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America's Greatest Novelist

John Simkin

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One candidate is Upton Sinclair. A religious boy with a great love of literature, his two great heroes were Jesus Christ and Percy Bysshe Shelley. An intelligent boy he did well at school and at 14 entered New York City College. Soon afterwards he had his first story published in a national magazine.

The work of Frank Norris was especially important to the development of Sinclair as a writer. He later spoke about how Norris had "showed me a new world, and he also showed me that it could be put in a novel." Sinclair was also influenced by the investigative journalism of Benjamin Flower, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker. Sinclair argued: "The proletarian writer is a writer with a purpose; he thinks no more of art for art's sake than a man on a sinking ship thinks of painting a beautiful picture in the cabin; he thinks of getting ashore - and then there will be time enough for art."

In 1904 Fred Warren, the editor of the socialist journal, Appeal to Reason, commissioned Sinclair to write a novel about immigrant workers in the Chicago meat packing houses. Julius Wayland, the owner of the journal provided Sinclair with a $500 advance and after seven weeks research he wrote The Jungle. Serialized in 1905, the book helped to increase circulation to 175,000.

Sinclair had The Jungle, rejected by six publishers. A consultant at Macmillan wrote: "I advise without hesitation and unreservedly against the publication of this book which is gloom and horror unrelieved. One feels that what is at the bottom of his fierceness is not nearly so much desire to help the poor as hatred of the rich."

Sinclair decided to publish the book himself and after advertising his intentions in the Appeal to Reason, he he got orders for 972 copies. When he told Doubleday of these orders, it decided to publish the book. The Jungle (1906) was an immediate success selling over 150,000 copies. Within the next few years the novel had been published in seventeen languages and was a best-seller all over the world.

After President Theodore Roosevelt read The Jungle and ordered an investigation of the meat-packing industry. He also met Sinclair and told him that while he disapproved of the way the book preached socialism he agreed that "radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist."

With the passing of the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906), Sinclair was able to show that novelists could help change the law. This in itself inspired a tremendous growth in investigative journalism. Theodore Roosevelt became concerned at this development and described it as muckraking.

In 1906 Sinclair decided to use some of his royalties into establishing, Helicon Home Colony, a socialist community at Eaglewood. One of those who joined was Sinclair Lewis, who was to be greatly influenced by Sinclair Upton's views on politics and literature. Four months after it opened, a fire entirely destroyed Helicon. Later, Sinclair blamed his political opponents for the fire.

Sinclair's next few novels such as The Overman (1907), The Metropolis (1908), The Moneychangers (1908), Love's Pilgrimage (1911) and Sylvia's Marriage (1913) were commercially unsuccessful. Sinclair continued to write political committed novels including King Coal (1917) based on an industrial dispute and Boston (1928) on the Sacco-Vanzetti Case. He also wrote books about religion (The Profits of Religion, 1918), newspapers (The Brass Check, 1919) and education (The Goose-Step, 1923 and The Goslings, 1924).

Sinclair wrote at the time: "In the course of my twenty years career as an assailant of special privilege, I have attacked pretty nearly every important interest in America. The statements I have made, if false, would have been enough to deprive me of a thousand times all the property I ever owned, and to have sent me to prison for a thousand times a normal man's life. I have been called a xxxx on many occasions, needless to say; but never once in all these twenty years has one of my enemies ventures to bring me into a court of law, and to submit the issue between us to a jury of American citizens." In 1926 Arthur Conan Doyle argued: "I look upon Upton Sinclair as one of the greatest novelists in the world, the Zola of America."

In 1940 "World's End" launched Sinclair's 11 volume novel series on American government. His novel Dragon's Teeth (1942) on the rise of Nazi Germany won him the Pulitzer Prize. The British author, George Bernard Shaw, wrote at the time: "I have regarded you (Upton Sinclair), not as a novelist, but as an historian; for it is my considered opinion, unshaken at 85, that records of fact are not history... When people ask me what has happened in my long lifetime I do not refer them to the newspaper files and to the authorities, but to your novels. The object that the people in your books never existed; that their deeds were never done and their sayings never uttered. I assure them that they were, except that Upton Sinclair individualized and expressed them better than they could have done, and arranged their experiences, which as they actually occurred were as unintelligible as pied type, in significant and intelligible order."

By the time Upton Sinclair died in November, 1968, he had published more than ninety books.



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Edited by John Dolva
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An alternative candidate is Jack London. The illegitimate son of a wandering astrologer, left school at 14 and after working as a sailor he experienced periods of unemployment and poverty. London enjoyed writing and as a teenager won a winning competition held by the San Francisco Morning Call with the short-story, Typhoon off the Coast of Japan.

In December 1899 he met the young writer, Anna Strunsky. She later recalled: "Objectively, I confronted a young man of about twenty-two, and saw a pale face illumined by large, blue eyes fringed with dark lashes, and a beautiful mouth which, opening in its ready laugh, revealed an absence of front teeth, adding to the boyishness of his appearance. The brow, the nose, the contour of the cheeks, the massive throat, were Greek. His form gave an impression of grace and athletic strength, though he was a little under the American, or rather Californian, average in height. He was dressed in gray, and was wearing the soft white shirt and collar which he had already adopted."

London spent spells working as a sailor and gold miner before attempting to become a full-time writer. His first story, To The Man on Trail, was published by the Overland Monthly in 1899. His adventure stories soon had a wide following and they were accepted by other magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan and McClure's Magazine. London still found time for politics and in 1901, campaigned as the socialist candidate for the post of mayor of Oakland. However he won only 246 votes and was not elected.

In July 1902 London moved to England where he worked with the Social Democratic Federation. He was shocked by the poverty he saw and wrote The People of the Abyss, a book about slum life in London. He later wrote that it was his favourite book: "Of all my books I love most 'The People of the Abyss'. No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor."

London returned to the United States in 1903. Later that year he and Anna Strunsky wrote a joint novel, The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903). Norma Fain Pratt argues that the "book is devoted to a debate on the nature of love in which the woman correspondent, Dane Kempton, defines the ideals of love as romantic, while the man, Herbert Wace, contends love is essentially biological."

London's novel, The Call of the Wild, appeared soon afterwards. It was an immediate best-seller. The first edition of 10,000 copies sold out in 24 hours. Unfortunately for London, he had sold the rights of the book to his publisher for a flat fee of $2,000.

London followed The Call of the Wild with The Sea-Wolf (1904), The War of the Classes (1905), The Iron Heel (1907) and Martin Eden (1909), a book that sold a quarter of a million copies within a couple of months of being published in the United States. London, a heavy drinker, wrote about the problems of alcohol in his semi-autobiographical novel, John Barleycorn (1913). This was then used by the Women's Christian Temperance Union in its campaign for prohibition.

With his royalties London bought a 1,400 acre ranch. He told one interviewer that he was still a socialist but: "I've done my part, Socialism has cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the time comes I'm going to stay right on my ranch and let the revolution go to blazes."

London's health deteriorated rapidly in 1916. He was suffering from uraemia, a condition that impairs the functioning of the kidneys. On 21st November, 1916, Jack London died from a morphine overdose. From the available evidence it is not clear whether this was an accident or suicide.




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Edited by John Dolva
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  • 2 months later...

Another candidate is Frank Norris. He was born in Chicago in 1870. After studying at San Francisco University (1890-94) Norris travelled to South Africa where he attempted to establish himself as a travel writer. He wrote about the Boer War for the San Francisco Chronicle but was deported from the country after being captured by the Boer Army.

Norris continued to work as a journalist and reported the Spanish-American War for McClure's Magazine. This was followed by a couple of novels, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899) and A Man's Woman (1900). Norris, who had been greatly influenced by the work of Emile Zola, also began work on a trilogy, The Epic of Wheat. The first book, The Octopus (1901), described the struggle between farming and railroad interests in California. In August 1902, Everybody's Magazine published an article by Norris, A Deal in Wheat, exposing corrupt business dealings in agriculture.

William Dean Howells was a great supporter of the work of Frank Norris: "What Norris did, not merely what he dreamed of doing, was of vaster frame, and inclusive of imaginative intentions far beyond those of the only immediate contemporary to be matched with him, while it was of as fine and firm an intellectual quality, and of as intense and fusing an emotionality. In several times and places, it has been my rare pleasure to bear witness to the excellence of what Norris had done, and the richness of his promise. The vitality of his work was so abundant, the pulse of health was so full and strong in it, that it is incredible it should not be persistent still."

Frank Norris died of peritonitis following an appendix operation on 25th October, 1902. He was only 32. He is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. The second book in the trilogy, The Pitt, about the manipulation of the wheat market, was published posthumously in 1903. The third part, The Wolf, was never written.

Also published posthumously was The Responsibility of the Novelist (1903). The book argues for naturalistic writing based on actual experience and observation. This book, and his novels, influenced a generation of writers including Upton Sinclair, who argued: "Frank Norris had a great influence upon me because I read The Octopus when I was young and knew very little about what was happening in America. He showed me a new world, and he also showed me that it could be put in a novel."

Floyd Dell was another writer who was converted to socialism by Norris' books: "Frank Norris's novel, The Octopus stirred my mind. And that spring, down in a small park near my home, I heard a man make a Socialist speech to a small and indifferent crowd. Afterwards I talked to him; he was a street-sweeper.... And my long-slumbering Socialism woke up." Other writers who claimed that they were deeply influenced by the work of Norris include David Graham Phillips, Theodore Dreiser, Charles Edward Russell and Sinclair Lewis.


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Another candidate is Theodore Dreiser. Since his early days of journalism Dreiser "began to observe a certain type of crime in the United States that proved very common. It seemed to spring from the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an ingrown ambition to be somebody financially and socially." Dreiser described this as a form of disease. He added that he observed "many forms of murder for money...the young ambitious lover of some poorer girl... for a more attractive girl with money or position...it was not always possible to drop the first girl. What usually stood in the way was pregnancy."

This information inspired Dreiser's greatest novel, An American Tragedy (1925). The book was based on the Chester Gillette and Grace Brown murder case. One critic pointed out that the novel is a "story of a man struggling against social, economic, and environmental forces - as well as forces within himself - that slowly drown him in a tide of misfortune." It has been argued that the novel was an example of naturalism, an extreme form of realism, that had been inspired in part by the scientific determinism of Charles Darwin and the economic determinism of Karl Marx.

Thomas P. Riggio commented: "Although the novel was a critical and commercial success (in fact, Dreiser's only best-seller), he was not yet finished battling such literary vice crusaders as the Watch and Ward Society. The novel was banned in Boston, where the sale of the book led to a trial and an appeal that dragged on in the courts for years. This, however, was now an isolated instance. Dreiser seemed finally to have won over even his most severe critics, many of whom were now applauding the book as the Great American Novel."

Dreiser become involved in several campaigns against injustice. This included the lynching of Frank Little, one of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Sacco and Vanzetti Case, the deportation of Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Mollie Steimer, the false conviction of the trade union leader, Tom Mooney, who spent twenty-two years in prison for a crime he did not commit and the Scottsboro Case.

In 1928 Dreiser wrote: "On thinking back over the books I have written, I can only say this has been my vision of life - life with its romance and cruelty, its pity and terror, its joys and anxiety, its peace and conflict. You may not like my vision but it is the only one that I have seen and felt, therefore, it is the only one I can give you." Dreiser, a socialist, wrote several non-fiction books on political issues. This included Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928) and Tragic America (1931).

Malcolm Cowley recalls that he attended a meeting in April 1931 that was addressed by Dreiser: "Dreiser stood behind a table and rapped on it with his knuckles. He unfolded a very large, very white linen handkerchief and began drawing it first through his left hand, then through his right hand, as if for reassurance of his worldly success. He mumbled something we couldn't catch and then launched into a prepared statement. Things were in a terrible state, he said, and what were we going to do about it? Nobody knew how many millions were unemployed, starving, hiding in their holes. The situation among the coal miners in Western Pennsylvania and in Harlan County, Kentucky, was a disgrace. The politicians from Hoover down and the big financiers had no idea of what was going on." Dreiser then went onto argue that "the time is ripe for American intellectuals to render some service to the American worker."

During the Great Depression Dreiser wrote: "I feel that the immense gulf between wealth and poverty in America and throughout the world should be narrowed. I feel the government should effect the welfare of all the people - not that of a given class." He became a member of the League of American Writers and was an active supporter of the Popular Front government during the Spanish Civil War. As Thomas P. Riggio pointed out: "Dreiser wrote little fiction in the 1930s. He devoted much of himself to political activities. A partial list provides an idea of the range of his social interests: he fought for a fair trial for the Scottsboro Boys, young African Americans unfairly accused of rape in Alabama; he contributed considerable time to the broadly-based political and literary reforms sponsored by the American Writer's League; he spoke out against American imperialism abroad; he attacked the abuses of the financial corporations; he went to Kentucky's Harlan coal mines, as chairman of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, to publicize the wrongs suffered by the striking miners; he investigated the plight of tobacco farmers who were cheated by the large tobacco companies; he spoke on behalf of several antifascist organizations and attended an international peace conference in Paris; he became an advocate in America for aid to the victims of the Spanish Civil War."

Dreiser published America is Worth Saving (1941). Theodore Dreiser joined the American Communist Party in July 1945. He summed up his reasons for his decision: "Belief in the greatness and dignity of Man has been the guiding principle of my life and work. The logic of my life and work leads me therefore to apply for membership in the Community Party."

Theodore Dreiser died on 28th December 1945. Henry L. Mencken, who had been a great supporter of Dreiser during his lifetime argued: "No other American of his generation left so wide and handsome a mark upon the national letters. American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin. He was a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage. All of us who write are better off because he lived, worked, and hoped."


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