Friday, June 11, 2021

The Return of Lanny Budd by Upton Sinclair

Sinclair repudiates the Soviets
The eleventh and final book in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series, The Return of Lanny Budd, was published in 1953. Originally Sinclair had only planned to do ten Budd novels, concluding with the end of World War II, but he felt he had to bring the hero back to address the Cold War. This novel covers the years 1946 to 1949, with Lanny frequently traveling back and forth between the United States and Berlin. Written at a time of the expansion of Soviet totalitarianism and an escalation of anti-communist alarm in America, The Return of Lanny Budd feels like Sinclair’s apology for being too kind to Joseph Stalin in previous novels.

In the tenth installment, O Shepherd, Speak!, Lanny retired from spy work to produce a liberal radio show. Now he is called back into action by President Truman. A ring of neo-Nazis or communists or both is flooding Europe with counterfeit British pounds and American dollars, thus threatening economic havoc. Because of his European connections, Lanny is sent to Germany to investigate. Following World War II, Berlin has been subdivided by the U.S., France, Britain, and Russia, but the Wall has not yet been built. Spies, dissidents, and refugees fluidly move back and forth between East and West, creating a dangerous atmosphere where abductions and executions can occur anywhere at any time. While at first the book focuses on postwar Nazis, the enemy quickly switches to the Soviet Union, and the book becomes an extended piece of anticommunist propaganda

One of the commendable aspects of the book is that Lanny finally encounters some of the dangers inherent in being a spy, dangers he has for the most part unrealistically avoided over the course of the series. Even so, he still gets off relatively easy. He proves far luckier than most political prisoners, and even his torturers are surprisingly tolerant and reasonable. In his verve to quash communism wherever it rears its ugly head, Lanny displays uncharacteristically nonheroic behavior with his surprisingly callous attitude towards informing on friends and family members.  

Ideologically, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Sinclair’s approach to The Return of Lanny Budd, but it is a marked departure from his earlier work. It’s hard to deny that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a totalitarian regime with little concern for human rights. When you read a Sinclair book, however, you’re hoping to get a different perspective on history than what you’ll usually find in mainstream literature. This novel hammers home the same unilateral Cold War paranoia that was drilled into our heads from the McCarthy era to the Reagan era. What’s worse, Sinclair lays it on so thick that one really gets the idea that he wrote this book to avoid being blacklisted for his socialist rhetoric of the past. While previously Lanny (and Sinclair) had been critical of American imperialism, there’s none of that here. Sinclair praises J. Edgar Hoover, overlooking the FBI’s police-state disregard for civil liberties while excoriating the USSR for the same. Sinclair also pushes religion in this book far more than I’ve ever encountered in the two dozen books of his that I’ve read. The author who wrote The Profits of Religion was never a full-blown atheist, but here, in the guise of Lanny, he advocates a surprisingly conventional view of deity and prayer that feels like he’s pandering to American puritanism.

When focusing on actual events, Sinclair is still a fine historical novelist who provides detailed insight into the time period he’s depicting. Here, however, the narrative too often devolves into preachy sermons. The Return of Lanny Budd is by no means a terrible novel, but as a capstone to this monumental and impressive series it is a disappointing departure from form.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment