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Professor Donald Elder: Upton Sinclair

May 5, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Upton Sinclair

Michael Shaughness –

1. Professor Elder, we have been focusing on a wide variety of people and in this interview we examine a person who exemplifies the name “muckracker”. Can we first get a glimpse of his early education and childhood?

Upton Sinclair was born on September 20, 1878, in Baltimore, Maryland. During his childhood years Sinclair developed a voracious appetite for reading, reputedly reading every book that his parents owned. Despite his obvious intelligence, Sinclair’s parents did not enroll him in school until he turned 10. Upon entering school, Sinclair lagged far behind his classmates in most subjects, but through hard work he caught up with them. Indeed, by the age of 14 he was able to start taking classes at the City College of New York (where his parents had moved in 1888).

Because his family couldn’t afford to pay his tuition, Sinclair began selling everything from articles to jokes for publication. He proved quite successful at this; in fact, he not only put himself through college, but also was able to help his parents move into an apartment. Graduating from the City College of New York, Sinclair began taking graduate-level classes at Columbia University. Sinclair stopped taking classes at Columbia in 1900, and began a career as a novelist. In the next four years he wrote four books, and then began research in Chicago for the book that would make him famous.

2. here did he go to school and who influenced him in his writings and his efforts?

As we have seen, Sinclair graduate from the City College of New York, and took graduate classes at Columbia. It is generally believed that Sinclair was most heavily influenced by two writers. Sinclair reportedly read the complete works of William Shakespeare in only two weeks, and his writing style clearly reflected that of the English playwright.

And second, Sinclair greatly admired the work of the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley had devoted his adult years to supporting worthy causes, and Sinclair clearly followed this course of action in his own life. In terms of his outlook on life, Sinclair was a product of the economics of his upbringing. His mother had come from a wealthy family, while his father struggled to make ends meet. Sinclair later asserted that this divide helped move him in the direction of Socialism.

3. Chicago, and the meat packing plants seem to be the backdrop of his most famous books and works. What was going on at the time?

Americans had been packing meat since colonial times, but the period of time after the Civil War ushered in a revolution in that industry. Large herds of cattle raised in Texas and the Oklahoma Territory were driven north to railheads located in Kansas, and then the cattle were transported by rail to meat packing plants located in the Midwest. Chicago, because of its central location, became the most important city in the industry. A number of individuals, primarily Gustavus Swift and Philip Armour, used the principle of the assembly line to start packing meat on a large scale.

Unfortunately, in their efforts to turn out the greatest volume of packaged meat possible, a number of the meat producers did not rate safety for their workers or their consumers as a priority. A Socialist newspaper, “Appeal To Reason,” sought to bring the exploitation of the workers in this industry to light, and hired Sinclair to write an expose. To accomplish this task, Sinclair moved to Chicago in 1904 and began to surreptitiously gather evidence regarding meat packing. The result of these efforts was his book The Jungle.

4. What was the immediate impact of The Jungle and what seemed to result from it?

Sinclair published his work first in serial form in “Appeal To Reason,” and from the appearance of the very first installment The Jungle had a profound impact on the American public. It has been estimated that public consumption of packaged meat dropped 50% after the publication of the book. The American people began to ask their Congressional representatives to pass legislation to create a system for regulating the meat packing industry.

Interestingly, President Theodore Roosevelt was initially opposed to this initiative. Indeed, he referred to Sinclair in a letter as a “crackpot.” But he eventually recognized the validity of Sinclair’s portrayal of the problems associated with the industry, and threw his weight behind the efforts to create regulations. The result was the passage of The Meat Inspection Act and The Pure Food and Drug Act.

5. What were some of his later accomplishments and writings?

Sinclair was a prolific writer, and continued to author books into his 80s. He primarily wrote fiction, but he also authored a number of non-fiction works. Sinclair also wrote a number of plays. While Americans of today’s day and age remember him for The Jungle, Sinclair actually received his greatest accolades for a work that today is almost totally forgotten. In 1942, he wrote the novel Dragon’s Teeth, and this book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. And although we remember Sinclair today as simply an author, he also ran for political office three times: for the US House of Representatives in 1922, for the US Senate in 1924, and for governor of California in 1934. He failed to win any of these elections, but never lost his interest in politics.

6. Why would you say we study his life and times and books?

Sinclair is an author whose work clearly changed the course of American History. His scathing portrayal of the excesses of the meat packing industry help galvanize a movement to demand positive change. It could be argued that the deplorable conditions would have come out sooner or later, but because they were chronicled in such a dramatic manner it was much easier for wide-reaching reform legislation to make its way through Congress. Every time we eat meat today without hesitation we should thank Upton Sinclair for helping to give us that peace of mind.

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