Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual

Upton Sinclair

by Lauren Coodley

Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual shows us Sinclair engaged in one cause after another, some surprisingly relevant today—the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, the depredations of the oil industry, the wrongful imprisonment of the Wobblies, and the perils of unchecked capitalism and concentrated media. Throughout, Lauren Coodley provides a new perspective for looking at Sinclair’s prodigiously productive life. Coodley’s book reveals a consistent streak of feminism, both in Sinclair’s relationships with women—wives, friends, and activists—and in his interest in issues of housework and childcare, temperance and diet. This biography will forever alter our picture of this complicated, unconventional, often controversial man whose whole life was dedicated to helping people understand how society was run, by whom, and for whom.

Lauren 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 three books on local history, as well as California: A Multicultural Documentary History.

“In this engaging and ambitious biography Lauren Coodley takes a fresh perspective on the life of the zealous muckraker Upton Sinclair. Her book necessarily addresses many facets of Sinclair’s life that would be familiar to historians (such as the publication of The Jungle and the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (epic) program, and his ill-fated gubernatorial campaign in 1934). This book really shines in its treatment of lesser-known aspects of Sinclair’s socialism, such as his contemplations of historical Christianity and attempts to reconcile religion and socialism, and his scathing attacks on higher education…” —Justin Nordstrom, The Journal of American History – Sept. 2015

“Lauren Coodley’s perceptive account should awaken fresh interest in one of the twentieth century’s more fascinating cultural figures and his extraordinary—sadly, mostly forgotten—body of work.”—Julie Salamon, author of Wendy and the Lost Boys

“Upton Sinclair traversed the first half of the twentieth century like a rogue star. His prodigious writing and activism in the service of social justice perturbed the status quo, awakening millions to everything from appalling working conditions, poisoned food, and media bias to the rise of fascism and environmental decline. Yet his determination to lead a balanced and healthy life led some biographers to disparage him as less than a full man. Lauren Coodley rescues Sinclair from such critical condescension and reminds us of the many lives that he packed into one even as he moved the lives of both the common and the great.”—Gray Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

“What a difference a feminist perspective can make! . . . This is the first biography by a historian familiar with the new scholarship on twentieth-century women’s rights activists who is able to contextualize Sinclair as their contemporary.”—Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, author of Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975

“As a best-selling novelist, trailblazing muckraker, and major political candidate, Upton Sinclair practically embodied the Progressive movement for much of the twentieth century. Lauren Coodley adroitly surveys Sinclair’s astounding achievements, but she also shows how his responses to two key social movements—temperance and women’s suffrage—distinguished him from most of his male peers. An important story, well told, about an immensely influential yet consistently underrated American hero.”—Peter Richardson, author of A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of “Ramparts” Magazine Changed America

“Upton Sinclair was one of the most prescient observers of life that our culture has ever produced. He recognized that our food choices not only determine our health but should be part of the political conversation. Lauren Coodley brings this misunderstood aspect of Sinclair’s life to attention with her new biography.”—John Robbins, best-selling author of The Food Revolution and Diet for a New America

“Upton Sinclair provides a sympathetic lens through which to view the many writings and activities of this prolific author, politician, and social activist. Readers will be especially interested in the treatment of Sinclair’s lifelong feminist sympathies and his incredibly popular series of Lanny Budd novels set during World War II.”—Sally E. Parry, executive director of the Sinclair Lewis Society
“Historian Coodley (California: A Multicultural Documentary History) narrates little-known aspects of Sinclair’s life, such as his gubernatorial campaign in California in 1934…Coodley’s biography should renew interest in the works of this passionate writer.” Publishers Weekly Review

“Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! was the basis for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood, and director David Schimmer has spoken of adapting Sinclair’s most influential novel, The Jungle. But who remembers that the muckraking author took an active hand in filmmaking? That’s one of the revelations in Lauren Coodley’s cogent, critical biography, Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual (published by University of Nebraska Press).”
David Luhrssen, Express Milwaukee

“Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Upton Sinclair was paying attention. This biography is a balanced but sympathetic look at the idealistic, passionate man who wrote The Jungle when he was just 25. … Coodley emphasizes Sinclair’s support for temperance and women’s suffrage (and other feminist issues, including housework and childcare), and she shows how those issues fit together in the early 20th century. … I enjoyed this well-edited account, which moved right along without undue verbiage, and yet gave a rounded, insightful sense of Sinclair and his times”
Historical Novel Society

“If Upton Sinclair had never written a word beyond The Jungle, his stellar reputation would still be safe. The 1906 publication of this revolutionary novel exposing the horrors of the U.S. meat-packing industry led to sweeping food-safety laws and is still widely read today in high-school English classes. Yet, as historian Coodley emphasizes in this reverent and perceptive biography, Sinclair wrote prolifically and broadly in a variety of forms throughout his entire life, beginning with dime novels in his teens onto essays, plays, and film scripts. His novel, Dragon’s Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. Apart from Sinclair’s literary oeuvre, he was a tireless crusader for the rights of factory workers, coal miners, and women. While taking the full measure of Sinclair’s very active life, from his Baltimore childhood to his three marriages, the last in his eighties, Coodley reveals many surprising details, including his friendships with Henry Ford and Jane Addams and his near-miss election bid for California governor. Coodley’s compelling (if, at times, academic) biography is an invaluable look at Sinclair’s full life and influential work and how much his long battle against worker oppression remains relevant in today’s corporate and media-driven world.” — Carl Hays, Booklist