This Sunday, November 25, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s death. Below Lauren Coodley reminds readers of the importance of Sinclair’s work. Coodley is a historian specializing in gender, labor, and locale. She is the editor of The Land of Orange Groves and Jails: Upton Sinclair’s California and the author of numerous books including Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual (Bison Books, 2013), which will be available in paperback in March 2019.
Upton Sinclair’s Cry for Justice, 1878-1968
We live in a time of massive inequality, not unlike that of the early twentieth century when Upton Sinclair came of age. Although Sinclair never belonged to a labor union, his lifetime commitment to workers, previously unexplored by his few biographers, should compel our attention. Upton Sinclair understood as early as 1905, when he went undercover into the Chicago slaughterhouse, that the status of the society rises and falls with the conditions of its workers. Rethinking Upton Sinclair as a labor supporter gives us a new understanding of not only the man and his times, but of the role of strike sympathizers and the crucial impact that celebrity intellectuals, celebrity or not, can have in aiding worker struggles.
In four distinct settings—Chicago 1905, New York City 1913, San Pedro, 1923, and Detroit, 193—Sinclair intervened in significant ways, inventing new techniques of investigatory journalism and citizen action, creating novels, film, plays, and journalism that would keep the story alive long after the events were over. With these interventions, he aroused the interest of the world in food safety, invented the picketing of corporate headquarters, got arrested for reading the Bill of Rights, and inspired workers who carried his pamphlet about Henry Ford with them as they organized the UAW.
Although some readers are familiar with Sinclair’s advocacy for slaughterhouse workers through his novel The Jungle, his efforts for the miners in Colorado are much less known. Immediately after the Ludlow Massacre, the United Mine Workers sent a delegation to New York City to publicize the tragedy. Upton Sinclair attended their mass meeting in Madison Square Garden on April 27, 1913. That night when he and his wife, Mary Craig, lay in bed talking, Sinclair suddenly realized the impact of a group of sympathizers with mourning bands in memory of the murdered of Ludlow picketing the Rockefeller offices in New York. Picketing was common in strikes, but as Craig wrote, “So far as we knew it was the first time it had been done on the premises.” After the protesters were turned away from the Rockefeller headquarters, they found sympathizers and she remembered, “more important, a dozen reporters. Now, when the author of The Jungle told the story, every reporter was scribbling diligently.” As Craig predicted, and he had hoped, Sinclair was arrested for disorderly conduct and booked into a New York jail on April 29. They were taken to the prison known as “the Tombs,” where the women sang “The Marseillaise.” He wrote a poem entitled “The Marseillaise in the Tombs,” which allowed him to get published in the New York papers for the first time since The Jungle.
With demonstrations underway in New York City, Sinclair decided to go to Colorado. He planned to personally investigate the conditions in the mines, to create publicity for the miners, and also to gather information for a novel on the coal strike. At a meeting of the Women’s Peace Organization, Sinclair told the audience that he had seen many strikes and knew their symptoms: “I know that period of slow strangling, which is the most heart-breaking and terrifying of all—the more so because it is a silent process, because it happens after the excitement has died down and the country has forgotten.” The remainder of Sinclair’s stay in Colorado was spent documenting mining conditions. He traveled to the strike zone, visited the embattled camps, and spoke with miners and their families.
In the end federal troops crushed the miners’ strike, and the workers were not able to win recognition of their union or any significant improvement in their wages and working conditions. Sixty-six men, women, and children died during the strike, but not a single militiaman or private detective was charged with any crime.
In 1915, Sinclair self-published The Cry for Justice, a collection of five thousand works of poetry, philosophy, and fiction. It was a pioneering anthology of proletarian literature, dedicated to “those unknown ones, who by their dimes and quarters keep the socialist movement going.” The book begins with poems by John Masefield, Edwin Markham, and Thomas Carlyle and concludes with work by Walt Whitman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Olive Schreiner. Jack London wrote the introduction.
By 1917, Sinclair had finally completed King Coal, the first half of his planned two-volume novel based on the Colorado coal strike, begun immediately after the searing events at Ludlow. When his first biographer, Floyd Dell, who read King Coal in manuscript, suggested that the characterization of a labor leader as a self-seeking scoundrel would add dramatic impact, Sinclair rejected the idea because he believed that such an addition would distort history. Instead, he added a factual appendix to authenticate his story.
Inspired by groups like the Women’s Trade Union League and the suffrage movement, Sinclair initiated some of the first efforts by intellectuals to gain widespread support for striking workers. By involving himself on behalf of these workers, Sinclair became not only a chronicler of history but also a participant. In 1964, four years before Sinclair’s death, Mario Savio urged “You’ve got to put your bodies upon the wheels, upon the levers.” How ironic it is that Upton Sinclair, ridiculed for his alleged “sissiness” by his enemies during his lifetime and his biographers after he died, was one of the very few writers who dared to do exactly that.
There is no longer any published journal about Sinclair, no scholarly society, no home or museum in which to teach new generations about his role and significance in American life. Yet despite this neglect, Sinclair and his legacy remain vitally relevant. The world of the twenty-first century is startlingly similar to that of Sinclair’s early twentieth century. At a time of historic inequality, when “one job is not enough,” we need Sinclair’s example of creative solidarity with the labor movement. In this second decade of a century that does not include Upton Sinclair, his life and passions compel our attention.