Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair
The extraordinary story of how the author of The Jungle
set out to change America.
Anthony Arthur

When [Henry Louis] Mencken overheard some friends disparage Sinclair’s latest book, he silenced them with, “Well, he sat down and wrote it, didn’t he? p. 205

[The fictional] Lanny [Budd]’s voice is indistinguishable from Sinclair’s when he says that the communist cause “is not the cause I believed in or could ever believe in. I was talking about social justice, brought about by honest means, by free and open discussion, and by the democratic process which we in America know and have practiced for centuries. Sounding like the Orwell of “Politics And English Language,” Lanny says the communists “have taken up all the good words and poisoned them. You can’t saw liberal, you can’t say democratic, you can’t say people’s, you can’t say workers’ any more. p. 309

In a passage that shocked his old friends in the ACLU, Sinclair allows Lanny to wonder now “whether civil liberties should be extended to the enemies of civil liberties; to persons who were cynically and implacably determined to destroy the civil liberties of everybody in the world.” p. 309

A more pertinent critique of Sinclair’s career, one seldom heard , might have questioned the wisdom of devoting most of his life to a goal that never stood a chance of being reached in the United States — socialism — because its premise, the essential iniquity of capitalism, was on that most Americans would never share. p. 324

What save Sinclair — what made him, in the end, a happy and contented man — was his conversion from the religion of art to the religion of socialism, which he called the religion of humanity. The religion of art is essentially selfish, at least as it is usually conceived of today. Socialism, for Sinclair, was essentially selfless. It allowed him to make himself into a better person, and to do the work that would bring him fulfillment.

The true significance of Sinclair’s often derided puritanism finally becomes apparent when viewed in the light of his socialism. He was a puritan in the sense of Bunyan’s Christian, searching for the true path to salvation. Socialism gave him that path. He was also a Romantic idealist who lived as through the journey, not the destination, was what mattered.

Finally, as a man born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Sinclair was a proper Victorian who had absorbed two key guiding principles of that earnest period. These related to work and duty, which were often linked, and were best expressed in one of Sinclair’s favorite poems, Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” In his 1911 novel, Love’s Pilgrimage, Sinclair cited “Ulysses” in defining the “heroic life” as one of striving against great difficulties for “the good of all.” In 1968 Sinclair would have been justified in citing Tennyson once again, as Ulysses thinks back on his life:

Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, government,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all…

And yet Ulysses knows

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life!

Let this, then, be the final world on Upton Sinclair: that he lived a heroic life, on his own terms, and that he shone “in use.”

Leave a Reply

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image