Assassinating Upton Sinclair

The real Upton Sinclair spent a long life refusing to abandon improbable dreams, whereas his fictional counterpart, as vividly imagined by author Chris Bachelder, also refuses to stay dead.

In Bachelder’s U.S.!, a 2006 novel-as-collection of stories, songs, letters, interviews and memos – not to forget one hilarious, impossible course syllabus – Sinclair dies violently only to spring back to one afterlife after another, all of them spent on the run as he flees an ever-increasing band of fervent assassins each of whom long to be the one who silences him forever.

The novel’s approach deviates significantly from Colm Toíbín‘s and David Lodge‘s treatments of Henry James. Lodge and Toíbín seem more interested in viewing and understanding the world from James’s perspective, while Bachelder wrestles with Sinclair, and his legacy, to a much greater degree than he identifies with him. (Perhaps as a result of this difference in approach, it’s advisable to know something about Sinclair before taking up U.S.!. Yes, reading this month’s blog entries should do it.)

In the following excerpt, the disillusionment of the American Left richly colors a supporting character’s half-hearted indictment of Sinclair – half-hearted because this nameless character is also helping “the old man” to elude assassination. Something else you need to know: Sinclair has taken the sobriquet of “Louis,” a strange, half-reference to the frequent confusion of our radical innocent with his contemporary, author Sinclair Lewis:

“Let me tell you a little story. In 1907 a young American writer, not yet thirty years old, published a novel that predicted the USA would be a fully Socialist country by the year 1913. With Hearst as our Socialist president. Good God…”

Louis said, “I misjudged Hearst.”

I said, “You misjudged everything. That’s what you are, a misjudger. An epic American misjudger with a bad ear for dialogue and an exclamation point problem. You’ve misjudged an entire century.” I was yelling at an old man. I was trying to assassinate him. “Your record is spotless. You’ve not gotten one thing right. You were a Prohibitionist for God’s sake. Socialism, telepathy, fasting, the metric system. Your books don’t make your wishes come true.”

Louis said, “My writing has made a difference. That is one thing I know. Through my efforts I got an exercise courtyard in the state prison of Delaware. When Mary Craig and I were in Bermuda, we stopped-”

“No,” I said. “The books didn’t matter. I’m sorry. Not The Jungle, not The Octopus. Not The Grapes of Wrath. Have you noticed? The poor are still with us. We still have tainted meat. We still have layoffs. We still have an economic system that eats people to get stronger. Nobody reads. We have hundreds of TV channels. Nobody gives a shit. This has not been a century of progress.”

He said, “It will still happen. I am convinced. The alternative is too horrible.”

I said, “That’s sound logic. Me, I’m betting on the horrible alternative. All my money is on the horrible alternative. The horrible alternative is undefeated. What is history if not a long dynasty of the horrible alternative?”

He didn’t say anything and I listened for his breathing. He of course had heard much worse through the years, even from friends. Mencken once told him that he was always right, except in matters of politics, sociology, religion, finance, economics, literature, and science. Wharton and Anderson upbraided him. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle worked him over. The communists hated him. The wealthy detested him, obviously. He hounded Rockefeller and ended up in jail. Roosevelt once asked him to stop trying to run the damn country. And of course he inspired Ezra Pound to new heights of deranged invective.

On a concluding note, it’s worth pointing out that Upton Sinclair is hardly the only author whose writing others sometimes found insufferable.

An aside: Also in 2006, Rabih Mroué and Fadi Toufiq drew on a similar series of resurrections to retell the Lebanese Civil War in the wonderful play How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke, just published in book form by Ashkal Alwan.


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