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Upton Sinclair: Facts, Books & Accomplishments

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

This lesson details the life of Upton Sinclair, and his works and accomplishments We'll go over Sinclair's most famous work, The Jungle, which revolutionized the food industry in the 20th century.

A Man of Varied Interests

In the early 20th century, the Industrial Age in America was booming. There were plenty of jobs to go around, and even more people clamoring to immigrate to the US to work. In most major cities, you could pick up a newspaper detailing the sensational news of the day. However, the reality of the American dream was a little less shiny than advertised.

The jobs available were for the most part dangerous and dirty. There was no concern for the multitudes of workers that were injured, sickened or killed while on the job. Newspaper editors influenced public opinion and fed into special interests by writing yellow journalism pieces that stretched the truth at best.

It was not a worker from one of these factories that took on the institutions of society. It was a privileged man from Baltimore that, through his prolific writing, attacked various sections of society he felt needed improving. By the time Upton Sinclair was finished, his name would be synonymous with the muckraking movement, and he would be known throughout the world for his novels.

Portrait of Upton Sinclair
Portrait Upton Sinclair

Stirring the Pot

Sinclair was born in 1878 in Baltimore, MD. His parents had a marriage fraught with fighting and money issues. Both families had a wealthy background, but Sinclair's father's Southern family was devastated by Reconstruction, and lost the majority of their wealth. His father was an alcoholic who had a difficult time keeping a job. By contrast, Sinclair's mother was a rigid Episcopalian who shunned alcohol, and was from a wealthy family that provided some advantages for him.

This dual existence deeply affected Sinclair, and is evident in much of his work and interests. As he got older, Sinclair fought with his mother, and he did not have contact with her for a good portion of his adult life. He paid for his schooling at City College of New York and Columbia University by writing pieces for different boys' magazines. He wrote various novels after leaving college, but they were not financially successful.

In 1904, Sinclair went undercover for seven weeks at a Chicago meatpacking plant to observe firsthand the conditions for the workers and the inner workings of the food industry. He was shocked at what he observed, and the result was his most famous work to date: The Jungle. The novel is the most well-known of the muckraking genre, and it appalled Americans on a large scale.

The book was a bestseller and led to a public outcry that resulted in the founding of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in America. Sinclair continued his writing, attacking the publishing industry for yellow journalism in The Brass Check, published in 1919. Because of Sinclair's efforts, journalism ethics codes were established.

Sinclair continued writing throughout various genres, and also dabbled in politics. He was a staunch believer in socialism, and he attempted at various points to run for Congress to further his beliefs. He also tried running for governor of California. Sinclair was unsuccessful at these attempts, and continued to write throughout his life.

Sinclair was married three times, and had a child, David, with his first wife, Meta. He eventually moved back to the East Coast with his third wife, Mary Willis Sinclair, and died in a nursing home in New Jersey in 1968.

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