The Land of Orange Groves and Jails
Upton Sinclair is famous, but not for his life in California. Most Americans know him simply as the author of The Jungle, the astonishing novel that rocked the beginning of the twentieth century with its expose of contaminated meat. California history textbooks mention Upton Sinclair only in passing reference to what they usually label as his “unsuccessful” campaign for governor in 1934. This book will argue that it is impossible to understand Upton Sinclair without reference to his life in California, and it is equally incomplete to think about California in the twentieth century without turning to Upton Sinclair’s work.
Describing the 1920’s, Carey McWilliams wrote: “For Southern California the decade was a long drunken orgy, one protracted debauch.”[i] Upton Sinclair came as an emigrant to California in 1915, settled amidst this “drunken orgy,” and proceeded to chronicle it mercilessly, tirelessly, and with great delight. That delight is one of the fascinating contradictions of Upton Sinclair whose life, a recent reporter for the Los Angeles Times said, was “as compelling as his writing.”[ii] With the dedication of the Liberty Hill Monument in 1998, the re-publications of The Brass Check and The Millennium in 2002, the first annual “Uppie Awards” held in San Pedro in May 2003, and the encore performance of Chapter One of Oil! by Word for Word Theater Company in San Francisco in Fall 2003, Sinclair is blooming once more into California’s consciousness. As California faces new assaults on free speech, labor organizing, the teaching of history, nature, and food safety, Sinclair has perhaps never been as relevant as he is right now.
We Californians are stunned by the speed of change of the last hundred
years; Upton Sinclair
waiting patiently to explain to us when and how these changes happened.
He can tell us about Hollywood and how it became an industrialized dream
machine; he can tell us about oil, and how it created the freeways that
destroyed the railroads, and the subdivisions that destroyed the orchards.
He can tell us, perhaps most importantly, about the events that other
historians avoided or forgot. One of these events was the effort to
defend four women radicals, arrested in San Bernardino in 1929, in the
story which gives us the title of this book.
“The Land of Orange Groves and Jails” was a Wobbly phrase for California, this land that drew workers of all colors like magnets to a file with its promise of orange groves and oranges like gold in the streets. This was the place where the Wobbly dream died, defeated in the bitter port struggle in Long Beach, depicted in Sinclair’s play Singing Jailbirds, which he wrote in a white heat of desperation to tell the world what was happening to these longshoremen, when most artists of the Twenties were too busy to notice.
From his film of The Jungle made in 1915 to the MGM film of The Wet Parade and the Disney film of The Gnome-Mobile, Upton Sinclair wrestled with Hollywood, using it, used by it, emerging from each encounter charged with more ferocity and a determination to win with his pen what had been denied him at the ballot box. The success of his Worlds End spy series in arousing his readers to join the European war against Hitler has barely been recognized. With this series, which absorbed Sinclair throughout the 1940’s and gained him admirers from Britain to Japan to Germany, Sinclair found again the world-wide acclaim which had begun when he went into the stockyards in 1905 to examine how cattle were slaughtered.
In 1999, media critic Norman Solomon wrote: “The next time you wonder about the beef on your plate, you might think of Upton Sinclair and ask yourself why it’s still such a media jungle out there.”[iii] In 1997, The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized that “Undercover reporting is a proud tradition that dates back to Upton Sinclair.”[iv] When ABC reporters went undercover in meat handling jobs and used cameras hidden in their wigs to record filthy food practices, jurors called it fraud and fined them $5.5 million. The Chronicle, condemning this verdict, asked, “Who will tell the people the truth?”[v]
Upton Sinclair was thirty-seven years old when he emigrated to California in l9l5. He would stay for fifty years, leaving only at the very end of his life in l965. In those fifty years, California was transformed, and Sinclair became one of its chroniclers, its visionaries, and its foremost activists. When Sinclair arrived, he had already gone through a number of transformations. He had survived his father’s alcoholism, his mother’s poverty. He had grabbed what crumbs of education were available to him, and as a sensitive young man, searched for the source of the injustices that doomed his own household and the lives that surrounded it. He had discovered first poetry, then religion, then socialism.
Along with Jack London, he founded the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in l905, determined that if “the professors refuse to teach the students about modern life, it was up to the students to teach themselves.”[vi] By the time he moved to California, Jack London was dead, a victim of alcohol, along with so many of Sinclair’s closest friends. Almost alone among his male contemporaries, Sinclair was determined not to waste his life in brawling, womanizing, and hard drinking.[vii] By l9l3 he had discovered the secrets of health, the sanity of monogamy, and the importance of publicly facing down the industrial giants of turn of the century America.
Sinclair had survived his undercover life in Packingtown documenting the horrors of the slaughterhouse; he had survived the arson of his utopian community in New Jersey, and the disintegration of his first marriage. Struggling with his own health, he had gone to the Battle Creek Sanitarium run by William Kellogg, where he had met and courted Mary Craig. This former “southern belle”, as she satirically called herself, would remain his wife and best friend until her death in l961.
With Mary Craig he came to California; they settled in the Southland,
and never left. Tennis with Henry Ford, hiking with Charlie Chaplin,
psychic experiments with Albert Einstein, correspondence daily, with
everyone from Margaret Sanger to George Bernard Shaw. His first biographer,
Floyd Dell, described him at the age of 45, as “a slight, wiry, graying
figure, an excellent tennis player, an eager talker, wearing the cast-off
clothes of a rich young friend…boyish, impulsive, trustful, stubborn,
fondly regarded as impractical by those who love him.”[viii]
Seen as a crackpot by those comfortable with injustice, seen as a gentle charmer by those who detested his politics, raising his voice at Liberty Hill to thunder the Bill of Rights to striking Wobblies, or absorbed by the arguments over oil fields in Long Beach, Sinclair worked at his life, assiduously, ardently, tending his friendships, his roses, his typewriter in the garden. Cannery organizer Dorothy Healey said of Sinclair: “I never met him, heard him speak, or worked for him. When he ran for governor on the EPIC platform, I was languishing in a jail in Imperial Valley. But I read him, and Oil! and King Coal charted the rest of my life for me.”[ix] Lorna Smith titled her only published work, “My Life was Changed by Upton Sinclair.”[x] Her father had told her “When you go into a meat market and see the government seal on a quarter of beef, you will know it’s there because of Upton Sinclair.” She went to the library, got the book, and “His quotation, ‘I aimed at their hearts and hit their stomachs’ did not apply to me. He hit my heart.’ Smith wrote to Sinclair and he responded. She established an EPIC Club in her Glendale home and left her church when it would not speak up for Sinclair. Later, she marched with Stokely Carmichael, and “Sinclair wrote to me, saying he had not known I was down in Mississippi, and he honored me for it.”[xi]
Ron Gottesman inventoried the Sinclair Archives at the Lilly Library
in Indiana; the Huntington Library had rejected his papers because of
his politics.[xii] Gottesman described Sinclair
as “a paradigm of hope,”[xiii] and indeed Sinclair
epitomized what Kevin Starr calls California’s “ache of promise”.[xiv]
Sinclair spent fifty years here bringing “muckraking” to a high art,
with the first examinations of the press, the schools, the colleges;
with early experimental agit-prop theatre, his life a play with many
acts, many scenes: an eleven volume anti-fascist spy series in the l940’s;
a children’s fantasy about saving the redwoods in the l930’s, and, in
between, a jaw-dropping campaign for Governor of his adopted state that
brought popular culture into the heart of electoral politics.
It is impossible to imagine Upton Sinclair without his life in California, and it is impossible to understand California in the first half of the twentieth century without reading Upton Sinclair. California made sense of Sinclair’s life; it allowed his holistic vision, quintessentially Californian, to flourish, combining an attention to health, to friendship, to labor, to nature. In California all of these interests could be integrated and he could emerge from the haunting scenes of his earlier Eastern life fully himself and fully engaged.
This volume gives us a chance to look closely at what Sinclair saw
and did in California. It is divided metaphorically into the rooms of
his house: his political awakenings both physical and mental; his earliest
impressions of California as a traveler and an activist; his complex
struggles with Hollywood, and his courageous and unconventional attempt
to “End Poverty in California” (EPIC).
For their generous offer of the Mesa Refuge, I would like to thank the Common Counsel Foundation; for their intellectual and political support, I would like to thank Gray Brechin and Deirdre Lashgari; for the many issues of the Upton Sinclair Quarterly and the thoughtful research it produced, thanks to John Ahouse; for his trust in passing on the flame, Robert Hahn; for being my first and most wondrous teacher, JJ Wilson; for introducing me to Sinclair, Robert Wright; for introducing me to Heyday, Dana Gioia, and for their companionship and understanding, my daughter and son. This book is for all of them.
[i] Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An
Island on the Land, (Peregrine Smith, 1946).
[ii] Cecilia Rasmussen, Muckraker’s Own Life as Compelling as His Writing, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2003.
[iii] Norman Solomon, San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 1999.
[iv] San Francisco Chronicle, “Killing the Messenger”, January 26, 1997.
[v] San Francisco Chronicle, “Killing the Messenger”, January 26, 1997, B4.
[vi] Upton Sinclair, American Outpost, (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1932), 159. The idea was Sinclair’s, but the society was organized with Jack London as President because of his enormous popularity with students.
[vii] See Louis Henry Hughes, who contrasts Sinclair to other twentieth century American novelists in Uppie Speaks, Vol. 2, no. 8. September, 1978, 3.
[viii] Floyd Dell, Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest, (New York: George Doran, 1927), 186.
[ix] Interview with Dorothy Healy by Robert Hahn, Upton Sinclair Newsletter, v1: 3, October 1990.
[x] Lorna Smith, “My Life Was Changed by Upton Sinclair,” Upton Sinclair Centenary Journal, 1:1 (September 1978), 1.
[xi] Smith, 2.
[xii] When Sinclair offered his papers to the Huntington Library in 1956, the chairman of the board was Herbert Hoover, and so “I was not favored by the Pasadena gentlemen who control the Huntington Library,” The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair, Harcourt Brace and World, 1962, 304.
[xiii] Ronald Gottesman, “A Paradigm of Hope,” Unpublished speech. October 1978.
[xiv] Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), viii.
North Bay Bohemian - Februrary 16 2005, “King of California.”
SF Chronicle Review - January 12, 2005, "Upton Sinclair made his mark as a muckraker. His vision for California now takes the spotlight."
Los Angeles Times Review - April 24, 2005 "Upton Sinclair's half-century of raking the muck"
"Lauren Coodley gives us a great gift with this masterfully edited collection of Upton Sinclair's writings. Land of the Orange Groves and Jails should be required reading for every course on California history." - Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Author of Red Dirt; Growing up Oakie
"Thanks to this brilliant anthology, we can now realize that Upton Sinclair deserves to be considered in the company of Carey McWilliams as an astute and pivotal observer of Southern California in the first half of the twentieth century." - Kevin Starr, Professor of History, University of Southern California