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Definition: Sinclair from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

Upton Beall \॑bel

\ 1878–1968 Am. writer & polit.

Summary Article: SINCLAIR, UPTON
from The Encyclopedia of American Journalism

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. (September 20, 1878–November 25, 1968) has been called the “king of the muckrakers,” a cadre of Progressive Era journalists who exposed corruption in politics and corporate America during the decade and a half before the United States's involvement in World War I. Although journalists best remember Sinclair for the Brass Check (1920), an exposé of how reliance on advertising corrupts the press, it was The Jungle (1906), a fictional account based on research in the Chicago stockyards that exposed barbaric working conditions and unsanitary processes, that brought him national attention. The Jungle often is credited with mobilizing the necessary public outrage to force meat and drug inspection laws through Congress, where corporate interests had stalled the legislation. Some also claim The Jungle pioneered such techniques as coupling firsthand research with fictional devices, used by so-called New Journalism practitioners during the 1960s and 1970s.

Sinclair, however, differed from other muckrakers in ways that added to his historical significance and eventual prominence. He was ten years younger than the median age for the muckrakers as a group and continued writing what contemporaries called “the literature of exposure” well beyond muckraking's high-water mark in the first decade of the 1900s. He was able to do this by self-publishing many of his important works while his colleagues generally worked for and published in magazines geared to middle-class audiences. A prolific writer, Sinclair's works have been translated into more than forty languages. One of his bibliographers credits Sinclair with eighty-six major books and countless magazine articles, pamphlets, speeches, plays, and works in other than print media. Sinclair was a committed ideologue who espoused Socialism in his writings as the solution for the excesses of capitalism. A tireless selfpromoter, he repeatedly fell from public attention during his ninety-year life only to reinvent himself—first as an unsuccessful writer of fiction, then as a muckraker and critic of American institutions, next as a politician, and finally as the author of a series of popular historical novels.

Sinclair was born in Baltimore to an alcoholic traveling salesman and the daughter of a well-to-do family. Both parents had their roots in the old South aristocracy, and many relatives had suffered financial reverses because of the Civil War. Sinclair grew to early adulthood during the Gilded Age, when obsession with success through hard work, ingenuity, and perseverance was almost universal in American society. His family's failures and his own early reverses quickly taught him that hard work did not guarantee success and undoubtedly led to his own preoccupation with obtaining social justice for the working class.

He did not attend public schools until age ten. A few months before his fourteenth birthday, he began classes in the City College of New York. After completing his bachelor's, Columbia University admitted him as a special student. He spent the next four years studying literature and philosophy. Sinclair supported his college studies by writing freelance pieces, especially “half-dime novels” for a publisher of juvenile fiction. After Columbia, Sinclair moved to the Canadian woods to try writing serious fiction, generally with poor results, and married the first of three wives. He divorced the first and outlived the others.

A patron introduced him to socialism and he joined the Socialist Party in 1904 and became a contributor to Appeal to Reason, a Socialist weekly that serialized The Jungle in 1905. Although Sinclair had a working-class audience in mind as he did the first-hand observations in the Chicago meat packinghouses upon which the book is based, his completed manuscript resonated with middle-class readers and politicians, who worked quickly to pass reform legislation. Sinclair later wrote other fictionalized muckraking accounts such as King Coal (1917) and Oil! (1927 ) but he is better known for the “Dead Hand” series and the “Lanny Budd” historical novels. Published between 1918 and 1927, the six books in the “Dead Hand” series offer a systematic critique of organized religion, the press, public and higher education, artists, and writers. Sinclair began writing the eleven volumes in the “Lanny Budd” series after his nearly successful race for the governorship of California on the Democratic ticket in 1934. The third book in the series, Dragon's Teeth (1942), won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943. The books chronicle the international adventures of a single protagonist between 1911 and 1950. Besides the 1934 gubernatorial race, Sinclair ran unsuccessfully on the Socialist ticket for the U. S. House, U. S. Senate, and the California governorship. He was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union and its Southern California affiliate. An active commentator on public affairs to the end of his life, his last book-length work, an autobiography, was published in 1962.

Further Reading
  • Harris, Leon Upton Sinclair: American Rebel. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.
  • Mattson, Kevin Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.
  • Mitchell, Greg The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics.New York; Random House, 1992.
  • Reaves, Shiela “How Radical Were the Muckrakers? Socialist Press Views, 1902–1906.” Journalism Quarterly 61, no. 4 (1984): 763–770.
  • Sinclair, Upton B. Autobiography. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962.
  • Stein, Harry H. “American Muckrakers and Muckraking: The 50-Year Scholarship.” Journalism Quarterly 56, no. 1 (1979): 9–17.
  • Randall S. Sumpter
    © 2008 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

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