Many of his novels can be read as historical works. Writing during the Progressive Era, Sinclair describes the world of industrialized America from both the working man's point of view and the industrialist. Novels like King Coal (1917), The Coal War (published posthumously), Oil! (1927) and The Flivver King (1937) describe the working conditions of the coal, oil and auto industries at the time.
He attacked J. P. Morgan, whom many regarded as a hero for ending the Panic of 1907, saying that he had engineered the crisis in order to acquire a bank. The Flivver King describes the rise of Henry Ford, his "wage reform", and the company's Sociological Department to his decline into antisemitism as publisher of The Dearborn Independent. King Coal confronts John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his role in the 1913 Ludlow Massacre in the coal fields of Colorado.
Sinclair was an outspoken socialist and ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a nominee from the Socialist Party. He was also the Democratic Party candidate for Governor of California during the Great Depression, running under the banner of the End Poverty in California campaign, but was defeated in the 1934 elections.
Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Upton Beall Sinclair and Priscilla Harden Sinclair. His father was a liquor salesman whose alcoholism shadowed his son's childhood. Priscilla Harden Sinclair was a strict Episcopalian who disliked alcohol, tea, and coffee. As a child, Sinclair slept either on sofas or cross-ways on his parents' bed. When his father was out for the night, he would sleep alone in the bed with his mother. Sinclair did not get along with her when he became older because of her strict rules and refusal to allow him independence. Sinclair later told his son, David, that around Sinclair's 16th year, he decided not to have anything to do with his mother, staying away from her for 35 years because an argument would start if they met. His mother's family was very affluent: her parents were very prosperous in Baltimore, and her sister married a millionaire. Sinclair had wealthy maternal grandparents with whom he often stayed. This gave him insight into how both the rich and the poor lived during the late nineteenth century. Living in two social settings affected him and greatly influenced his books. Upton Beall Sinclair, Sr. was from a highly respected family in the South, but the family was financially ruined by the Civil War, disruptions of the labor system during the Reconstruction era, and an extended agricultural depression.
As he was growing up, Upton's family moved frequently as his father was not successful in his career. He developed a love for reading when he was five years old. He read every book his mother owned for a deeper understanding of the world. He did not start school until he was ten years old. He was deficient in math and worked hard to catch up quickly because of his embarrassment. In 1888, the Sinclair family moved to Queens, New York, where his father sold shoes. Upton entered the City College of New York five days before his 14th birthday, on September 15, 1892. He wrote jokes, dime novels, and magazine articles in boys' weekly and pulp magazines to pay for his tuition. With that income, he was able to move his parents to an apartment when he was seventeen years old.
He graduated in June 1897 and studied for a time at Columbia University. His major was Law, but he was more interested in writing, and he learned several languages including Spanish, German and French. He paid the one-time enrollment fee to be able to learn a variety of things. He would sign up for a class and then later drop it. He again supported himself through college by writing boys' adventure stories and jokes. He also sold ideas to cartoonists. Using stenographers, he wrote up to 8,000 words of pulp fiction per day. His only complaint about his educational experience was that it failed to educate him about socialism. After leaving Columbia, he wrote four books in the next four years; they were commercially unsuccessful though critically well-received: King Midas (1901), Prince Hagen (1902), The Journal of Arthur Stirling (1903), and a Civil War novel titled Manassas (1904).
Upton became close with Reverend William Wilmerding Moir. Moir specialized in sexual abstinence and taught his beliefs to Sinclair. He was taught to "avoid the subject of sex." Sinclair was to report to Moir monthly regarding his abstinence. Despite their close relationship, Sinclair identified as agnostic.
Upton Sinclair imagined himself a poet and dedicated his time to writing poetry.
In 1904, Sinclair spent seven weeks in disguise, working undercover in Chicago's meat-packing plants to research his novel, The Jungle (1906), a political exposé that addressed conditions in the plants as well as the lives of poor immigrants. When it was published two years later, it became a bestseller.
With the income from The Jungle, Sinclair founded the utopian Helicon Home Colony in Englewood, New Jersey (Helicon Home Colony was a white-only space ). He ran as a Socialist candidate for Congress. The colony burned down under suspicious circumstances within a year.
In the spring of 1905, Sinclair issued a call for the formation of a new organization, a group to be called the Intercollegiate Socialist Society.
In 1913–1914, Sinclair made three trips to the coal fields of Colorado, which led him to write King Coal and caused him to begin work on the larger, more historical The Coal War. In 1914, Sinclair helped organize demonstrations in New York City against Rockefeller at the Standard Oil offices. The demonstrations touched off more actions by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Mother Earth group, a loose association of anarchists and IWW members, in Rockefeller's hometown of Tarrytown.
The Sinclairs moved to California in the 1920s and lived there for nearly four decades. During his years with his second wife, Mary Craig, Sinclair wrote or produced several films. Recruited by Charlie Chaplin, Sinclair and Mary Craig produced Eisenstein's ¡Qué viva México! in 1930–32.
Aside from his political and social writings, Sinclair took an interest in occult phenomena and experimented with telepathy. His book Mental Radio (1930) included accounts of his wife Mary's telepathic experiences and ability. William McDougall read the book and wrote an introduction to it, which led him to establish the parapsychology department at Duke University.
Sinclair broke with the Socialist party in 1917 and supported the war effort. By the 1920s, however, he had returned to the fold.
In the 1920s, the Sinclairs moved to Monrovia, California, near Los Angeles, where Sinclair founded the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Wanting to pursue politics, he twice ran unsuccessfully for United States Congress on the Socialist ticket: in 1920 for the House of Representatives and in 1922 for the Senate. He was the party candidate for governor California in 1930, winning nearly 50,000 votes.
During this period, Sinclair was also active in radical politics in Los Angeles. For instance, in 1923, to support the challenged free speech rights of Industrial Workers of the World, Sinclair spoke at a rally during the San Pedro Maritime Strike, in a neighborhood now known as Liberty Hill. He began to read from the Bill of Rights and was promptly arrested, along with hundreds of others, by the LAPD. The arresting officer proclaimed: "We'll have none of that Constitution stuff".
In 1934, Sinclair ran in the California gubernatorial election as a Democrat. Sinclair's platform, known as the End Poverty in California movement (EPIC), galvanized the support of the Democratic Party, and Sinclair gained its nomination. Gaining 879,000 votes made this his most successful run for office, but incumbent Governor Frank F. Merriam defeated him by a sizable margin, gaining 1,138,000 votes. Hollywood studio bosses unanimously opposed Sinclair. They pressured their employees to assist and vote for Merriam's campaign, and made false propaganda films attacking Sinclair, giving him no opportunity to respond.
Sinclair's plan to end poverty quickly became a controversial issue under the pressure of numerous migrants to California fleeing the Dust bowl. Conservatives considered his proposal an attempted communist takeover of their state and quickly opposed him, using propaganda to portray Sinclair as a staunch communist. Sinclair had been a member of the Socialist Party from 1902 to 1934, when he became a Democrat, though always considering himself a Socialist in spirit. The Socialist party in California and nationwide refused to allow its members to be active in any other party including the Democratic Party and expelled him, along with socialists who supported his California campaign. The expulsions destroyed the Socialist party in California.
At the same time, American and Soviet communists disassociated themselves from him, considering him a capitalist. In later writings, such as his anti-alcohol book The Cup of Fury, Sinclair scathingly censured communism. Science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein was deeply involved in Sinclair's campaign, although he attempted to move away from the stance later in his life.
After his loss to Merriam, Sinclair abandoned EPIC and politics to return to writing. In 1935, he published I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, in which he described the techniques employed by Merriam's supporters, including the then popular Aimee Semple McPherson, who vehemently opposed socialism and what she perceived as Sinclair's modernism. Sinclair's line from this book "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it" has become well known and was for example quoted by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth.
Of his gubernatorial bid, Sinclair remarked in 1951:
The American People will take Socialism, but they won't take the label. I certainly proved it in the case of EPIC. Running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to 'End Poverty in California' I got 879,000. I think we simply have to recognize the fact that our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie. There is no use attacking it by a front attack, it is much better to out-flank them.
In April 1900, Sinclair went to Lake Massawippi in Quebec to work on a novel. He had a small cabin rented for three months and then he moved to a farmhouse. It was here he and his future wife, Meta Fuller, became close. She was three years younger than him and had aspirations of being more than a housewife. Sinclair gave her direction as to what to read and learn. Meta had been a childhood friend whose family was one of the First Families of Virginia. Each had warned the other about themselves and would later bring that up in arguments. They married October 18, 1900. They used abstinence as their main form of birth control. Meta became pregnant with a child shortly after they married and attempted to abort it multiple times. The child was born on December 1, 1901, and named David. Meta and her family tried to get Sinclair to give up writing and get "a job that would support his family." Around 1911, Meta left Sinclair for the poet Harry Kemp, later known as the "Dunes Poet" of Provincetown, Massachusetts.
In 1913, Sinclair married Mary Craig Kimbrough (1883–1961), a woman from an elite Greenwood, Mississippi, family. She had written articles and a book on Winnie Davis, the daughter of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis. He met her when she attended a lecture by him about The Jungle. In the 1920s, the Sinclair couple moved to California. They were married until her death in 1961.
Sinclair married again, to Mary Elizabeth Willis (1882–1967).
Sinclair was opposed to sex outside of marriage and he viewed marital relations as necessary only for procreation. He told his first wife Meta that only the birth of a child gave marriage "dignity and meaning". Despite his beliefs, he had an adulterous affair with Anna Noyes during his marriage to Meta. He wrote a novel about the affair called Love's Progress, a sequel to Love's Pilgrimage. It was never published. His wife next had an affair with John Armistead Collier, a theology student from Memphis; they had a son together named Ben.
In his novel, Mammonart, he suggested that Christianity was a religion that favored the rich and promoted a drop of standards. He was against it.
Late in life Sinclair, with his third wife Mary Willis, moved to Buckeye, Arizona. They returned East to Bound Brook, New Jersey. Sinclair died there in a nursing home on November 25, 1968, a year after his wife. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., next to Willis.
Sinclair devoted his writing career to documenting and criticizing the social and economic conditions of the early twentieth century in both fiction and non-fiction. He exposed his view of the injustices of capitalism and the overwhelming effects of poverty among the working class. He also edited collections of fiction and non-fiction.
His novel based on the meatpacking industry in Chicago, The Jungle, was first published in serial form in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, from February 25, 1905, to November 4, 1905. It was published as a book by Doubleday in 1906.
Sinclair had spent about six months investigating the Chicago meat-packing industry for Appeal to Reason, the work which inspired his novel. He intended to "set forth the breaking of human hearts by a system which exploits the labor of men and women for profit". The novel featured Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who works in a meat factory in Chicago, his teenage wife Ona Lukoszaite, and their extended family. Sinclair portrays their mistreatment by Rudkus' employers and the wealthier elements of society. His descriptions of the unsanitary and inhumane conditions that workers suffered served to shock and galvanize readers. Jack London called Sinclair's book "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of wage slavery". Domestic and foreign purchases of American meat fell by half.
Sinclair wrote in Cosmopolitan Magazine in October 1906 about The Jungle: "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." The novel brought public lobbying for Congressional legislation and government regulation of the industry, including passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. At the time, President Theodore Roosevelt characterized Sinclair as a "crackpot", writing to William Allen White, "I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth." After reading The Jungle, Roosevelt agreed with some of Sinclair's conclusions but was opposed to legislation that he considered "socialist." He said, "Radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist."
In The Brass Check (1919), Sinclair made a systematic and incriminating critique of the severe limitations of the “free press” in the United States. Among the topics covered is the use of yellow journalism techniques created by William Randolph Hearst. Sinclair called The Brass Check "the most important and most dangerous book I have ever written."Sylvia (1913) was a novel about a Southern girl. In her autobiography, Mary Craig Sinclair said she had written the book based on her own experiences as a girl, and Upton collaborated with her. She asked him to publish it under his name. When it appeared in 1913, The New York Times called it "the best novel Mr. Sinclair has yet written–so much the best that it stands in a class by itself."
Sylvia's Marriage (1914), Craig and Sinclair collaborated on a sequel, also published by John C. Winston Company under Upton Sinclair's name. In his 1962 autobiography, Upton Sinclair wrote: "[Mary] Craig had written some tales of her Southern girlhood; and I had stolen them from her for a novel to be called Sylvia."
This was a novel he published in 1934 as a preface to running for office. He outlined his plans in it.
Between 1940 and 1953, Sinclair wrote a series of 11 novels featuring a central character named Lanny Budd. The son of an American arms manufacturer, Budd is portrayed as holding in the confidence of world leaders, and not simply witnessing events but often propelling them. As a sophisticated socialite, who mingles easily with people from all cultures and socioeconomic classes, Budd has been characterized as the antithesis of the stereotyped "Ugly American".
Sinclair placed Budd within the important political events in the United States and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. There was an actual company named the Budd Company which manufactured arms during World War II, founded by Edward G. Budd in 1912.
The novels were bestsellers upon publication and were published in translation, appearing in twenty-one countries. The third book in the series, Dragon's Teeth (1942), won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1943. Out of print and nearly forgotten for years, ebook editions of the Lanny Budd series were published in 2016.
The Lanny Budd series includes:
Sinclair was keenly interested in health and nutrition. He experimented with various diets, and with fasting. He wrote about this in his book, The Fasting Cure (1911), another bestseller. He believed that periodic fasting was important for health, saying, "I had taken several fasts of ten or twelve days' duration, with the result of a complete making over of my health".
Sinclair favored a raw food diet of predominantly vegetables and nuts. For long periods of time, he was a complete vegetarian, but he also experimented with eating meat. His attitude to these matters was fully explained in the chapter, “The Use of Meat,” in the above-mentioned book.Sinclair is featured as one of the main characters in Chris Bachelder's satirical novel, U.S.! (2005). Repeatedly, Sinclair is resurrected after his death and assassinated again, a "personification of the contemporary failings of the American left". He is portrayed as a quixotic reformer attempting to stir an apathetic American public to implement socialism in America.
Sinclair Lewis refers to Sinclair and his EPIC plan in Lewis' novel, It Can't Happen Here (1935).
Joyce Carol Oates refers to Sinclair and his first wife, Meta, in her novel The Accursed (2013).
Sinclair is extensively featured as a figure in Harry Turtledove's American Empire trilogy (2001–2003) as part of the Southern Victory Series, an alternate history in which the American Socialist Party succeeds in becoming a major force in U.S. politics. This follows two humiliating military defeats to the Confederate States, the United Kingdom, and France and the post-1882 collapse of the Republican Party, with former president Abraham Lincoln leading a large number of Liberal Republicans into the Socialist Party. Sinclair wins the 1920 and 1924 presidential elections and becomes the first Socialist President of the United States. He was also the 29th president in the timeline. On March 4, 1921, his inauguration attended by crowds of jubilant militants waving red flags. However, his policies as portrayed by Turtledove are not particularly radical. Sinclair served as president until 1929 when his Vice President Hosea Blackford is elected in 1928 and becomes the 30th president.
The Jungle (1914) is a silent film adaptation of the 1906 novel, with George Nash playing Jurgis Rudkus and Gail Kane playing Ona Lukozsaite. The film is considered lost. Sinclair appears at the beginning and end of the film "as a form of endorsement."
The Wet Parade (1932) is a film adaptation of Sinclair's eponymous 1931 novel, directed by Victor Fleming and starring Robert Young, Myrna Loy, Walter Huston, and Jimmy Durante.
The Walt Disney Company adapted The Gnomobile (1937) as an eponymous musical motion picture released in 1967.
Oil! (1927) was adapted as the film There Will Be Blood (2007), starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano, and written, produced, and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The film received eight Oscar nominations and won two.
"Our newspapers do not represent public interests, but private interests; they do not represent humanity, but property; they value a man, not because he is great, or good, or wise, or useful, but because he is wealthy, or of service to vested wealth." (Source: The Brass Check, p. 125)
"I was determined to get something done about the Condemned Meat Industry. I was determined to get something done about the atrocious conditions under which men, women and children were working the Chicago stockyards. In my efforts to get something done, I was like an animal in a cage. The bars of this cage were newspapers, which stood between me and the public; and inside the cage I roamed up and down, testing one bar after another, and finding them impossible to break." (Source: The Brass Check, p. 39)
"The social body to which we belong is at this moment passing through one of the greatest crises of its history ... What if the nerves upon which we depend for knowledge of this social body should give us false reports of its condition?" (Source: The Brass Check, p. 9)
As editorThe Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest – 1915