The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Upton Sinclair
Upton Sinclair pic
Upton Sinclair: Local Boy Mucks It Big

"[Druid Hill] is such a beautiful park. I used to walk over from Grandfather Harden's house on Maryland Avenue with a book of Shakespeare under my arm. I was about ten or eleven then...I had just discovered Shakespeare, and I didn't want to do anything but read every bit of it I could get my hands on."

--Upton Sinclair reminiscing about Baltimore

The author of over 90 books-novels, plays, essays-Upton Sinclair is best remembered for The Jungle, his expose on the meatpacking industry. He had intended to write about the plight of the working class, he said, especially immigrants in meatpacking plants. But his investigation led him to reveal such shocking health conditions in that industry that the resulting book became a beacon for social and political change.

Although he labeled Upton Sinclair a "muckraker" for his expose of the meatpacking industry, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Sinclair to the White House for advice on how to make inspections safer. (Others referred to him as the "King of the Muckrakers." There continues to be debate about whether being called a "muckraker" is an insult or a compliment.) Sinclair is credited with wielding much influence in the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, both enacted in 1906.

"I aimed at the public's heart," he said in 1906 about The Jungle, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr. was born in poverty in a Baltimore row house on North Charles Street. His wealthy maternal grandparents lived less than a mile and a half away on Maryland Avenue. Although his alcoholic father moved the family to New York when Sinclair was still a child, Baltimore is where he developed his voracious love of reading and his rebellious attitude toward polite society. The Sinclair family came from generations of wealth and society, but the family fortune was lost during the Civil War. Upton Sinclair recalled eavesdropping on relatives who gossiped with a society columnist.

I sat in a corner and heard the talk: whose grandfather was a grocer and who eloped with a fiddler. I breathed that atmosphere of pride and scorn, of values based upon material possessions preserved for two generations or more, and the longer the better. I do not know why I came to hate it, but I know that I did hate it from my earliest days. And everything in my later life confirmed my resolve to never'sell out' to that class.

He later claimed that he became a socialist because he constantly moved between the two worlds of poverty and wealth. Additional influence came from two unlikely sources: William Shakespeare, whose entire works he read in two weeks, and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley's poetry inspired a zeal for social reform that remained with him all his life. He declared that one winter night as he walked through Baltimore's Druid Hill Park, he saw a vision of Shelley "on fire with high poetry."

There is some question about Sinclair's early education: some accounts say he was educated in the public schools of Baltimore; others, that he was a sickly child and was educated at home. After leaving Baltimore, his education continued on New York's east side. He paid for his City College of New York education by writing fiction and ethnic jokes for newspapers and magazines. He later completed graduate studies at Columbia University, paying his bills by cranking out dime novels.

As an adult, he lived in various states, including New Jersey, Arizona, and California, where he unsuccessfully sought political offices and tirelessly crusaded for social change. In 1937, he wrote The Flivver King as an argument for the need for unions in the automobile industry. During the Great Depression, he founded an organization acronymed EPIC--End Poverty in California, which advocated that the state should buy or lease land and buildings confiscated for failure to pay taxes and then use them to create jobs for the unemployed: farmers who had lost their farms would work the confiscated farmland to grow food, and unemployed industrial workers would operate the idle plants to produce goods. His "production for use" socialism conflicted with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal plan, but nevertheless was quite popular with victims of the Depression.

Sinclair received the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his book, Dragon's Teeth, about the rise of Nazism in Germany. Among his many other books were Oil!, based on the Teapot Dome Scandal, and Boston, based on the Sacco-Venzetti trial. Writers who admired his work included Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, and H.L. Mencken.

A meticulous researcher, he was less than meticulous about his own appearance. His wife once said that he only bought one suit during their entire 50-year marriage.

Upton Sinclair died in his sleep at Somerset Valley Nursing Home in Bound Brook, New Jersey.

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