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The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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Upton Sinclair | Biography


Upton Sinclair, born on September 20, 1878, in Baltimore, had firsthand knowledge of the divide between rich and poor throughout his life. His father was an alcoholic who would rather spend his money on drinks than support his family, contributing to Sinclair's impoverished upbringing. Although he grew up poor, he was exposed to wealth through his mother's relatives, whom he visited often. His interest in social reform and income inequality guided his studies, first at the City University of New York—where he earned his degree at age 18—and later at Columbia University. This subject became the focal point in his writing.

Sinclair began his professional writing career at the age of 16 writing puzzles, cartoon captions, and eventually boys' adventure stories. While studying literature and philosophy as a graduate student at Columbia University, he became convinced that his role in the world was "to be an artist-prophet who would help usher in a new dawn for mankind." Soon thereafter he developed a deep interest in socialism and American politics, running for public office on the Socialist ticket six times between 1906 and 1933. Although he was an avowed Socialist, he ended up running as a Democrat in California in 1934, when he achieved the water mark of winning 37% of the vote.

Although Sinclair was prolific, publishing more than 90 books in his lifetime, much of his work was propaganda that is no longer read today. However, quite a few of his later novels were critical and popular successes. His novels King Coal (1917), Oil! (1927), and Boston (1928) affectingly address social issues and the struggles of the working poor. (Eighty years after its original publication, Oil! was adapted to film under the title There Will Be Blood.) His 11-book Lanny Buddy series chronicled the life of a worldly sophisticate who starts out as a Socialist and ends as a rabid anti-Communist. The final book in the series, Dragon's Teeth (1942), won the Pulitzer Prize.

By far, Sinclair's most enduring work has been The Jungle, a novel exposing the plight of the working poor in Chicago's meatpacking district in the early 1900s. The novel was wildly popular at the time of its publication and remains one of the most widely assigned novels in classrooms around the country. With the money he earned from the success of The Jungle, Sinclair opened a socialist haven called Helicon Home Colony, where socialist writers lived and worked. Sinclair had long dreamed of creating a utopian society where artists equally shared the workload of mundane home tasks—like cooking and raising children—freeing their schedules for more creative pursuits. The utopia did not last long, burning to the ground after only six months. Despite his colony's failure, Sinclair dedicated the rest of his life to socialist pursuits and political publications. Sinclair even ran for the office of governor of California, winning 37% of the vote in his unsuccessful 1934 bid as the Democratic Party nominee. He died on November 25, 1968, in Bound Brook, New Jersey.

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