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Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair

You may remember Upton Sinclair from history lessons about the Progressive Era. After all, he was at the forefront of the movement with his exposé of the meatpacking industry. But did you know that he was a politician? Or that he just narrowly missed becoming the governor of California? Keep reading to learn more about the life of Upton Sinclair.

Upton Sinclair Biography

Upton Sinclair was born on September 20th, 1878 in Baltimore, Maryland. He remained there until he was 10 years old, after which, his family moved to a small apartment in New York City. His father, a liquor salesman, was an alcoholic from a fallen family. In contrast, his mother was a Puritan from a wealthy family. When Sinclair went to visit his maternal grandparents, he could see the wealth inequality in the United States firsthand.

Upton Sinclair would later say the wealth inequality he experienced guided him towards socialism.

Upton Sinclair Photograph StudySmarterFig. 1 - Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair Biography: Education

At the age of 14, Upton Sinclair attended the City College of New York City, and upon his graduation, began studies at Columbia University. During these years, he contributed to magazines and wrote dime novels under a pseudonym to make money. Once finished with schooling, he embarked on a mission to become a serious novelist and took on side work as a freelance journalist.

Upton Sinclair Biography: The Jungle

In 1903, Upton Sinclair, having read the works of Karl Marx and his contemporaries, became a socialist himself. In 1904, a popular socialist newspaper in Chicago called Appeal to Reason asked Sinclair to go undercover to expose the working conditions in the meatpacking industry. The newspaper published weekly installments detailing the inhumane conditions, from long hours to horrific work injuries. Sinclair compiled the installments and published them in his famous novel, The Jungle, in 1906. Sinclair gained mass recognition and even won the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, leading to legislative reforms.

Upton Sinclair Meatpacking Factory StudySmarterFig. 2 - the inside of a meatpacking factory

Was Upton Sinclair a muckraker?

Muckrakers were the investigative journalists of the Progressive Era. They exposed corruption and inequalities with the hopes of gaining public support for reforms. By this definition, Upton Sinclair was most certainly a muckraker, and many historians today categorize him as such. However, Upton Sinclair himself denied the muckraker label. He saw himself, first and foremost, as a novelist.

Using the proceeds from The Jungle, Upton Sinclair founded a utopian co-op in Englewood, New Jersey named Helicon Hall. Unfortunately, the venture was short-lasting and fell victim to arson by suspected political opponents in 1907. Sinclair spent the next decade working on novels but had few commercial successes due to his devotion to socialist ideologies within his works.

Upton Sinclair Biography: Political Activity

In the early 1920s, Upton Sinclair went through some major life changes. He divorced his wife, Meta Fuller, with whom he had one son, and married Mary Kimbrough. Together, they moved to Southern California, where Sinclair became more active in politics. In 1923, he founded the California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization dedicated to protecting the liberties and rights of individuals. He also made several unsuccessful campaigns for Congress as a candidate for the Socialist Party.

In 1927, Upton Sinclair caught the public’s eye again with his novel, Oil!, about the Teapot Dome Scandal. In the early 1920s, Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, had allowed oil companies to take over government reserves in exchange for large sums of money and gifts. Sinclair retold the story from his own perspective, and it resonated with the public’s own frustration and anger.

Upton Sinclair Senate Investigating Teapot Dome Scandal StudySmarterFig. 3 - Senate committee investigating the Teapot Dome Scandal

When the Great Depression hit, Upton Sinclair stepped up his political activity even further, asserting the need for government aid and relief. In 1934, he ran for governor of California as a candidate of the Democratic Party. His platform was the End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement, which would offer state-administered relief. His campaign led to a countering smear campaign, in which his opponents posed him as a dangerous communist. While he faced opposition from within his party as well as the Republican Party, Sinclair only lost by a small margin.

Upton Sinclair's EPIC program served as inspiration for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

Upton Sinclair Biography: Later Life

Leaving behind political aspirations, Upton Sinclair published his first book of the Lanny Budd series, World’s End, in 1940. In this series of novels, the protagonist witnesses the major historical events of the early 20th century. Sinclair won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943 for his installment about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis called Dragon’s Teeth.

By the 1960s, Upton Sinclair decreased his output of work to focus on his ailing wife, who had suffered from a stroke. Two years after she passed, in 1963, he married Mary Willis. He spent his later years at a nursing home in Bound Brook, New Jersey, before passing away in 1968.

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

As we discussed earlier, The Jungle is what shot Upton Sinclair into the public spotlight. Although it was a novel, it depicted very real problems within the meatpacking industry, and it quickly became an international bestseller. However, while Sinclair’s focus was on the horrific working conditions, the general public seemed more interested in the health standards for the meat they were consuming.

Upton Sinclair The Jungle Cover StudySmarterFig. 4 - first edition cover of The Jungle

I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

–Upton Sinclair, Cosmopolitan Magazine, 19061

Sinclair tried to highlight the long hours and low pay as well as the spread of disease and high chances of injury, but the public focused on expired and mislabeled meat as well as the rats running over it. The public outcry reached the White House, and after his own investigation, President Theodore Roosevelt made a call for change. In 1906, Congress passed both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, neither of which addressed working conditions.

The Pure Food and Drug Act established the Food and Drug Administration.

[T]he meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.”

-- Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906

Upton Sinclair’s Accomplishments and Impact

Today, we remember Upton Sinclair for The Jungle and his responsibility for the aforementioned legislation, but he did so much more in his long career. Upton Sinclair wrote almost 100 novels, and while not all were commercial successes, he gained great fame from his work.

Upton Sinclair’s Accomplishments and Impact: Campaign for Governor

Upton Sinclair was also a dedicated socialist and very active in the political sphere. After several unsuccessful campaigns for Congress as a candidate for the Socialist Party, he decided to step away from the more radical party in favor of the Democratic Party. In his campaign for governor, he introduced socialist ideologies in a palatable way, namely through his EPIC program. He was successful in swaying many Californians and other Americans in a more leftist direction, even though he ultimately lost the election.

The Smear Campaign

As we briefly touched on earlier, Upton Sinclair faced a vicious smear campaign leading up to the election. Businesses who feared his socialist ideology poured millions of dollars into ads aimed at destroying Sinclair's reputation. Articles in newspapers and newsreels in theaters posed him as a communist and atheist who aimed to destroy American values. This was extremely detrimental to his campaign, as many did not hate his policies per se, but they would never lend support to a communist or atheist.

Upton Sinclair - Key takeaways

  • Upton Sinclair was born in 1878 and experienced poverty in his daily life, but immense wealth when visiting his maternal grandparents. His firsthand experience with wealth inequality was influential in his turn to socialism.
  • After finishing his education, Sinclair became a novelist and took up freelance journalism to support himself. In 1904, the popular socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, sent him on an undercover investigation of the meatpacking industry. Sinclair compiled the newspaper installments into a single novel called The Jungle.
  • Although Sinclair meant to draw attention to the horrific working conditions, the general public was more concerned with the health standards for the meat they were eating. His work led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.
  • Sinclair was also active in politics, running for Congress on several occasions. In 1934, he ran for governor of California on the EPIC platform, which would introduce state relief to those in need. Although he lost the election, it was only by a small margin, and Sinclair was successful in pushing many Americans in a more leftist direction.
  • Although we remember him today as a muckraker, Sinclair denied the label himself, asserting that he was a novelist first and foremost. He published just under 100 novels and won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

References

  1. Upton Sinclair, Cosmopolitan Magazine (1906)
  2. Upton Sinclar, The Jungle (1906)

Frequently Asked Questions about Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair was a novelist and muckraker who exposed the conditions in the meatpacking industry in his novel The Jungle. He was also a socialist active in politics. 

Upton Sinclair is most famous for his novel The Jungle, in which he exposed the horrific conditions in the meatpacking industry. Most historians consider him a muckraker although he did not claim the title himself.

Upton Sinclair exposed conditions in the meatpacking industry.

Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle led to the passing of both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair also ran for governor of California, and while he did not win, he pushed both California and America in a more leftist direction. 

The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were passed as a result of The Jungle. 

Final Upton Sinclair Quiz

Question

Which acts did Congress pass as a result of The Jungle?

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Answer

The Pure Food and Drug Act

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Question

What was the name of the co-op Upton Sinclair founded in Englewood, New Jersey?

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Answer

Helicon Hall

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Question

What novel did Upton Sinclair write about the Teapot Dome Scandal?

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Answer

Oil!

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Question

What was the name of Upton Sinclair's program of state-administered relief?

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Answer

End Poverty in California (EPIC)

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Question

What party was Upton Sinclair a candidate for in the 1934 gubernatorial election?

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Answer

The Democrat Party

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Question

What was the name of Upton Sinclair's historical fiction series?

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Answer

The Lanny Budd series

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Question

What novel earned Upton Sinclair the Pultizer Prize for Fiction?

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Answer

Dragon's Teeth

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Question

Upton Sinclair lost the 1934 gubernatorial election by a large margin.

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Answer

False

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Question

What experience in Upton Sinclair's childhood led him on a path towards socialism?

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Answer

experiencing wealth inequality firsthand (impoverished immediate family vs wealthy grandparents)

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Question

Upton Sinclair's goals were met with the legislation following The Jungle's publication. 

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Answer

False

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