Upton Sinclair (1878)
It was on this date, September 20, 1878, that American writer Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland. In a 67-year career, Sinclair published over 90 books, mostly novels with a social reform theme. But he began life as a religious boy – it is said his two great heroes were Jesus Christ and Percy Bysshe Shelley, one a Jewish iconoclast, the other an Atheist. Caught between the world of alcoholism and poverty exemplified by his father, and of wealth and privilege exemplified by his mother, Sinclair said:
[A]s far back as I can remember, my life was a series of Cinderella transformations; one night I would be sleeping on a vermin-ridden sofa in a lodging house, and the next night under silken coverlets in a fashionable home. It all depended on whether my father had the money for that week’s board.
His most famous book, The Jungle (1906), researched on a grant from the socialist periodical Appeal to Reason, launched him to nationwide celebrity. The novel’s examination of the filthy conditions of Chicago meat-packing plants so upset President Theodore Roosevelt – who rejected the novel’s Socialist polemics – that Congress was persuaded to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), the forerunner of the FDA.
Flush with the feeling that fiction could foment social change, Sinclair published more novels: The Overman (1907), The Metropolis (1908), The Moneychangers (1908), Love’s Pilgrimage (1911) and Sylvia (1913), as well as King Coal (1917) and Boston (1928) – but without commercial success.
In all his Socialist writings, Sinclair had few kind words about religion. “There are a score of great religions in the world,” he wrote in The Profits of Religion (1919), “each with scores or hundreds of sects, each with its priestly orders, its complicated creed and ritual, its heavens and hells. Each has its thousands or millions or hundreds of millions of ‘true believers’; each damns all the others, with more or less heartiness – and each is a mighty fortress of Graft.” He continues,
Wherever belief and ritual have become the means of livelihood of a class, all innovation will of necessity be taken as an attack upon that class, it will be literally a crime – robbing the priests of their age-long privileges. And of course they will oppose the robber – using every weapon of terrorism, both of this world and the next. They will require the submission, not merely of their own people, but of their neighbors, and their jealousy of rival priestly castes will be a cause of wars. … It is a fact, the significance of which cannot be exaggerated, that the measure of the civilization which any nation has attained is the extent to which it has curtailed the power of institutionalized religion.
Sinclair had entered politics in New Jersey without success, but in 1926 he ran again, for governor of California. He lost. In 1934 he lost again, but his EPIC program – End Poverty in California – sustained significant support. Because Christians were suspicious of him, in politics Sinclair played down his Rationalist views, going so far as to use Theistic language in his 1935 What God Means to Me, which he called “An Attempt at a Working Religion”:
Religious faith has, in the past, been taken to mean belief in this or that set of dogmas; and with the discrediting of dogmas has come the breakdown of faith. But I am seeking here to give a broader interpretation of the word, which no man can reject. My faith is in the well-spring of my own soul, the creative impulses which awaken there, or emerge from there. … I am sustained by…a trust in the good faith of the process which created me… That process I call God.
Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series of historical novels included Dragon’s Teeth, published in 1942, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. Sinclair died in his sleep on 25 November 1968, at age 90. “In politics and economics,” he wrote in his 1962 Autobiography, “I believe what I have believed ever since I discovered the Socialist movement at the beginning of this century.”
Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.