Last reviewed: June 2017
American novelist, dramatist, journalist, and essayist
September 20, 1878
November 25, 1968
Bound Brook, New Jersey
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 20, 1878, Upton Sinclair moved with his family to New York City in 1888 and began his career as a prodigy. He finished secondary school when he was twelve and became a student at the City College of New York at the age of fourteen. From the age of fifteen he supported himself in part by writing stories for the pulp magazines. After graduating from City College in the middle of his class, Sinclair attended Columbia University from 1897 to 1900. He had intended to become a lawyer but became interested in literature and left Columbia without a graduate degree. He married Meta Fuller in 1900 and began to write novels. His first five books, published between 1901 and 1906, gave him little encouragement, for they produced together less than a thousand dollars.
Before leaving college Sinclair had become a socialist, and his political views influenced his writing. His first fame came in 1906 with the publication of The Jungle, a fictionalized exposé of the Chicago stockyards. Originally serialized in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, The Jungle attracted immediate worldwide attention and is said to have hastened the passing of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. With his profits from the book, Sinclair founded Helicon Hall, a cooperative community near Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; it burned down in March, 1907. Upton Sinclair
Sinclair continued to write at a furious pace, also becoming a publisher during 1918-1919 with Upton Sinclair’s Magazine and the Jungle Publishing firm in Pasadena, California. Beginning with The Profits of Religion in 1918, he wrote a series of nonfictional works on the effects of capitalism in the United States from a socialist viewpoint. The series, which has the collective title The Dead Hand, reviewed such phases of American culture as schools, colleges, newspapers, publishing, art, and literature.
Sinclair had difficulties in both his private and public life. He was divorced in 1911 and remarried in 1913. In 1915 he and his second wife, poet Mary Craig Kimbrough, moved to California. In 1923 Sinclair founded the California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. In the 1930’s he led the movement End Poverty in California (EPIC). Several times he ran for political office, seeking seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. He also ran for the governorship of California, twice as a Socialist Party candidate and once, in 1934, as a Democratic nominee.
In his novels of the period 1917-1940, Sinclair explored many areas of contemporary life. King Coal described conditions in the Colorado coal fields. Oil! described life in the oil fields of California, with looks also at the young motion picture industry. It drew upon the true story of tycoon Edward L. Doheny and the Teapot Dome scandal. Decades after Sinclair's death, in 2007, the novel was loosely adapted into the Oscar-winning film There Will Be Blood. Boston, his fictionalized response to the Sacco-Vanzetti case, was published in 1928, a year after the men were executed. Little Steel described conditions and strikes in the steel mills during the 1930’s. Concerned with issues of poverty, pure food, population control, and prostitution, Sinclair corresponded with several influential reformers, including Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, and Theodore Dreiser.
During the years between 1940 and 1953, Sinclair labored at a series of novels relating world events from 1913 to 1950, including World War I, the peace negotiations after that war, the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the Spanish Civil War, the Munich debacle, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election and reelections, World War II, and the aftermath of World War II. The whole series is tied together picaresquely and romantically by the character of Lanny Budd, son of a wealthy munitions manufacturer. Lanny Budd, a young man with socialist leanings, travels far and wide, meets many people, and happens usually to be at the right spot at the right time (he even serves as a special agent for Roosevelt). Dragon’s Teeth, which portrayed Lanny in Germany from 1929 to 1934, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.
Works published by Sinclair in the 1950’s include Another Pamela, a twentieth-century version of Samuel Richardson’s novel about virtue rewarded, and A Personal Jesus, Sinclair’s own interpretation of Jesus. The Cup of Fury, published in 1956, is an analysis of the effects of alcohol, with the conclusion that other writers, had they abstained from liquor as Sinclair did, would have been greater writers and would have written much more. The book is, in effect, an old-fashioned temperance tract, an attempt to reform.
After the death of his second wife on April 26, 1961, Sinclair married May Hard on October 15, 1961, in Milwaukee. She died in December, 1967. Sinclair died a year later on November 25, 1968, in a New Jersey nursing home; he was ninety years old.
Sinclair's legacy remained strong decades after his death. His works have been translated into dozens of languages and were often more popular abroad than in the United States because of their political content; at times Sinclair employed pseudonyms, among them Clarke Fitch, Frederick Garrison, and Arthur Stirling. In 2009, a posthumous volume of Sinclair's previously unpublished stories and essays concerning suffrage, health, and marriage was released. His passionate concern for the issues facing ordinary Americans lives on as well through the works of twenty-first-century creative nonfiction writers and filmmakers.