Monday, July 28, 2014

Samuel the Seeker by Upton Sinclair

Too much sermon, not enough novel
Samuel the Seeker, a novel by Upton Sinclair, was published in 1910. It tells the story of Samuel Prescott, an idealistic young man who has lived a sheltered existence on his parents’ farm somewhere in the midst of an idyllic mountain wilderness. When his father dies, he sells his share of the land to his brothers and heads for New York City. Along the way, however, he is robbed and ends up penniless on the streets of Lockmanville. This babe in the woods, lost in the big city, gets an eye-opening education into the ways of the world. He learns that society is divided between the rich and the poor. The rich often acquire their wealth through corruption and thievery while the poor starve. He is given an introduction into the doctrine of Herbert Spencer, a sociologist who asserted that human society is a competitive struggle for resources, and that the wealthy are the successful combatants in the survival of the fittest. While most of humanity has resigned themselves to this status quo, Samuel refuses to accept this shameful state of affairs and seeks to reform the system.

Samuel is so innocent and naive, he makes Forrest Gump look jaded. Sometimes Sinclair plays Samuel’s ignorance and gullibility for laughs, but most of the time the tone of the book is one of righteous indignation. Sinclair was a critic of organized religion, but he revered Jesus Christ as the ultimate Socialist. Samuel can’t stand the thought of anyone choosing to make money instead of living their life by the example of Christ. After rooting out the guilty perpetrators responsible for Lockmanville’s societal ills, he asks the counsel of a clergyman, who rebuffs him for his unrealistic attitude towards good and evil. The reader can’t help but feel the same way. Spencer, Marx, and Christ could spend all day arguing about how to make the world a better place, but I’m pretty sure they would all agree that whining and pleading is not the way to go about it. Unfortunately, that’s what Samuel does for what seems like three-quarters of the book. He bounces around from offender to offender, beseeching them to turn themselves in. Towards the end he starts to find a more productive means of activism, but it’s too little too late, for he and his story have already grown tiresome.

Upton Sinclair writes preachy novels, and that’s a big part of his appeal. Every one of his books is an attempt to change the world, which is what usually makes his work so refreshing and inspiring. His great novel The Jungle was criticized for having a Socialist sermon for its conclusion, but Samuel the Seeker is almost all sermon. Sinclair takes preachiness so far over the top it becomes off-putting. Even for his most avid fans, it’s hard to clearly ascertain the practical purpose of this book. It seems Sinclair’s intention is to point out the ridiculousness of a world where money matters more than people’s lives by viewing society through the eyes of an unsullied man-child. The problem is that Samuel is so clueless it’s difficult for all but those utterly free of cynicism to root for him. When one character tells Samuel, “You take everything with such frightful seriousness,” the vast majority of readers will nod their heads in agreement and utter a sigh of “Amen!” This novel will appeal only to the most religious of card-carrying Socialists—a very small audience indeed. Everyone else would do better to skip this book. If you admire Sinclair for his social conscience and want to learn more about his Socialist ethics, you’d be better off rereading The Jungle, or give his excellent novel 100%: The Story of a Patriot a try.

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