Monday, June 23, 2014

Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual by Lauren Coodley

The author and activist as feminist
To most Americans nowadays, if they’re familiar with Upton Sinclair at all it’s as the author of The Jungle, and those who haven’t read that book think it’s just a novel about filthy meat. While he walked this earth, however, Sinclair was a household name, a public intellectual both trusted and reviled, and an unapologetic force for social change. Thankfully readers of today have scholars like Lauren Coodley to remind us of the importance of this great American treasure. Her 2013 biography Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual may just be the start of a Sinclair revival. One can only hope.

Sinclair was known for his socialism and his staunch devotion to many issues of social reform, but Coodley emphasizes that for his time he was also remarkably feminist. Coodley focuses on his interaction with prominent women activists, whom he treated as equals and co-conspirators. His marriages (there were three) were also surprisingly egalitarian, with both partners functioning as coequals in the relationship rather than the wife serving the husband. Sinclair’s interest in health issues, abstinence from alcohol, and attention to his own diet were also departures from the conventional concept of masculinity—departures for which he was often ridiculed by his critics. During a lifetime when masculinity was defined by writers like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair was a far cry from the macho norm. Coodley rightfully asserts that he was commendably way ahead of his time.

This is a rather brief biography—only 181 pages including a couple dozen photos. It doesn’t seem that Coodley was attempting to write a comprehensive biography of Sinclair in such a brief span, but rather to provide just enough of a biography to support her thesis. This is perfectly fine, but the gender issues should have been reflected in the book’s title, rather than emphasizing Sinclair’s “Socialism” and “Celebrity”. The former is almost an afterthought in this book, though the latter is covered pretty well. Coodley gives the 21st-century reader a pretty good idea of what Sinclair meant to our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. The extent of his celebrity is also apparent from his list of famous friends and admirers, including Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, and George Bernard Shaw. He was even penpals with Gandhi. Sinclair’s politics and his popularity came together in his 1934 run as Democratic candidate for California Governor, to which Coodley devotes the better part of a chapter. Here more than elsewhere in the book one really catches the excitement of Sinclair the underdog battling the oppressive status quo.

Coodley doesn’t clutter her biography with literary criticism. She discusses some of Sinclair’s major works and their reception, offering summaries but thankfully no spoilers. I wish she would have mentioned more of his lesser known works, but I still come away from this biography with a formidable list of Sinclair books I hope to tackle in the near future. This is one illustration of how Coodley successfully captures some of the excitement and controversy that surrounded Sinclair during his lifetime and conveys it to a whole new audience of contemporary readers, generating enthusiasm and admiration for this great author and the causes he championed. What comes across quite evidently in this book is Sinclair’s boundless humanity and his commitment to social justice which, as anyone who’s ever read a Sinclair book knows, is infectious. One can’t help but think we could use a man (or a woman) like Upton Sinclair again.

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