Monday, June 18, 2012

Michael Gold's 1928 Reflections On Upton Sinclair

In an article that appeared in the November 1928 issue of New Masses magazine, U.S. working-class writer and literary critic Mike Gold wrote the following about the early 20th century U.S. novelist and muckraker Upton Sinclair:

“Sinclair is a surprise to all who first meet him. One expects to meet a solemn bearded Tolstoy, but finds instead a brisk American youth who is quite a star at the game of tennis…


“He is never relaxed…He works. His whole life has been narrowed down to a stiletto point; he is a writing machine. Nothing else matters...He keeps his body in a chair twelve to sixteen hours a day and writes novels, plays, articles, manifestoes, for the Social Revolution. I wish I were like that.


“Every literary youth just out of Harvard…has written at least one superior article…pointing out the stylistic shortcomings of Upton Sinclair…


“Upton has faults….I do not object to what is called his sentimentality….


"Upton has written 40 books about poverty, the class struggle, the revolution. And everyone of them is written with passion, observation, and a smooth beautiful skill that reminds one of Defoe, of Dickens, of Tolstoy, all the giants of fiction whose pens flowed with large, easy grandeur…


“…He is the best known American writer in the world today. American writers marvel at this, but the answer is easy. Upton, with all his faults, has one virtue; he knows there is a class struggle in America, and writes about it. Europe and Asia read him to learn about the America that counts, the workers’ America, not the America of murder trials, boudoirs, and snappy stories.


“Yes, bourgeois critics say Upton Sinclair is not sophisticated…But it all comes down to this; they don’t like him because he takes the social revolution seriously.


“They can understand dead revolutions, and dead revolutionary writers. They can `place’ the revolutionary writings of Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, they can overlook the lack of style and `behavioristic’ psychology in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“But Upton has written a long string of novels, some good, some bad, in each of which one finds the same faults, and the same virtue and necessity and revolutionary usefulness of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


“He is our only pioneer writer since Whitman. He is the bard of industrial America.


“…Upton, with his social passion and muckraking, is out of fashion with the American `intelligentsia.’ I think he feels this. He has really been neglected in America and faintly sneered at for twenty-five years. He has felt it. But he writes every day. He persists. He is one of few giants among a scramble of lapdogs. He works on. His very persistence in America is an act of faith, and a form of genius.


“George Sterling told me Jack London did not really die of natural causes, but killed himself with an overdose of morphine tablets…He had been defeated by the American environment. He was a success, and had to earn $40,000 [in early 20th-century money] every year writing Hearst slop. This money was needed for a show ranch, a string of saddle horses, and other means of impressing weekend parties of Babbitts. Jack got to hate himself and his false bourgeois life; then he tried to hate and forget his splendid proletarian youth. He drank like a fish and tried to drown his revolutionary emotions, his real self. Result: suicide…


“But Upton Sinclair will never dream of such a thing; he is too busy. He is too useful…

“...I have never understood Upton Sinclair’s politics. [But] I will repeat, despite everything, he is our great American pioneer in revolutionary fiction, he is, to my mind, the most important writer in America.”

(New Masses, November 1928)


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