The ugliest part of the novels and nonfiction masterworks of the early 20th century are not, in the end, what they describe – all kinds of human cruelty, crushing poverty, corruption and violence – but their authors’ limitations, the muck they failed to rake from their minds.
In 1906, just five years after the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Mahatma Gandhi coined the term “satyagraha” to describe a practice that would lead to Indian independence, Gandhi’s dream and Kipling’s nightmare. It is possible to appreciate the beauty and cultural wealth of India reading Kim, but the novel portrays Kipling’s India, a land that fully existed only in the fevered minds of England’s colonial administrators and their admirers.
Kipling’s commitment to Empire clearly overwhelmed the more delicate sensibilities also evidenced in Kim. One of Sinclair’s principle failings, however, is harder to square with his zealous, lifelong defense of the oppressed, that is racism against Africans and Asians made plain in The Jungle, :
…any night, in the big open space in front of Brown’s, one might see brawny Negroes stripped to the waist and pounding each other for money, while a howling throng of three or four thousand surged about, men and women, young white girls from the country rubbing elbows with big buck Negroes with daggers in their boots, while rows of woolly heads peered down from every window of the surrounding factories. The ancestors of these black people had been savages in Africa; and since then they had been chattel slaves, or had been held down by a community ruled by the traditions of slavery. Now for the first time they were free – free to gratify every passion, free to wreck themselves.
They were wanted to break a strike, and when it was broken they would be shipped away, and their present masters would never see them again; and so whiskey and women were brought in by the carload and sold to them, and hell was let loose in the yards. Every night there were stabbings and shootings; it was said that the packers had blank permits, which enabled them to ship dead bodies from the city without troubling the authorities. They lodged men and women on the same floor; and with the night there began a saturnalia of debauchery – scenes such as never before had been witnessed in America. And as the women were the dregs from the brothels of Chicago, and the men were for the most part ignorant country Negroes, the nameless diseases of vice were soon rife; and this where food was being handled which was sent out to every corner of the civilized world.
Biographer Anthony Arthur only briefly touches on Sinclair’s racist attitudes, attributing them to a “surprising blind spot of so many progressives at the time.” Surprising to later readers, that is, who discover that even their “progressive” ancestors were never progressive enough.
Sinclair recognized, in the plight of the working man, a clear parallel with the slavery so recently abolished in the United States, the very “wage slavery” he set out to chronicle. How is it that he could do so but still fail to free himself (and his readers) from those mental fetters that had justified slavery and that continued to prop up the system he loathed? What is it that enduringly prevents even society’s most radical members from breaking free of their own times?
Sinclair’s past, the dark times and states of mind he captured in his writings, horrifies us, but we also need to acknowledge that our present would horrify him.