Friday, May 9, 2014

100%: The Story of a Patriot by Upton Sinclair

Behind enemy lines in the war of the classes
I’ve read several novels by Upton Sinclair, but, given how prolific he was, that’s only scratching the surface of his prodigious body of work. I think The Jungle is one of American literature’s true masterpieces, but I could never find another of his books that even belongs in the same league with that great work. Until now, that is. 100%: The Story of a Patriot, originally published in 1920, is a brilliant novel of the struggle between labor and big business in America during the First World War. While combat was raging in Europe, a war between the classes was taking place on the home front. This novel provides a vivid look into the paranoia of that era, and the brutal tactics employed in the conflict between the Reds (Socialists) and the Whites (capitalists). It’s no secret which side Sinclair leans toward, but the best part about the book is that he ingeniously tells the story not from the Reds’ point of view but through the eyes of their enemy.

Peter Gudge is a luckless, loveless loser who’s recently been fired from his job. His resumé lists a string of credentials as assistant to an assortment of con men. While wandering through the streets, bemoaning his present situation, he happens upon a patriotic rally. Suddenly, a bomb goes off, apparently planted by a terrorist. Peter is found at the scene and apprehended by the police. He is imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured by the secret service of the Traction Trust, a shadowy organization of agents who protect the interests of big business. They want to pin the bombing on a prominent labor leader named Goober, so they recruit Peter to become an agent for them and infiltrate the local community of Socialists and Anarchists. Since he was falsely accused and tortured by the police, the Reds welcome him with open arms. Peter proves quite adept at his newfound vocation, and soon becomes an invaluable asset to the capitalist cause. Though he initially undertook the job purely out of self-interest, he soon begins to believe in the cause he’s fighting for and views himself as a true American patriot.

100% consists of 86 brief chapters, and there’s nary a dull moment among them. This is no typical espionage novel, but it is frequently suspenseful. The emotional tone ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to heartbreakingly tragic. Sinclair, true to form, exaggerates the class struggle, or rather, he collects all the most disgraceful, brutal, reprehensible acts ever perpetrated against the labor movement and condenses them into one fictional location dubbed American City. By telling the story from Peter’s point of view, Sinclair elucidates the misguided mindset that allows “patriotic” Americans to see such actions as justified. One can see parallels between the jingoism of the World War I era, as depicted by Sinclair, and the Cold War paranoia of the Reagan Era, the xenophobia that followed 9/11, or the police brutality against the Occupy Wall Street movement. Times of crisis often create an opportunity for civil liberties to be trampled upon. In this book, Sinclair doesn’t push Socialism so much as he merely pleads for an end to such draconian tactics in favor of a fair, non-violent playing field for the clash of ideologies.

The most common criticism against Sinclair’s work is that his fiction is essentially propaganda, as if that were to negate its literary value. Propaganda and literature are not mutually exclusive. Sinclair is like the liberal equivalent of Ayn Rand. Though both are great storytellers, to them a novel’s not just a novel, it’s a means of changing the world. Such conviction is admirable, even if you don’t buy wholeheartedly into the message they’re selling. After all, if a novel’s not preaching something, what’s the point? If nothing else, 100% will open your eyes to a new perspective on American history that you never got from your high school textbooks.

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