Upton Sinclair was born 140 years ago this very day, on September 20th, 1878. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the man’s death. An author, activist, and politician himself, Sinclair and his many works have made a profound impact on American government, culture, and way of thinking.
The Jungle and Journalism
Every course book on American history in the 20th century, if it’s worth its salt, makes at least a vague reference to Sinclair’s most popular work: The Jungle (1906), which was one of his somewhat early endeavors in novelization. From this book we read the bizarrely catchy and disturbing ditty:
Mary had a little lamb / And when she saw it sicken / She shipped it off to Packingtown / And now it’s labeled chicken.
It was a twisted version of the classic nursery rhyme, the one which Thomas Edison would recite in the successful phonograph recording in 1927. It displays Sinclair’s poetic artistry. But The Jungle was more than fine, memorable literature. It revealed a world many knew little of and would end up being repulsed by when they did find out.
The subject matter of the novel shined a strong light on the terrible conditions of the meatpacking industry at the time. It also depicted the difficulties facing impoverished immigrants living in Chicago and elsewhere too. In regards to Chicago’s desperate living conditions, for some, it is still a very real problem to this day. Chicago alone contains over a third of the population of homeless people in the state of Illinois.
The root of the actual writing of the novel was Sinclair’s desire to promote Socialism by showing the unrighteous and unsanitary working conditions within the meatpacking industry. (Similarly, L. Frank Baum, whose novels were also being published around this time, wrote his juvenile fantasies of Oz with the underlying theme of atheism.) However, the average reader as well as the thinker of the early 1900’s were not as much focused on the Socialistic ideologies as they were on what was happening with their food before it got to their tables.
A Support of Socialism
Perhaps the writer’s subtle infusion of his own ideals has contributed to the unfortunate state of a gradually increasing number of people identifying as leftists. A hundred years later, some of his texts may be irrelevant or fall flat on a modern audience, but his work may have built up Socialistic notions in the past few generations of Americans.
The Socialist Party of America itself was founded in the first year or so of the 20th century, though there were smaller Socialist groups in America prior to this. Between 1901 and 1912, the party grew hardily. By that time, membership had reached 125,000. According to u-s-history.com, the Socialists were printing some 300 publications at the time.
Appeal to Reason, first published in 1895, was one of those newspapers. This was the newspaper that recruited Sinclair to research the inhumane working conditions of those employed in the meatpacking business in Chicago. This research led to the writing of The Jungle.
Being good friends with Jack London (social activist, supporter of Marxist ideas, author of The Call of the Wild), Sinclair asked London to help him get more publicity for the novel. The Jungle had such an impact on the American people that it helped in passing the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.
Fighting Fake News and Yellow Journalism
Upton Sinclair’s Socialistic ideologies are not his great contribution to society, however, because Socialism does not contribute to everyone’s needs or allow for the pursuit of everyone’s life goals. His greatest contribution to society was battling fake news and advocating for the freedom of the press. As a journalist himself, he recognized the importance of an op-ed column. But he also realized journalism needed to be accurate and honest.
His expose The Brass Check (1919) was a critical work which pointed out the unrighteous practices in certain forms of journalism or, more specifically, with certain individual publications. The Brass Check also exploited the insane inaccuracies found in yellow journalism, a method of reporting which included very little to no adequate research whatsoever. The Brass Check may have prompted a solid set of journalistic ethics which were adopted several years following its publication.
Sinclair would later find himself battling fake news much more hotly than in mere words. In 1934, he ran for governor of California with the slogan: “End Poverty in California,” or EPIC. His “EPIC” was an epic fail, but for more reasons than one. It wasn’t just because a lot of people did not agree with his Socialistic/Communistic proposals. Fake news had a significant role to play in his loss.
MGM, the production studio which was producing such movies as Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and David Copperfield (1935) around this time period, began using the motion picture medium to promote fabricated statements, interviews, and newsreel footage to shed a light of disapproval on Sinclair’s campaign. The activist, who had worked for a time in the film industry, kept up his fight but eventually lost to the Republican candidate. After the loss, he wrote the book entitled I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked.
Author of dozens of books in his lifetime, Upton Sinclair understood writing and was an expert in this craft. He was a hardworking investigative journalist; he could smell a good story cooking up. But he also witnessed and responded to the problems with journalism in his own era, especially fake news.
These issues he battled still have not left us. Like Sinclair, as responsible reporters and responsible readers, we should strive for honesty in any medium.