Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mountain City by Upton Sinclair

Saga of a social climber
Mountain City, originally published in 1930, is a novel by Upon Sinclair, better known as the author of The Jungle. The story takes place in an unnamed state somewhere in the American West. Jed Rusher grows up on a cattle ranch where his father serves as a hired hand. Seeing his dad exploited and abused by the rich landowner, Jed develops a respect for money and power, and a desire to possess both. Later, when the family switches to sugar beet farming, their fortunes improve slightly, but the life is hard enough that Jed develops a healthy aversion to manual toil. Luckily, he’s got a good head on his shoulders—good enough to score a scholarship to attend university in Mountain City, the nearest metropolis. Jed diligently attends to his studies, earning good marks, but wonders what good it does to study poetry, history, and Latin in a world where money’s all that matters. He longs for an opportunity to get in with the rich folk, and when he sees a chance, he jumps on it, securing a position as caretaker to an invalid millionaire. Spending his days in the halls of the rich, Jed seeks to take advantage of his situation any way he can in order to further his own financial interests.

The novel is thus a rags-to-riches story, but don’t expect the inspirational moralizing of a Horatio Alger tale. The hero of Mountain City is anything but ethical, and that’s a big part of the fun. Though Jed starts out as a good boy, Sinclair uses his hero’s financial machinations to illustrate all the unethical business strategies and fiscal chicanery being perpetrated by the wealthy capitalists and big business barons of his day. It’s an odd strategy for Sinclair­—asking us to root for the likeable but avaricious Jed as he builds his empire—and I’m not sure it pays off the way the author intended. Many of the wealthy supporting characters are treated like cartoon caricatures illustrating the foibles of the rich. Jed makes them look stupid by beating them with their own dishonest capitalist tricks, but it’s unclear how that serves Sinclair’s socialist agenda. Nevertheless, Jed’s adventures in big business are quite lively and engaging, for the most part. Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t really live up to the rest of the book, and it just sort of grinds to an abrupt halt, feeling inconveniently truncated.

There’s an economic theory that factors into the story that may be unfamiliar to many 21st-century readers. Much reference is made to the idea of the “single tax,” popularized in Henry George’s 1879 book Progress and Poverty. This system of taxation proposes that landowners should, in effect, rent their land from the American public by paying taxes equal to its rental value. Sinclair doesn’t really explain this concept, he just expects the reader to understand it. Perhaps the single tax was common knowledge in 1830, but 85 years later, not so much. As used here, it isn’t really crucial to the story and feels like an afterthought. It serves as a topic upon which Jed can bond with his rich employer, who for some sketchy reason is a devotee of this seemingly anti-capitalist theory. Regardless, don’t let the single tax keep you from reading this book; failure to understand it will not detract from your enjoyment of the story.

Mountain City seems to have gone out of print after its first edition, only to be resurrected in recent years with the onset of print-on-demand publication. Even Project Gutenberg doesn’t have it, but you can read it for free at HathiTrust. This lesser-known work certainly doesn’t deserve the obscurity into which it has faded. Though perhaps not Sinclair’s best work, it’s a strong novel his fans will enjoy.
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