At 3 a.m. on Sunday, March 7, 1907, Upton Sinclair awakened to the smell of smoke and cries of fire. He made his way outside in his half-burned nightshirt and stood in the snow looking back at the flaming structure. With increasing despair, he watched the "beautiful utopia flame and roar, until it crashed in and died away to a dull glow."
It was Helicon Hall, the utopian paradise he started just four months earlier. He had created it on the site of a former luxurious boys’ school with swimming pool, bowling alley, theatre, and nursery located on seven acres near Englewood, New Jersey.
Helicon Hall fulfilled his longtime dream—to build a utopian community that would herald the virtues of socialism. He invested $30,000 he received from The Jungle, his best selling novel about the Chicago stockyards. But his dream turned into ashes.
He opened Helicon Hall on November 1, 1906, with twelve families and hopes of eventually attracting hundreds more utopian-minded authors, poets, and colleagues. Cynical journalists said Sinclair built it as a "free love nest" just to have mistresses available. Despite the cynics, it was a successful albeit brief experiment in communal living with the families cooperating and upholding high moral standards, as Sinclair was quick to point out.
Sinclair defended the experiment, saying, "I have lived in the future." Later he would note, "What other group ever raised a janitor to win the Nobel Prize?" The janitor was Sinclair Lewis who worked at Helicon Hall.
There were nasty rumors that the hall was burned down to collect on the insurance. In fact the insurance company paid off only about two-thirds of the value and Sinclair paid all the other debts off himself. It was the end of his Jungle fortune.
Disheartened by the tragedy, Sinclair retreated to Bermuda with his wife, Meta, son, David, and a colleague, Michael Williams, one of the Helicon Hall colonists, to form a two-family utopia. Williams and Sinclair collaborated on a health book, titled Good Health and How We Won It, describing Sinclair’s diverse diets and sometimes erratic eating habits. He was always looking for a diet to help him "overwork." It was here, during the winter of 1907/08, while recovering from the Helicon Hall loss, that he wrote a play—The Millennium.
The Millennium was an abrupt departure from Sinclair’s investigative expository form of writing. Unlike much of his writing, it was an indirect demand for reform in the guise of science fiction. It was one of the first, if not the first, of thirty plays Sinclair wrote—a pure fantasy, a farce, a humorous vehicle to attack capitalism and to herald socialism. It also gave him an opportunity to fantasize about the expectations he had for Helicon Hall.
David Belasco, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his time, was intrigued by the play and later told Sinclair he wanted to produce it "on an elaborate scale" for Broadway. The possibility excited Sinclair since he wanted the money to fund another utopian colony. Sinclair was so desperate to have The Millennium produced that when Belasco asked him to make some changes, he encouraged Belasco to change the play in any way he wanted, a rare concession from Sinclair. But it was not to be. After making Sinclair wait for a year or more and a series of broken promises, Belasco rejected The Millennium and produced a small show he could put on the road.
The play was never produced or published in the United States and it went through a series of name changes, from The Millennium, to The Chosen People: A Comedy in Four Acts, to The Millennium: A Farce Comedy of the Future, and finally to The Millennium: A Comedy of the Year 2000. Sinclair rewrote the play as a novel and it was serialized in Appeal to Reason in 1914. He self-published it as a novel under the final title in 1924. While Sinclair thought that all copies of the original play were lost, as he notes in the foreword to the novel, the Lily Library at the University of Indiana has some early drafts of the play, circa 1907.
If Upton Sinclair were alive to day he would be an internationally renowned celebrity. His face and name would be as familiar to you as that of Elvis Presley or Ronald Reagan.
Upton Sinclair would be a favorite cover boy for The National Enquirer; he would represent the Left on CNN’s "Crossfire" program; he’d be featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek as a rabble-rouser; he would be a popular contributor to Harper’s, The Nation, The Progressive, Village Voice, as well as the op-ed pages of The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times; he would be a confidante of Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, and other international heads of state; he would fill lecture halls at university campuses throughout the country; he would compete with Deepak Chopra as the nation’s health guru; he would be a loquacious guest on "The Late Show With David Letterman;" he would turn the Lanny Budd series into the greatest TV miniseries since "Roots;" he would be a guest on the Art bell radio program discussing his Utopian vision and Y2K; he would co-produce a high-tech film based on his novel, The Millennium, with George Lucas; his website: http://www.uptonsinclair.com/, would get thousands of hits a day; and, no doubt, Upton Sinclair would be a Hollywood Square.
Sinclair surely had all the ingredients necessary to be an international media star: he was the Quixotic crusader who fought every injustice he ever saw; he was a prodigious author of both fiction and non-fiction books; he was a propagandist for every lost cause; he was a poet; he was a playwright; he was a practicing health faddist who wrote best selling diet books; he was a Socialist who won the Democratic nomination for governor of California; he had one of the most widely publicized divorce battles of his time; he knew and corresponded with many of the greatest personalities of the time, including Joseph Stalin, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Lincoln Steffens, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Louis Untermeyer, Luther Burbank, Eugene Debs, John Dewey, Edwin Markham, H.L. Mencken, Eugene O’Neill, H.G. Wells, Norman Thomas, Clarence Darrow, and D.H. Lawrence.
Yet, when Upton Sinclair died peacefully at the age of 90 in a nursing home near Bound Brook, New Jersey, his passing was little noticed. A slim book titled Upton Sinclair: Biographical and Critical Opinions referred to him as "A prophet without honor in his own country." The Folcroft Library Editions published just 150 copies of the book.
Sinclair was the consummate media darling before the modern media were around to create and pronounce him king of the celebrities.
Biographer Leon Harris summed up his life as follows:
While at CCNY he observed a student who sold an article to a magazine and wondered why he couldn’t do that himself. And he did, writing and selling children’s stories, jokes, serials, and poems. But it was in 1897 when he started at Columbia that he established the writing regime that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He was writing 30,000-word novels weekly during that period as well as attending classes. He wrote what he called "half-dime novels" under the pseudonyms of Lieutenant Garrison and Ensign Clarke Fitch for the Army and Navy Weekly from 1897 to 1900.
In the spring of 1900, he left Columbia, frustrated by the hypocrisy and greed he saw there and in politics, rented a small cabin on Lake Massawippi near Quebec, and wrote "the great American novel." Titled Springtime and Harvest, it was the story of a "woman’s soul redeemed by high and noble love." While publishers did not share his vision of the book, it set a precedent that would also mark his writing career—he published it himself.
Undeterred by the criticism and rejection of Springtime, Sinclair went on to write The Journal of Arthur Stirling, a semi-autobiographical novel, published in 1903; Prince Hagen, a fantasy about greed and power on Wall Street, 1903; Manassas, a novel about the Civil War, 1904; and A Captain of Industry, the rise and fall of a greedy Wall Street entrepreneur, 1906. All of which were greeted with mostly negative reviews and few sales.
It was not until his famed exposé of the meat packing yards in Chicago, The Jungle, in 1906, that Sinclair started to receive the attention he sought. Here again, however, he was forced to publish the book himself before a publishing house would take it on. The Jungle ignited the moral outrage of the nation and led to legislative reform including the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.
With The Jungle, Sinclair had arrived. The New York EveningWorld reported, "Not since Byron awoke one morning to find himself famous has there been such an example of worldwide celebrity won in a day by a book as has come to Upton Sinclair."
His writing between 1908 and 1924 included novels: The Metropolis, The Money Changers, Samuel: The Seeker, Love’s Pilgrimage, Damaged Goods, Sylvia, Sylvia’s Marriage, King Coal, Jimmie Higgins, 100%--The Story of a Patriot, and They Call Me Carpenter; plays: The Nature Woman, The Machine, The Second Story Man, Prince Hagen, The Pot Boiler, and Hell; and non-fiction books: The Fasting Cure, The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest, The Profits of Religion, The Brass Check, The Book of Life, The Goose-Step, and The Goslings.
But he hadn’t forgotten The Millennium. He brought out the original play and rewrote it as a humorous science fiction novel with a message. As happened in many other cases, the publishers rejected the book and he self-published it in 1924.
In writing the first version of The Millennium in 1907, Upton Sinclair looked forward to the year 2000 as a time when socialism might succeed. However, it came about accidentally rather than through social protest or revolution.
With biting sarcasm and caricatures rather than characters, Sinclair depicts the zenith of capitalism with the construction of The Pleasure Palace, a glittering half-mile high structure in the middle of Central Park. During the grand opening of the towering building, a scientific experiment with radiumite explodes killing everybody throughout the world except eleven of the people at the Pleasure Palace. They escape the deadly rays by flying high in the sky in a revolutionary 1000-mph aeroplane called "The Monarch of the Air!"
The fortunate eleven survivors, who represent various social classes, struggle to rebuild their lives by recreating a capitalistic society. That fails, along with several other inept efforts, and the survivors, led by Billy Kingdon, a Socialist, create a successful utopian society on the lush grounds of a grand country estate in the Pocantico Hills above the Hudson River.
In 1907, Sinclair’s visions of supersonic flight, laser guns, and nuclear radiation, all were prophetic in nature and all have been realized. Of course, the cataclysmic end of the world and the triumph of socialism over capitalism have not yet come to pass.
Some of Sinclair’s better known books, written after The Millennium, included Mammonart, OIL!, Boston, The Gnomobile (a children’s book later made into a Disney film), and The Flivver King. Eleven of his books, published between 1940 and 1953, portrayed a fictional history of the world from the events leading up to World War I through the end of World War II. They were called the Lanny Budd series and all of them were best-sellers. They brought Sinclair the recognition he desired but had not achieved since The Jungle. One book in the series, Dragon’s Teeth, brought Sinclair the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1942.
In 1931, a prestigious group of 19 internationally renown academicians, led by George Bernard Shaw, nominated Sinclair for the Nobel Prize in Literature for his "outstanding achievement in the contemporary fiction of all lands, for their mastery of fact, for their social vision, for consistent, honest, and courageous thinking, for humanitarian passion, and for vitality and sweep of creative art." Enemies of Sinclair joined with supporters of other candidates to attack him and ultimately to deprive him the honor.
One key ingredient to Sinclair’s success was his exceptional work ethic. Upton Sinclair easily was one of the most prolific writers in history from the beginning of his career in 1897 when he was writing nearly a novel a week to the end with the publication of his autobiography in 1962.
He would write four to six hours a day, day after day, wherever he was, whatever obstacles he was facing. Altogether during his writing career that spanned nearly seven decades, Sinclair would write more than 90 books, 30 plays, and an unknown number of articles, stories, pamphlets, poems, etc.
Sinclair was a true Renaissance man when it came to writing. He wrote in nearly every form—fiction and non-fiction, general and specific, from half-dime novels to Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction. He wrote autobiographies, biographies, reviews, critical essays, poems, plays, movie scripts, novels, as well as jokes, proposals, manifestos, pamphlets, newspaper columns, scientific treatises and histories, not to mention thousands of letters. His work was widely translated into some sixty languages in a quantity that places Sinclair among the most popular writers of all time.
Another factor contributing to his success was his extraordinary ability to focus his thoughts and writing. His focus was on social justice and nearly all his writing and actions resound of the struggle for man’s equality.
"Whom does the dirtiest pot not attack?
Who hits the world on the hollow tooth?
Who spurns the now and swears by the morrow?
Who takes no care about being ‘undignified’?
The Sinclair is the valiant man
If anyone, then I can attest to it."
It was signed, "In heartiness, Albert Einstein."
There are several explanations why Upton Sinclair didn’t achieve the respect and success he deserved in the United States but did receive abroad.
First, and probably most important, he was a Socialist and proud of it. He believed in Socialism as a solution to man’s problems, he wrote about the evils of capitalism and the virtues of Socialism, and he practiced what he wrote. He put his life savings into Helicon Hall, a utopian society, he ran for several political offices as a Socialist, and he mortgaged his home to produce a film about the plight of Mexican Indians.
His political views might have been chic in the early 20th century and understandable and acceptable in the 30s, but they were not acceptable in the late 40s and 50s. Despite the red terror that gripped the nation as ignited by reactionary anti-communist senator Joseph McCarthy, Sinclair adhered to his socialist beliefs.
Secondly, Sinclair was not a great writer in terms of style and aesthetics. He wrote for the people, the masses, and not for the critics, reviewers, or intellectuals. His experience in writing half-dime novels had prepared him to write for the mass circulation audience. Sinclair’s easily understood characters and plots were not fashionable at a time when authors like William Faulkner and James Joyce were intriguing the critics with complex, hard-to-understand characters and plots. He said that he always tried to have something worthwhile to say and to write it so that "the ordinary man and woman can get my meaning."
Critics rejected Sinclair on his failed aesthetic impact; Sinclair rejected the critics because they failed to see his social impact.
Finally, Upton Sinclair recognized his own talents and was not loathe to promote himself often to the point of even alienating some of his own friends. However, he was quick to point out that while he sought publicity, it was "for books and causes, not for myself." He wrote the first of a number of autobiographies, the thinly disguised The Journal of Arthur Stirling, at age 25, after publishing only one very unsuccessful novel, Springtime and Harvest. On the title page of another autobiography, Candid Reminiscences: My First Thirty Years, published in 1932, he wrote:
But for every critic of Sinclair, he also had those who recognized his talents and respected his work.
Author Irving Stone thought Sinclair was one of the wisest and best-informed men in the world. He said, "He has the great gift of penetration, he stabs through pretence, sham, hypocrisy, double-talk and double-dealing like a steel spoke through butter; but even more important than his knowledge and the keenness of his international analysis, is the profound goodness of his heart."
George Bernard Shaw told Sinclair, "When people ask me what has happened in my long lifetime, I do not refer them to the newspaper files and to the authorities, but to your novels."
To Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Upton Sinclair was "one of the greatest novelists in the world, the Zola of America;" to Albert Einstein, who was later named Time Magazine's "Person of the Century," Sinclair was "one of the sharpest observers of our time;"
After reading The Jungle, Jack London said, "Here it is at last! The book we have been waiting for these many years! The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery! Comrade Sinclair’s book, The Jungle! And what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for black slaves, The Jungle has a large chance to do for the white slaves of today."
Sinclair Lewis said he was "enormously impressed" by The Brass Check and astounded by Sinclair’s "ability to get so much done with only twenty-four hours a day to do it in!"
Bertrand Russell said he admired Sinclair’s books and "got into trouble with various Americans by quoting them as an authority on American conditions."
Contemporary American personalities who acknowledge being influenced by Sinclair include Eric Severeid, Walter Cronkite, Norman Mailer, William Shirer, John Kenneth Galbraith, Allen Ginsberg, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Upton Sinclair was specially admired in other countries. Wondering about the discrepancy between his status in the United States versus elsewhere in the world, Sinclair once pointed out that American publishers sold a total of less than three thousand copies of his novel, Sylvia’s Marriage, while his British publisher sold more than a hundred thousand copies in a single year.
In his 1962 autobiography, Sinclair reminisced, "Little did I dream that fate had in store from me the job of buying book paper by the carload, and making and selling several million books; to say nothing of a magazine, and a socialist colony, and a moving picture by Eisenstein!"
Nor did he dream what fate had in store for his legacy. Nearly a hundred years after publication of The Jungle, it is still noted, cited, referred to, and generally held up as a classic example of the Golden Age of Muckraking. Others of his books are occasionally reprinted, including The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair, OIL!, Dragon’s Teeth, and now, The Millennium.
And while the motion picture by Sergei Eisenstein, the Cecil B. DeMille of his time, didn’t quite become the masterpiece Sinclair hoped for, even now, more than half a century after it was shot, it may still become an international motion picture spectacular.
Upton Sinclair first came into contact with Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film director of "Potemkin" fame, in the early thirties. Sinclair mortgaged his home in Pasadena to finance an Eisenstein film. The goal was to make an independent picture of the plight of primitive Indians in Mexico that Diego Rivera had told Sinclair about. The working title was "Que Viva Mexico" and it was a complete disaster. Eisenstein disappeared into Mexico for fifteen months, shot some 35 miles of film according to Sinclair, and spent tens of thousands of dollars supplied by Upton and his second wife Mary Craig.
Sinclair finally ordered Eisenstein to return to the states, got the raw footage from him, and dissolved his relationship with the director under unpleasant circumstances.
Frustrated and hoping to get some money back on his investment, Sinclair unsuccessfully tried to persuade some of the major studios to produce the film. Finally, he turned it over to an independent producer, Sol Lesser, who used one segment of it to produce "Thunder Over Mexico." The film died at the box office earning only about $30,000. In frustration, Sinclair finally turned the film over to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Now a successful documentary film-maker and art historian, Lutz Becker, may fulfill his own lifelong passion—to complete Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished masterpiece, "Que Viva Mexico." Working with 52 cans of uncatalogued film discovered in 1998, and 40 hours of unedited film at the Museum of Modern Art, Becker may be the first to assemble and edit the raw footage.
In addition to the Eisenstein film, another Sinclair vision might come to be. There is also the possibility that his magnificent eleven-volume Lanny Budd series will one day be made into a film or television series as Sinclair hoped. In the 1940s there was thought of optioning the novels as a starring role for Tyrone Power at 20th Century Fox. In 1962, the series was optioned for television but the deal reportedly collapsed because of Sinclair’s earlier criticism of Henry Ford’s politics during World War II. Ford was to have been one of the sponsors. In 1982, CBS was reportedly planning to produce the novels as a miniseries and in 1986 the books were optioned for reprinting if the TV series was produced.
In 1934, Sinclair changed his political registration from Socialist to Democrat and gave up his typewriter for the soapbox. He campaigned throughout California for the Democratic nomination for governor. His "End Poverty In California" campaign struck a chord with voters during the depression and he shocked the politicians, including Democrats, by winning the nomination. After that it was all down hill. The Republicans and the media vilified Sinclair in what historians say was the dirtiest political campaign in California history until Richard Nixon’s "Pink Lady" campaign to defeat Helen Gahaghan Douglas in 1950. Sinclair was falsely denounced as an atheist, anarchist, Bolshevist, Puritan, and Social Fascist and he lost his bid for governor to Republican Frank Merriam.
Sinclair was not one to be defeated by failure. There was always another social injustice to be fought and he would eagerly take on the next cause. In 1933, he wrote I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future—a description of his EPIC program.In 1935, he wrote, I, Candidate for Governor—and How I got Licked—an exposé of the dirty tricks and the influence of money used in politics.
His political endeavor was one of the ten lifetime achievements he cited in the "Summing Up" of his 1962 autobiography:
In 1917, he responded to one such critic in a letter titled, "The Price I Paid" published in Pearson’s Magazine in April. Sinclair charged that media reports he was a "millionaire Socialist" were false. He said that writing exclusively in the cause of human welfare and justice had cost him dearly. Saying that he lived a fairly austere life, Sinclair pointed out that he had never owned an automobile and rode a second-hand bicycle for which he paid ten dollars. He said he could have been a millionaire if he had been willing to eliminate socialism from his words and actions. Instead, he "stood by the faith." While he would earn hundreds of thousands of dollars during his lifetime, he would always spend more than he earned, most of it on his "propaganda" for social justice.
He also pointed out that he sacrificed practically all his standing and influence as a distinguished man of letters. Rather than being a much-respected member of the intellectual caste, he was often perceived of as an agitator, protestor, or, at best, a literary gadfly. He complained, "My name does not get upon its wires (Associated Press) unless I am arrested, or divorce my wife, or do something else considered disgraceful."
Sinclair’s turbulent life was marked by some spectacular successes and marred by some personal tragedies. Perhaps the lowest point in his life came in 1961 when his wife, Mary Craig, died. Deep and abiding love for Craig is recorded in the "memoriam" he wrote for the second edition of her autobiography, Southern Belle:
She had written and published this book of memoirs. The choice of title was mine.
This Memorial Edition has been prepared for free distribution to public libraries of cities and towns; libraries of universities, high schools and hospitals—anywhere over the world where people may be free to read the book. A copy will be sent, as long as copies are available, postpaid, to libraries which ask for it."
Upton Sinclair concluded his final autobiography with an admonition to mankind, saying, "He can only say what he thinks and hope to be heard. He can only go on fighting for social justice and the democratic ideal, hope that man does not destroy himself, by design or by accident, and trust that eventually the peoples of the world will force their rulers to follow the ways of peace, of freedom, and of social justice."
There are few authors in American literary history who had the passion for
social justice of Upton Sinclair. There are none who had the words to reach
millions of people throughout the world with that passion.
Upton Sinclair, Pasadena, California 1903; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Jungle Publishing Co., New York 1906; The Cry forJustice: An Anthology of the Literature of
Social Protest edited by Upton Sinclair, The John C. Winston Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1915; The Millennium: A Comedy of the Year 2000 by Upton Sinclair, Upton Sinclair, Pasadena, California, 1924; Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest by Floyd Dell, Albert and Charles Boni, New York, 1930; American Outpost: A Book of Reminiscences by Upton Sinclair, Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., New York 1932; Candid Reminiscences: My First Thirty Years by Upton Sinclair, 1932;
Upton Sinclair: Bibliography and Biographical Data by Joseph Gaer, Editor, Burt Franklin, New York 1935; Southern Belle by Mary Craig Sinclair, Crown Publishers, New York 1957; My Lifetime in Letters by Upton Sinclair, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri 1960; The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York 1962; Upton Sinclair’s Realistic Romanticism by James C. Duram, Wichita State University Bulletin, Volume XLVI, Number 2, May 1970, Wichita, Kansas; The Literary Manuscripts of Upton Sinclair by Ronald Gottesman and Charles L.P. Silet, Ohio State University Press, Columbus, Ohio 1972; Upton Sinclair: Biographical and Critical Opinions, Folcroft Library Editions 1972; Upton Sinclair: An Annotated Checklist by Ronald Gottesman, The Kent State University Press, 1973;
Upton Sinclair: American Rebel by Leon Harris, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York 1975; Critics on Upton Sinclair: Readings in Literary Criticism edited by Abraham Blinderman, University of Miami Press, Coral Gables, Florida 1975; Upton Sinclair by William A. Bloodworth, Jr., Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1977; Boston by Upton Sinclair, Robert Bentley, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978; The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest edited by Upton Sinclair, Barricade Books, New York, 1996; OIL! by Upton Sinclair, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997; Toward a Reinterpretation of Upton Sinclair by Lauren Coodley, Sonoma State University Master of Arts Thesis, Rohnert Park, California 1997.