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From Rags to Riches and Everything in Between

A Review of Anthony Arthur’s Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair

Anthony Arthur is an American author who attended Pennsylvania State University for 2 years before enlisting in the U.S. Army. He later got his Ph.D. in English and taught at California State University, Northridge. During his lifetime, he was a Fulbright scholar and author of several books including The Bushmasters and Deliverance at Los Baños. He has expertise in 20th century literature and World War II.

America saw a surge of new forms of literature in the early 20th century. New authors emerged from the ruins of the great World War and set the stage for modernism. Among these literary artists was Upton Sinclair. In Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair by Anthony Arthur, Sinclair’s personal and public life is exposed to the reader. His often-troubled marriages, relationship with his son, and his journey to becoming one of America’s most memorable writer is documented in this historical book. It was through his struggles and controversy that helped him become one of the most influential writers of all time. Being “the most conservative of revolutionaries”, Sinclair set out to change America.1

Arthur starts off the book by describing Sinclair as someone who speaks with “earnestness, feeling, spirit, and appreciation of his piece.”2 Sinclair grew up in a struggling family. His mother, Priscilla Harden, came from a wealthy family but the Sinclairs still dealt with financial problems. Moving from place to place and living in tiny one-roomed tenements, Upton and his family struggled to make do with what little they had. Although his mother, Priscilla Sinclair, came from a wealthy family, she did not enjoy the same luxuries as them. Growing up, Upton resented his dad as an unemployed alcoholic who wasted away his days with idleness. This led to his support for prohibition and his opposition to any forms of self-indulgence. He refused to drink alcohol or indulge in too much food. As a child, Upton was a bright young student who excelled in school. He was well-educated and by the time he was 15 years of age, he had already started college at the City College of New York. Throughout his life, his main hobbies were playing the violin and playing tennis. He felt that it was important to be kept busy and not stay idle. An interesting characteristic about young Sinclair was that he was determined to stay chaste until marriage. He struggled but with the help of Reverend Moir, he was able to stay pure until his marriage on October 17th, 1900, to his first wife, Meta Fuller. Sinclair feared Meta would be pregnant which would have a toll on his literary career. He did not want to take on the burden of raising a family while pursuing his career. However, on December 1, 1901, Meta gave birth to their son, David. Despite his family burden, Sinclair continued to write and publish books. His most famous work was The Jungle which criticized the workers’ harsh lives and employment. This led to Theodore Roosevelt coining Sinclair as a muckraker as he began to dig up more dirt about industrial conditions.

One of Sinclair’s most controversial experiments was the creation of Helicon Hill, a model for harmonious living. It was perceived as a place of great scandal to the public but in reality, it was a breeding home for literary debates and equal rights for women. Sinclair believed that “marriage in this day is nothing but legalized slavery” where women became slaves to their husband and home.3 At Helicon Hill, he tried to limit the women’s domestic needs in order to stop this stereotype. Women did not have the burden of cooking or cleaning for everyone and instead, they were able to participate in evening debates with the men. His utopian paradise reached its golden age around Christmas of 1906 but unfortunately, it burned down and he was left with accusations of not having enough safety provisions. Nevertheless, he continued to write books that attacked social problems. His new book, The Metropolis, showed the morally bankrupt social world of the rich and foolish. In The Moneychangers, he accused JP Morgan of causing the great bank crisis of 1907 and expressed his belief that business capitalists were to be blamed for social illnesses. While this was all going on, Sinclair’s relationship with Meta began to deteriorate as he traveled more and constantly left her at home alone. Both sides were accused of having affairs and after catching Meta making love to one of his close friends, Harry Kemp, Sinclair filed for divorce. Despite all this chaos, he continued with his political antics. He joined the Socialist Party in 1904 and believed it was through socialism that Americans could have a perfect life. Challenging the idea that human nature could not be changed, The Industrial Republic claimed that socialism could improve individuals. In 1914, Sinclair started a new chapter in his life; he married his second wife, Mary Craig Sinclair, who was known as “Craig”.

Sinclair soon began to see Germany as a threat to civilization when the United States became involved in World War 1. He opposed communism and believed wars could solve social problems. He was faced with death threats by his critics who saw him as too radical and in 1917, he resigned from the American Socialist Party. His book, The Profits of Religion, expressed his view that religion was controlled by exploiters for capitalism. Even though he was raised as an Episcopalian, he seemed to reflect Transcendentalist ideals. He envisioned Jesus not as the traditional martyr, but as a revolutionary leader who worked for the poor. While his public life raged on, his private life faced difficult problems. Sinclair and his son, David, became estranged because Craig disliked David and also because David was upset at his father when Sinclair denied him financial support for college. This heavily strained their relationship and led them to stop speaking to one another for many years. Meanwhile, Sinclair continued to express his many beliefs in society. Money was not a luxury for him but he still understood its power. He believed all art was propaganda and that the sphere of art and ethics were completely distinct and separate. He believed education was “designed to train obedient, submissive servants rather than to educate independent thinkers.”4 His expressed these ideas in the best way he knew – through his writing. One of Sinclair’s most prominent gifts was his ability to memorize every little detail and be able to vividly bring them to life. His fans praised him for his gift of being able to describe everything in such detail and it was through this writing style that helped gain him support. In 1930, Sinclair won the Nobel Prize for Literature which recharged his career and reputation.

Sinclair made a drastic decision when he left the Socialist Party to become a Democrat in September, 1933. He then ran for governor of California under the Democratic Party. During his campaign, he called for an end to existing state sales tax and started a program called End Poverty in California (EPIC). He met with Franklin D. Roosevelt who claimed to support him in his election. However, Roosevelt later on stated that he had made no such promises and it ultimately led to Sinclair losing to another candidate. Abandoning his political attempts, Sinclair began a new career as a historical novelist. He had a successful series documenting World War I and his main character, Lanny Budd, greatly appealed to the public. Along with this tide of success came his achievement of the Pulitzer Prize Award in 1943 for Dragon’s Teeth. As his career boomed, his family relations took a turn for the worst. Craig suffered from illnesses and David was angry at his father for not helping him find a job. However, David and Sinclair reconciled in 1949. Sinclair devoted his time to taking care of Craig but unfortunately, she died on April 26th, 1961. Not long after her death, Sinclair married Mary “May” Willis, 6 months later. This marked a new chapter in his life as May was a breath of fresh air. Although Sinclair recently opposed it, the couple began to indulge in luxuries such as jewelry and clothing. Sinclair’s marriage was full of laughter and joy and his relationship with David improved as well. When David became a scientist, Sinclair was filled with great pride for his son. His pubic reputation improved as well as he began to travel from college to college, speaking to the students about his work. He gained respect from children of the new generation and also from his critics. On December 18, 1967, May died but Sinclair was not lonely because of what May had taught him. Through his relationship with her, he learned to be independent and look at life in a positive manner. Exactly a year later, on December 18th, 1968, Sinclair died. Arthur states that in the end, it was his conversion from the religion of art to the religion of socialism that saved him. Socialism “allowed him to make himself into a better person and to do the work that would bring him fulfillment.”5

In this biography of Sinclair, Arthur sets out to define Sinclair as a radical innocent, “an innocent seeker after knowledge.”6  Throughout his life, Sinclair searched for answers to his problems. It is through his writings that he questioned the flaws in society and yearned for a solution to these problems. He criticized human choices and actions in an effort to understand why things worked out the way they did. Even as a young boy, “he asked his mother to explain the reasons for such obvious and unnecessary pain in a land of plenty.”7 He could not understand why bad things still happened in a land of opportunity. Arthur shows that it was Sinclair’s curiosity and desire for the truth that inspired his literary works.

Arthur describes Sinclair from an admirable point of view. Although it is in the third person, it still reflects his opinion of Sinclair. It is mostly unbiased but there are times when Arthur would defend Sinclair or praise him. He even calls him a hero by claiming that “[Sinclair] lived a heroic life, on his own terms, and that he shone ‘in use’.”8 This perspective is most likely a result from the fact that Arthur relates himself to Sinclair. He is a teacher himself and thinks of Sinclair as a teacher as well. “My career has always combined writing with reading and teaching--a bit like Sinclair's in that modest respect, since I think of him as a teacher.”9 Arthur’s other books are non-fictional as well which gives him a steady background as a historical author, contributing to his historical knowledge. This book was written in 2006, making it a Neo-Conservative historiography. There is no emphasis on the conflicts but stress over the shared ideals of American society. This type of historiography emphasizes that the unity of America is more important than pluralism.

In Deidre Donahue’s review from USA Today, Donahue describes Radical Innocent as an “excellent new biography of Upton Sinclair.”10 She summarizes up Sinclair’s many beliefs while explaining why he believed in these things. She shows his strengths, such as being able to “bounce back from defeats without growing cynical”11, while highlighting his faults of being an egotistic father. This review emphasized Sinclair’s impact on industrial conditions and the meat packing business. Michael S. Grant’s review claims Arthur gave Sinclair a “much overdue evaluation.”12 and states that it is very detailed and does not skimp on any of his shortcomings. It describes Sinclair as an “idealist with a strong socialist streak.”13 Using several quotes from the book itself for evidence, Grant explains how Sinclair changed America, through Arthur’s words.

Radical Innocent was an interesting book that gave offered a better insight into the world Sinclair’s world. It was unique in that it equally showed both Sinclair’s public and private life. Arthur depicts Sinclair’s struggles to maintain a family while pursuing a career. It pulls at the readers’ emotions by showing the hardships he had to face while causing the reader to feel whatever Sinclair himself is feeling. When Sinclair died “a happy and contented man”, readers felt happy for him.14 When “he was devoting most of his time to caring for [May]”, readers could feel his desperation and love for his wife.15 Arthur successfully brings Sinclair’s life to reality and vividly narrates how he lived his life. The book thoroughly explains Sinclair’s meaning and purpose behind each book he’s written while detailing his private life with his three wives and estranged son. Arthur accomplishes his goal of retelling Sinclair’s life from childhood to death. He shows how the legendary author came to be, from a “penniless rat”, as Arthur called him, to one of the most influential people of all time.16

Early 20th century literature was greatly expressed in this book as Sinclair was among the authors who emerged at the beginning of the 1900s. He shows that literature reflected American values by expressing social beliefs. He became known as “the friend of all who joined him in his fiery zeal to expose all the wrongs of society.”17 For example, Sinclair’s The Jungle reflected the protest against unsanitary meat packing companies. Also, Boston was in response to the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti trials that tested the values of the Americans. Not only did this form of literature impact America, but it spread to other countries as well. Germany’s spread of communism was a main focus of Sinclair, who viewed it as a threat to civilization. Sinclair’s books sold abroad in several other countries which spread his beliefs all over the world. His literature helped mold American opinions about labor and industry, the power of the media, American diplomacy, civil rights, mental and physical health, socialism, marriage, and religion and philosophy.

Anthony Arthur’s Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair details Sinclair’s journey throughout his literary career. Going from a poor, struggling family to achieving worldwide fame, it documents the struggles and victories in his life. Arthur weaves together Sinclair’s political career with his often-troubled personal life into a successful biography. He leaves with the impression that Sinclair was a “Romantic idealist who lived as though the journey, not the destination, was what mattered.”18

1. Arthur, Anthony. Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair. New York: Random House, 2006. 38.
2: Arthur, Anthony. xi.
3. Arthur, Anthony. 118.
4. Arthur, Anthony. 185.
5. Arthur, Anthony. 324.
6. Arthur, Anthony. xiv.
7. Arthur, Anthony. 238
8. Arthur, Anthony. 325.
9. "Anthony Arthur." Fresh Fiction: Author Biography and Book List. Fresh Fiction. Web. 04 June 2012. <>.
10. Donahue, Deidre. "'Radical' Life, times of Upton Sinclair." USA Today. Gannett, 2006. Web. 04 June 2012. <
11. Donahue, Deidre. "'Radical' Life, times of Upton Sinclair." USA Today. Gannett, 2006. Web. 04 June 2012. <
12. Grant, Michael S. "Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair." Metroactive, 11 Oct. 2006. Web. 04 June 2012. <>.
13. Grant, Michael S. "Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair." Metroactive, 11 Oct. 2006. Web. 04 June 2012. <>.
14. Arthur, Anthony. 324.
15. Arthur, Anthony. 323.
16. Arthur, Anthony. 20.
17. Arthur, Anthony. 261.
18. Arthur, Anthony. 323.