Upton Sinclair Tried to Save Us from the Jungle

Upton SinclairOn this day in 1902, the great poet Stevie Smith was born. She was also a novelist, but I haven’t read anything but her poetry. In fact, I most know of her from a really great film Stevie—which you should watch if you get the opportunity (it isn’t available on DVD). Her work is simultaneously playful and dark. Take, for example:

   Drugs made Pauline vague.
   She sat one day at the breakfast table
   Fingering in a baffled way
   The fronds of the maidenhair plant.

Was it the salt you were looking for dear?
said Dulcie, exchanging a glance with the Brigadier.

   Chuff chuff Pauline what’s the matter?
   Said the Brigadier to his wife
   Who did not even notice
   What a handsome couple they made.

The great television producer Jay Ward was born in 1920. He created shows such as Crusader Rabbit, Hoppity Hooper, and George of the Jungle. But I love him most for Rocky & Bullwinkle. I discussed the show only last month (it includes a documentary about the show). But rather than embed yet another clip of that show, here is Super Chicken:

Other birthdays: songwriter (co-writer of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”) Roy Turk; actor Anne Meara (84); actor Sophia Loren (79); and activist Van Jones (45).

The day, however (and easily), belongs to the great writer Upton Sinclair who was born on this day in 1878. He is best known for the novel The Jungle. It is an amazing book. It is dystopian yet true. With 1984, there is always the sense that no government could be that perfectly authoritarian. But in the case of The Jungle, that is really the way life was. It is also the way life is in many parts of the world. And perhaps most interesting of all, it is the way that modern day conservatives wish society to be. This brings to mind the work of John Rawls who said that a just society would be the one that you would choose if you couldn’t predict where you would be born. Conservatives always look to a society in which they would be at the top. And indeed, the Gilded Age was a great society to be in if you were rich.

In addition to his large body of work, Sinclair also tried his hand at politics. He ran for governor of California in 1934. He was hugely popular. But then the newspaper owners turned against him and effectively cut off any good or even objective coverage of him, and he ended up losing. It’s a good thing to remember. There is no such thing as democracy if there is not a free press. And the lack of a free press does not have to be the result of government interference. Around here, Sinclair is most often mentioned for one of his many great quotes, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” We see this again and again, but most profoundly, we see it with supposedly objective journalists.

Happy birthday Upton Sinclair.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Upton Sinclair Tried to Save Us from the Jungle

  1. Sinclair is great (so is Sinclair Lewis, who I used to get Upton mixed up with all the time — similar politics, if dissimilar styles.)

    Remember Sinclair’s complaint about how he was trying to change working conditions, but the big reaction to the book was improved food regulations? "I aimed for America’s heart and hit it in the stomach."

    The great thing about writers like this is that, as polemically bent Americans, their style is really easy to read today. (Well, not Dreiser, but he’s still a champ.) Newcomers to 19th-century English fiction can have a hard time at first with the rhythms of the prose until they get used to it (and woe betide the newcomer who sees a "Great Novels" list then decides to start with Conrad or, EEK, James!)

    The Sinclairs are very straightforward, the stories simple, the prose plain. Terrific for people interested in literary or American history.

    Thought for another day; why is it that they’re forgotten? The English, no great champions of equality they, revere Dickens and Forster and Golding (only posthumously, perhaps, but still.) We look at our literary history, ignore the Sinclairs and Richard Wrights (and the non-political, but probably lesbian Willa Cather), and who do we honor? Twain (once we forget "Pudd’nhead Wilson," strip "Finn" of its balls and make Twain a cute anecdote artist), Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. The latter two have their talents, but I suspect all three’s canonization comes from having been Success Stories. Hey, stuff that can pass for arty which made the author a celebrity! Always count on Americans to value what counts.

    A thing I found funny. At work we have a communal bookshelf, where people can bring in books they’re done with and take ones they want to read. On my shift today I noted a new wooden shelf was bought, a few new books added, and someone had gone to the trouble of organizing the books by style, sort of; non-fiction here, how-to there, etc. One shelf had a book by Carl Sagan (which I grabbed; I liked Sagan, his writing was simple but made scientific issues accessible to the types of people who read "Parade" magazine, and we could use his sort today.) Next to it was "The Age Of American Unreason," contributed by myself and with the crypt-like levels of dust removed. Next to that? Dan Brown . . .

  2. @JMF – There is a tendency for "great" writers to be clumped. So writers who wrote at the wrong time tend to get forgotten. The two Sinclairs are in that place. So from James and Conrad we jump to the Lost Generation. I think it really is that simple. It’s pathetic.

    I think Fitzgerald was great. I enjoy Hemingway but he’s overrated. Wright is a better novelist. Twain was a very funny writer. I think we’ve turned him into something he never was, however. [i]Huckleberry Finn[/i] is really good but it isn’t the kind of great art that is claimed for it. I think Twain would find what his reputation has become very funny.

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