Quotable: Upton Sinclair

I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit in the stomach

With this much-quoted phrase, Sinclair summed up his disappointment that The Jungle had not sparked a socialist revolution and had only played a major role in persuading people as to the necessity of the Pure Food and Drug Act, passed only a few months after the book’s publication (though devised earlier).

Sinclair biographer Anthony Arthur makes it plain that:

He had virtually no interest in persuading readers that their meat was rotten except as a means of dramatizing the sad conditions of the workers who prepared it for them. People could always choose not to eat meat. Workers couldn’t choose not to work if they wanted to live.

For Upton Sinclair, art had a higher purpose than mere entertainment, and he believed he could successfully marry a reformer’s zeal with literary élan. With the noteworthy exception of the book’s didactic ending, he mostly pulled it off with The Jungle. Its reception suggested he’d been correct in his conviction that it would take a novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin to move Americans to action. For many critics, however, Sinclair’s zeal made for excessively sentimental fiction that lacked style and fell short of art. Even as he remained famous for The Jungle, his later works often failed to seduce all but his most loyal readers.

Sinclair and Anton Chekhov both envisioned – in Chekhov’s words – a “young man who squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and who, one fine morning, finds that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer the blood of a slave but that of a real human being.” Sinclair brought that young man to fictive life in the form of Jurgis Rudkus, The Jungle‘s protagonist, who suffers terribly and redeems himself only through great labor and a tremendous change of mind.

Chekhov, however, believed that writers of fiction should devote themselves to accurately and powerfully describing the problems of society and leave the challenges of solving them to others.

Perhaps Sinclair came to agree with Chekhov on the limits of artistry: the Lanny Budd novels he began writing at the age of 60 wouldn’t change history but they did record it in lively, imaginative prose, garnering critical praise and bestseller status. Sinclair’s goal had simplified and his aim had improved – the third (of the eleven books in the series) even won a Pulitzer Prize. All the Lanny Budd books are now out of print.

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