Class of 1897
Upton Sinclair was a prodigious writer and social critic whose output over more than six decades ranged from light verse and short stories while he was a student at City College to powerful, passionate novels and commentaries that railed against the excesses of big business and political corruption. His work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and a nomination for a Nobel Prize. Theodore Roosevelt called him a muckraker. The most prominent of his books was “The Jungle,” a 1906 novel that exposed the literally dirty practices of the Chicago meatpacking industry and the equally unhealthy conditions in which its workers operated. Told in graphic and pungent terms from the perspective of a Lithuanian family that symbolized the exploited workers in that industry, it sparked enough public outrage to spur passage of the Pure Food Act of 1908.
|Behind a fig leaf, Upton Sinclair battles an “Oil!” ban in Boston.|
Sinclair’s subsequent books include “King Coal” (1917), recounting the tragic results of a strike at a Rockefeller-controlled coal and iron company; “The Profits of Religion” (1918), exposing clergymen more interested in money than morals; “The Brass Check” (1919), about the dangers of a subsidized press; “Oil!” (1927), about exploitation of the California oilfields and made into a 2007 movie, “There Will Be Blood”; “Boston” (1928), a “documentary novel” concerning the Sacco-Vanzetti case; and “The Flivver King” (1937), a critical look at Henry Ford. In 1939, Sinclair began writing an 11-volume, four-million-word series of books — one of the longest such series ever published — about a fictional journalist named Lanny Budd and the world he lived in from 1913 to 1949. One of the books, “Dragon’s Teeth,” dealt with the rise of Hitlerism in Germany and won the Pulitzer Prize for 1943. Sinclair had been nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1932 and was awarded a Townsend Harris Medal by the College in 1936.
He was born in Baltimore on Sept. 20, 1878, an only child. The family moved to New York and Sinclair entered City College just before his 14th birthday. Determined to become financially independent from his father, whose abuse of alcohol led Sinclair to become a Prohibitionist, he began submitting jokes, riddles, poems and short stories to popular magazines such as Life, Judge and Puck. By the time he graduated, he was selling full-length adventure novels to Street & Smith, one of the day’s most prolific publishers of pulp fiction. He was learning to write quickly and, it seemed, effortlessly, turning out an average of 6,000 to 8,000 words a day, every day. He was an equally prolific reader. According to his obituary in The New York Times, he spent a two-week Christmas holiday reading all of Shakespeare as well as the poetry of Milton. Having taught himself to read when he was 5, he later taught himself to read French, Italian, Esperanto and German.
A founder of the Authors League of America and a member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters, Sinclair hobnobbed with many of his era’s brainiest and most celebrated people, including Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Bertrand Russell, Theodore Dreiser, Douglas Fairbanks and Luther Burbank. Another was H.L. Mencken, editor of The American Mercury, a man known as “the sage of Baltimore.” Sinclair’s socialist views were at odds with Mencken’s political conservatism and his more liberal attitude about drink, but their shared hometown affiliation made them friends.
An interesting little sidelight about “Oil!” is that because a scene in a roadside motel was deemed too racy, the book was banned in Boston. Sinclair’s publisher printed 150 copies of a “Fig Leaf Edition” where the silhouette of a black leaf covered the offending text. In protest, Sinclair went to the Boston Common wearing a fig leaf sandwich board. The resulting publicity help propel the book to the top of bestseller lists.
Sinclair lived to be 90. He died on Nov. 25, 1968.