Monday, July 13, 2020

The Overman by Upton Sinclair

Philosopher Crusoe
The Overman, a story by Upton Sinclair, was originally published in the December 1906 issue of The Windsor Magazine. Though really just a short story, it was published as a hardcover volume of 90 pages in 1907, so it is usually listed among Sinclair’s novels. In 1924, socialist publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius also published an edition of The Overman as part of his Little Blue Books series, making it Little Blue Book No. 594.

Given Sinclair’s lifelong preoccupation with labor and the class struggle, I expected the title to refer to some capitalist slave driver, such as a tyrannical factory foreman. What I got, however, was far different. The Overman is not a work of social justice typical of Sinclair’s body of work. Instead, it is a deeply philosophical tale, and one more romantic than realistic. The title refers to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch, which has been translated into English as “beyond-man,” “superman,” or “overman.” Nietzsche proposed the overman as the next step in evolution to which humanity should aspire. The übermensch would be an “artist-tyrant” who would create new life-affirming, non-theistical values for humanity to supersede the other-wordly values of traditional religions. Nietzsche’s concept has been interpreted in myriad ways and co-opted by a variety movements ranging from fascists to anarchists. In The Overman, Sinclair’s interpretation of the übermensch is rather fantastical, rhapsodic, and transcendental.

The story is narrated by Edward, a scientist. His younger brother Daniel, a gifted musician, was shipwrecked during an ocean voyage and presumed lost at sea. Years later, however, Edward meets a survivor of the voyage, who tells him that a few castaways managed to reach an uninhabited island, where they lived for several months. When the other survivors made an escape attempt in a small craft, Daniel chose to remain on the island. Hearing this, Edward launches a search to find his long-lost brother and ends up shipwrecked himself, on the very same island as his brother Daniel! This brief and not at all realistic setup serves the purpose of getting the two brothers alone on an island, where there two natures can be compared and contrasted.

In his twenty years alone on the island, Daniel has come to embrace his solitude. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, he hasn’t even bothered to better his life on the island, but instead lives a rather ascetic existence inspired by Diogenes the Cynic. Daniel doesn’t even play his violin anymore, as he is now able to compose entire symphonies in his mind. Emphasizing an internal life of the mind over the needs of the body, he has elevated his existence to a higher intellectual and creative plane, as if he has acquired new senses with which to commune with the universe. Sinclair’s pet fascination with paranormal psychology—telepathy, clairvoyance, and such—also plays into Daniel’s heightened mental and spiritual state, to a degree which Nietzsche himself likely would have frowned upon, as the story crosses the line from philosophy into fantasy.

The Overman is essentially a dialogue between two sides of Upton Sinclair. The Daniel side aspires to be the transcendent artist who reaches lofty literary heights by expressing the sublime. The Edward side is the scientific realist who writes about the world as it is and who must practice his literary craft as an income-producing profession. Coming from Sinclair, The Overman is a very unusual and unexpected piece of fiction, but one that intimately reveals much about the author’s values, dreams, and inner struggles at this period in his literary development.
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