Thursday, October 14, 2021

Boston by Upton Sinclair

An odd choice of perspective through which to view these events
American socialist author Upton Sinclair made a career out of writing books about social injustice and the class struggle, so it is no surprise that he would write a novel about one of the most important historical events affecting the working class in America: the trials and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian immigrant laborers in Boston who were accused of armed robbery and murder. Despite a prejudicial trial and evidence asserting their innocence, after seven years of legal battles the two were sent to the electric chair. In his 1928 novel entitled Boston, Sinclair contends that Sacco and Vanzetti were not executed for their crimes but rather for their ethnicity, class, and openly anarchist beliefs.

This is definitely a compelling subject, but Sinclair sure chooses an odd way to approach it. The protagonist of the novel is Cornelia Thornwell, the sexagenarian widow of a former Massachusetts governor. Fed up with her bickering adult children, Cornelia runs away from her wealthy family to live independently as a factory laborer. Having denounced her riches, she is forced to lodge in a low-rent boarding house in an Italian immigrant neighborhood, where she befriends one of her fellow lodgers, Vanzetti. Because of this focus on Cornelia and her family, much of the book ends up being about rich people’s problems rather than the injustices suffered by working class immigrants. In his eagerness to proclaim the men’s innocence, Sinclair makes Vanzetti cartoonishly saintly and virginal, almost to the point of simple-mindedness. Sacco, on the other hand, is barely a character because he doesn’t have the good fortune to be Cornelia’s neighbor.

As a historical novel, Boston feels like a warm-up to Sinclair’s later series of Lanny Budd novels. Like Boston, the Budd novels star a wealthy outsider who sees the light and embraces leftist socioeconomic theory. Both Lanny Budd and Cornelia Thornwell witness real-life world-changing events and interact with famous historical personages. This narrative strategy works far better in the Budd novels than it does in Boston, however. Lanny and his family are actually likable characters with whom the reader can identify, while the Thornwell family are annoying and pretentious and feel like a waste of time.

Even though at least half the novel is taken up by the Thornwell family, the book is so overly long that Sinclair still manages to delve deeply into the legal proceedings. Sinclair thinks the case against Sacco & Vanzetti was ridiculous, and rightfully so. Evidence of their guilt was manufactured by the prosecution, while evidence of their innocence was withheld or disregarded. In expressing his bemused disbelief, Sinclair relates the events of the crime, trial, and punishment with a sarcastically comedic tone that is totally inappropriate for a book about two men who were executed for crimes they didn’t commit.

What Sinclair does well in Boston, but only in a few passages, is give the reader an idea of just how notorious and divisive the Sacco and Vanzetti case was. The framing and execution of these two Italian immigrants was America’s very own Dreyfus Affair, but without the happy ending. Sinclair portrays Sacco and Vanzetti as martyrs willing to die for a call to arms. Workers all over the world were enraged by their wrongful convictions and engaged in demonstrations, some violent, in major cities around the globe. The sad part, however, is that the story behind these two recognizable names is largely forgotten today, while the injustices they endured continue. Unfortunately, Sinclair’s bloated, meandering, and sardonic novel is unlikely to get anyone excited about that.
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