspective of knowing how it's going to come out, which makes it “current events fiction”, not historical fiction in the usual sense. Necessarily, that means it's going to be dated not long after the books scroll off the bestseller list. Also, the viewpoint characters are mostly rather dissipated and shallow idlers, wealthy dabblers in “pink” or “red” politics, who, with hindsight, seem not so dissimilar to the feckless politicians in France and Britain who did nothing as Europe drifted toward another sanguinary catastrophe.

Still, I enjoyed this book. You get the sense that this is how the epoch felt to the upper-class people who lived through it, and it was written so shortly after the events it chronicles that it avoids the simplifications that retrospection engenders. I will certainly read the second half of this reprint, which currently sits on my bookshelf, but I doubt if I'll read any of the others in the epic.

November 2007 Permalink

Sinclair, Upton. Dragon's Teeth. Vol. 2. Safety Harbor, FL: Simon Publications, [1942] 2001. ISBN 978-1-931313-15-5.
This is the second half of the third volume in Upton Sinclair's grand-scale historical novel covering the years from 1913 through 1949. Please see my notes on the first half for details on the series and this novel. The second half, comprising books four through six of the original novel (this is a print on demand facsimile edition, in which each of the original novels is split into two parts due to constraints of the publisher), covers the years 1933 and 1934, as Hitler tightens his grip on Germany and persecution of the Jews begins in earnest.

The playboy hero Lanny Budd finds himself in Germany trying to arrange the escape of Jewish relatives from the grasp of the Nazi tyranny, meets Goebbels, Göring, and eventually Hitler, and discovers the depth of the corruption and depravity of the Nazi regime, and then comes to experience it directly when he becomes caught up in the Night of the Long Knives.

This book was published in January 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor. It is remarkable to read a book written in a time when the U.S. and Nazi Germany were at peace and the swastika flag flew from the German embassy in Washington which got the essence of the Nazis so absolutely correct (especially the corruption of the regime, which was overlooked by so many until Albert Speer's books decades later). This is very much a period piece, and enjoyable in giving a sense of how people saw the events of the 1930s not long after they happened. I'm not, however, inclined to slog on through the other novels in the saga—one suffices for me.

January 2009 Permalink

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, [1905] 2003. ISBN 1-884365-30-2.
A century ago, in 1905, the socialist weekly The Appeal to Reason began to run Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle in serial form. The editors of the paper had commissioned the work, giving the author $500 to investigate the Chicago meat packing industry and conditions of its immigrant workers. After lengthy negotiations, Macmillan rejected the novel, and Sinclair took the book to Doubleday, which published it in 1906. The book became an immediate bestseller, has remained in print ever since, spurred the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in the very year of its publication, and launched Sinclair's career as the foremost American muckraker. The book edition published in 1906 was cut substantially from the original serial in The Appeal to Reason, which remained out of print until 1988 and the 2003 publication of this slightly different version based upon a subsequent serialisation in another socialist periodical.

Five chapters and about one third of the text of the original edition presented here were cut in the 1906 Doubleday version, which is considered the canonical text. This volume contains an introduction written by a professor of American Literature at that august institution of higher learning, the Pittsburg State University of Pittsburg, Kansas, which inarticulately thrashes about trying to gin up a conspiracy theory behind the elisions and changes in the book edition. The only problem with this theory is, as is so often the case with postmodern analyses by Literature professors (even those who are not “anti-corporate, feminist” novelists), the facts. It's hard to make a case for “censorship”, when the changes to the text were made by the author himself, who insisted over the rest of his long and hugely successful career that the changes were not significant to the message of the book. Given that The Appeal to Reason, which had funded the project, stopped running the novel two thirds of the way through due to reader complaints demanding news instead of fiction, one could argue persuasively that cutting one third was responding to reader feedback from an audience highly receptive to the subject matter. Besides, what does it mean to “censor” a work of fiction, anyway?

One often encounters mentions of The Jungle which suggest those making them aren't aware it's a novel as opposed to factual reportage, which probably indicates the writer hasn't read the book, or only encountered excerpts years ago in some college course. While there's no doubt the horrors Sinclair describes are genuine, he uses the story of the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkos, as a Pilgrim's Progress to illustrate them, often with implausible coincidences and other story devices to tell the tale. Chapters 32 through the conclusion are rather jarring. What was up until that point a gritty tale of life on the streets and in the stockyards of Chicago suddenly mutates into a thinly disguised socialist polemic written in highfalutin English which would almost certainly go right past an uneducated immigrant just a few years off the boat; it reminded me of nothing so much as John Galt's speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged. It does, however, provide insight into the utopian socialism of the early 1900s which, notwithstanding many present-day treatments, was directed as much against government corruption as the depredations of big business.

April 2005 Permalink

Sinclair, Upton. Mental Radio. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, [1930, 1962] 2001. ISBN 1-57174-235-2.
Upton Sinclair, self-described (p. 8) “Socialist ‘muckraker’” is best known for his novels such as The Jungle (which put a generation off eating sausage), Oil!, and The Moneychangers, and his social activism. His 1934 run for Governor of California was supported by young firebrand Robert A. Heinlein, whose 1938-1939 “lost first novel” For Us, The Living (February 2004) was in large part a polemic for Sinclair's “Social Credit” platform.

Here, however, the focus is on the human mind, in particular the remarkable experiments in telepathy and clairvoyance performed in the late 1920s with his wife, Mary Craig Sinclair. The experiments consisted of attempts to mentally transmit or perceive the content of previously drawn images. Some experiments were done with the “sender” and “receiver” separated by more than 40 kilometres, while others involved Sinclair drawing images in a one room with the door closed, while his wife attempted to receive them in a different room. Many of the results are simply astonishing, so much so that given the informal conditions of the testing, many sceptics (especially present-day CSICOPs who argue that any form of cheating or sensory information transfer, whether deliberate or subconscious, which cannot be definitively excluded must be assumed to have occurred), will immediately discard them as flawed. But the Sinclair experiments took place just as formal research in parapsychology was getting underway—J.B. Rhine's Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University was not founded until 1935—five years after the publication of Mental Radio, with the support of William McDougall, chairman of the Duke psychology department who, in 1930, himself performed experiments with Mary Craig Sinclair and wrote the introduction to the present volume.

This book is a reprint of the 1962 edition, which includes a retrospective foreword by Upton Sinclair, the analysis of the Sinclair experiments by Walter Franklin Prince published in the Bulletin of the Boston Society for Psychic Research in 1932, and a preface by Albert Einstein.

January 2005 Permalink