An examination of one of America's most influential and outspoken authors
|There are many authors who penned ground-breaking novels, yet only a few of them succeeded in changing the world.
Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. was born in the city of Baltimore; roughly a decade after the Civil War scarred the nation. His father, Sinclair Sr. came from a respected family that fell on hardship after being bankrupted by the war effort. The Reconstruction Era did no favors as well, disturbing the Southern economy and forcing him to move North in search of work.
Upton Sinclair Sr. became an alcohol salesman who had little luck peddling products. Drowning his sorrows with the liquor he sold, the unfortunate father developed a serious addiction that haunted his son’s childhood.
Young Upton was raised in poverty, despite his mother having wealthy family in Baltimore. Occasionally he would stay with his affluent grandparents, witnessing the huge disparity between the rich and the poor. Stepping between these two lives gave Upton a unique perspective on life and heavily influenced his writing.
Forced to move frequently, young Upton learned to escape his dismal reality with a love of reading. Books became his only solace, reading every novel he could in an effort to understand the world. After moving to Queens, Upton began to write stories and jokes to pay for his high school education. At the age of seventeen he was earning enough money to move his parents into an apartment.
Attending Columbia University, Upton Sinclair Jr. dabbled in law but unsurprisingly found his real passion lay in writing. After graduating, he published several novels that sold poorly but were highly praised.
For his next work, Upton went undercover in the meat packing plants of Chicago. What he discovered there became the basis for one of his most famous works. In 1906 ‘The Jungle’ was published, bringing attention to the meat industry’s horribly unsanitary conditions and harsh treatment of immigrants.
It wasn’t the hopelessness of the working class or the corruption of people in power that made his novel famous. What people latched on to the most was the disturbing visuals of the food they consumed.
Descriptions of rats scurrying over piles of meat and children dying from food poisoning caused such a public outcry that the government passed the Meat Inspection Act and the formation of the Food and Drug Administration.
The reaction of the public was humorously described by Sinclair himself: "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
Upton was labeled a ‘muck-raker’ by the corporations and people whose corruption he exposed. Most of the criticism he received was because of the socialist views he held. Sinclair was staunchly against the injustices of capitalism for constantly taking advantage of the working class.
All his life he was able to see how both sides lived, fighting against the massive wage gap that affected millions of families. Nothing angered him more than people refusing to acknowledge existing problems plaguing the nation.
This was addressed in one of his famous quotes: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
In 1919 he published ‘The Brass Check’, an expose about yellow journalism and the limitations of free press. In it, he attacked newspapers for poor ethics; putting more focus selling papers than giving the unbiased truth. Many journalists at the time were presenting eye catching headlines with poorly researched articles.
It is sad that most of these problems are still prevalent to this day. Muck-raking has become whistle-blowing and is still despised (and punished) for bringing attention to illegal activity. Yellow journalism is now clickbait and the wage gap has never been larger.
The world needs another Upton Sinclair now more than ever. Or perhaps we just need to read more of his work. Our memories are short and our attention is easily caught by countless distractions of daily life. Perhaps this is why we are destined to endlessly repeat the mistakes of the past.
“The rich people not only had all the money, they had all the chance to get more; they had all the knowledge and the power, and so the poor man was down, and he had to stay down.” – Upton Sinclair, ‘The Jungle’