Upton Sinclair

by Rick from San Diego

Upton Sinclair, one of the most important muckrakers in the 1900’s, is considered a hero for revealing the unfair conditions of the workers in Chicago packinghouses and how the owners of the packinghouses did everything possible to maximize profits. He also believed in a form of socialism in which the main goal was to provide work for the ambitious, but jobless people during the Great Depression in California. Upton Sinclair’s unstoppable desire for equality, financial freedom, and truth single him out as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 20th, 1878. He spent most of his childhood living in between his parents and his rich grandparents on his mother’s side. His parents lived in relative poverty because his father was an alcoholic. Upton Sinclair was a true genius, he entered college at the age of fourteen. He married his first wife in 1900, and for 6 years, he struggled to make a living for his wife and child. His most famous novel, The Jungle, caused such public outrage that the same year, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. Upton Sinclair continued to write novels and campaign as a socialist, even after he moved to California in 1920. In 1934, he ran for governor of California as a Democrat, on the EPIC platform. He died on the 25th of November in 1968.

Upton Sinclair, the most prominent muckraker of the 1900’s revealed the horrors of the Chicago packinghouses through his book, The Jungle. During the early 1900’s it was impossible to know what was in your food, and what packaging companies could have put in. Chicago was where the majority of meat was packed and sent to the people of America in the early and mid 1900’s. However the meat packaged there was not the same meat the label claimed to be. (Halpern 443). Upton Sinclair revealed to the American public that their meat was made with cows with tuberculosis and their sausages mixed with rats and their droppings. When President Theodore Roosevelt first read The Jungle, he was shocked. He called Upton Sinclair a liar and a rabble rouser until his own inspectors returned from Chicago with conditions “were actually a hundred times worse.” The plight of the immigrant workers was also shown by Upton Sinclair. These workers, mostly from Eastern Europe, were held in a state of near slavery. During the early 1900’s a wave of immigrants arrived in America from Eastern Europe. (Henderson, Thompson, Wilson, and Conaway). The protagonist of The Jungle, Jurgis Rudkus, is from Lithuania. Upton Sinclair accurately described how immigrant workers became bound to the packinghouse owners. The owners overpriced everything from food to housing so that immigrant workers would get into debt. Therefore the immigrants had no choice but to work for a low salary at the packing houses to repay their debt. When Jurgis Rudkus first arrives in America, he is optimistic and sure that his strong body will be able to take care of his pregnant wife. However, as the packinghouse breaks down his body and his spirit, while his wife and child die, he loses all his money attempting to take care of them. Upton Sinclair’s audacious exposing of Chicago packinghouses places him among America’s most influential authors.

Upton Sinclair is also famous for being a prominent Socialist idealist during his time. Upton Sinclair was close friends with other socialist authors such as Jack London, H.G. Wells, and Sinclair Lewis. Upton Sinclair truly believed that Socialism would take care of society’s problems. In 1906, he established a utopian community called Helicon Hall. (Blackwell). Helicon Hall was Upton Sinclair’s socialist dream come true. He spent $30,000 dollars of book royalties to purchase an extravagant boy’s institute an hour away from New York City. The main purposes of Helicon Hall were to prove to America cooperative living was a successful way to live, and provide freedom from social restraints for women. During the Great Depression, homeless families from the Midwest flooded into California to find work. However, California could not provide enough jobs for all the immigrants. In 1934, Upton Sinclair ran for the governor of California, winning the Democratic nomination on the EPIC platform. (Blackwell). EPIC is an acronym for End Poverty In California. Its socialist policies made Republicans and moderate Democrats uneasy. EPIC’s main objective was to take idle farmland and factories. With those farms and factories that the state would hire those looking for jobs so that they could buy goods and have power in their communities. Although Upton Sinclair’s political career was not a success, he attempted to bring real change to America.

Winston Churchill once said about Sinclair’s writing and how it "pierces the thickest skull and most leathery heart." Upton Sinclair’s writing is a great example of how writing can right wrongs and change the world. His beliefs in the Socialist system and equality for all caused him to be considered a radical by moderates and Republicans. Upton Sinclair is an inspiration for all who want to right the injustice in the world and help everybody live a better life.

Related Links

Upton Sinclair
The Literature Network - The Literature Network offers searchable online literature for the student, educator, or enthusiast
PBS
- A publication of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research to provide access to curricular resources available from national parks.
- The definitive historical reference on metropolitan Chicago.