In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Upton Sinclair

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals

American Literature Upton Sinclair
Nicolas S. Witschi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0025


Upton Beall Sinclair Jr., (b. 1878–d. 1968) was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to a family of meager means that still had historical ties to Southern gentility. Driven by a fervent idealism, Sinclair nurtured his childhood encounters with both hardship and refinement into a compulsion to make the world a better place through literature. He undertook the researching and writing of his best-known book, The Jungle, at the urging of an editor for the socialist magazine Appeal to Reason who had read Manassas, Sinclair’s attempt to dramatize the moral consequences of slavery. An instant bestseller on a truly global scale, The Jungle offered a harrowing condemnation of the meat industry’s treatment of its workers. It made Sinclair’s reputation, and it had an almost immediate political effect. President Theodore Roosevelt used its popularity to push through passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, a dramatic food safety reform law, even as he derisively lumped its author with the journalist “muckrakers” he generally detested. Sinclair’s subsequent works did not have the same impact as The Jungle, though he would never tire of railing against the inequities that structured American life. Indeed, the usually affable Sinclair became a serious thorn in the sides of the coal and petroleum industries, Hollywood, organized religion, the auto industry, and the realms of finance and journalism, among many others. On several occasions he sought the governorship of his adopted home state of California, and his surprise winning of the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 1934 race radically changed the party, invigorating it out of its early New Deal indolence. Moreover, the mass media machine that the Republican Party and its allies in Hollywood marshaled to discredit and defeat him greatly changed how film and eventually television would factor in electoral politics. Dismissed as a writer who seemed to prefer content over form, Sinclair was nevertheless a vital influence on the culture of his day. In his preface to Boston, his 1928 novel about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, Sinclair wrote of trying to craft a “contemporary historical novel.” In many respects, this phrase describes his strength as a literary artist, for it identifies a form evident in everything from The Jungle and Oil! to the immensely popular Lanny Budd series of his later years. Many readers know Upton Sinclair for his food industry exposé; much of the remaining canon of roughly ninety books and scores of pamphlets, essays, and manifestos certainly merits closer attention as well.

General Overviews

These books and book chapters offer brief glimpses into a far-from-brief career. Typically they look at a select few novels and seek to establish Sinclair’s significance within literary history, particularly as it relates to social reform movements. Beginning with Dell 1969, which was first published during Sinclair’s life, a number of useful books have attempted to provide generally contextualizing and interpretive lenses on the career as a whole. Bloodworth 1977 is still quite useful for its career-based approach and fair assessments of literary merit, while Yoder 1975 is still one of the more reliable assessments of Sinclair’s development as a socialist thinker and writer, though Van Wienen 2012 (cited under Contexts) should also be consulted. Whittemore 1993 further analyzes Sinclair’s idealism and iconoclasm, focusing primarily on his early career and his connections to several other compelling literary artists of his day. Grenier 1983 offers an engaging discussion of Sinclair in the context of Progressive-era journalistic attempts to effect change at the political level. Kongshaug 2000 frames Sinclair’s aesthetic efforts as attempts to connect his idealistic uses of history with writerly approaches that would be more appealing to a wide audience than straightforward historical narrative might be.

  • Bloodworth, William A. Upton Sinclair. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

    Traces Sinclair’s writings in the context of his biography, from early youthful works through his last writings in the 1960s. Limns Sinclair as a writer deeply engaged with the political effects of his work. Also useful for analyzing how Sinclair’s idealism often clashed with prevailing social forces during his lifetime.

  • Dell, Floyd. Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest. New York: Folcroft, 1969.

    Written by a friend of Sinclair’s at his behest and first published in 1927, this mini-biography was intended as an account of Sinclair’s international fame and a response to requests for biographical information. While the volume laid out Sinclair’s life and ideas for readers of the day, it remains useful for today’s readers.

  • Grenier, Judson A. “Muckraking the Muckrakers: Upton Sinclair and His Peers.” In Reform and Reformers in the Progressive Era. Edited by David R. Colburn and George E. Pozzetta, 71–92. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983.

    A mix of personal reminiscence, interviews with Sinclair, and historical scholarship. Places Sinclair within the context of fellow Progressive writers. Mostly emphasizes the journalistic qualities and contexts of his work.

  • Kongshaug, Erik. “Upton Sinclair.” In American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies: Supplement V. Russell Banks to Charles Wright. Edited by Jay Parini, 275–293. New York: Scribner, 2000.

    A succinct and useful account of a literary life, with specific attention to Sinclair’s attempts to use self-publication, aggressive self-promotion, and activist pamphleteering to bring his art to a mass audience.

  • Whittemore, Reed. Six Literary Lives: The Shared Impiety of Adams, London, Sinclair, Williams, Dos Passos, and Tate. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.

    Depicts Sinclair as representative of a group of American writers who defined the contradictions of the twentieth century. Focuses on Sinclair’s early career, making frequent connections to his friend and colleague Jack London.

  • Yoder, Jon A. Upton Sinclair. New York: Ungar, 1975.

    Traces Sinclair’s socialism through the representative texts of his career, seeking to establish the grounds upon which he may be recognized as more than a hack who “wrote widely without writing anything worth remembering” (p. 4).

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