Biography of Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1878. His alcoholic father sold liquor, and the family did not have much money while Sinclair was growing up. However, his grandparents were wealthy, and because Sinclair spent much of his childhood with them, he had an early vision of the disparities between rich and poor in nineteenth-century America. Sinclair would later remark that these disparities planted the early seeds of his views on social activism. Sinclair attended the City College of New York at the age of fourteen and first began publishing stories and articles to earn a living. He married Meta Fuller in 1900. Their relationship was often tumultuous, and she left Sinclair for another writer a decade after their marriage. Sinclair would marry two other times.

Sinclair began his major literary career by writing The Jungle, published in 1906. To write the novel, Sinclair went undercover in Chicago's meatpacking district. While there, he would meet many of the immigrant laborers that became the basis for the novel's characters. Sinclair originally published the novel as a serial in a popular socialist periodical. When Sinclair attempted to publish the work on a larger scale, several publishers at first rejected it because of its political leanings and its graphic depictions of violence. Sinclair self-published the novel before a major publisher finally picked it up, and the novel became a national sensation.

Though Sinclair had hoped the novel would be the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the socialist movement in America, its most notable contribution was alarming the public to the horrors of meat manufacturing. The novel attracted the attention of political leaders, including President Theodore Roosevelt, and was directly responsible for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

With the success of his novel, Sinclair attempted to start a socialist utopian commune named Helicon Hall. He founded the colony in Englewood, New Jersey, and attempted to provide refuge for artists from the harsh city life of New York. However, one of the main buildings burned down, causing financial ruin for the endeavor. Many believe that the colony was intentionally burned because the members could not sustain it.

In the 1920s, Sinclair moved to California, where he became involved in politics. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress twice and, in 1934, campaigned for the state governor's office on the platform of ending poverty in California. Sinclair received help in his efforts due to massive migration to California by poor Midwestern farmers attempting to escape the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the depressed economy. Although Sinclair ultimately lost the election, he garnered almost a million votes, one of the best showings for a socialist candidate in American political history.

Sinclair wrote novels, short stories, and political literature for the rest of his career, although his best known and most popular work remained The Jungle. He became involved in Hollywood later in his career and helped write and direct several films. He died in New Jersey and was buried in Washington D.C.

Study Guides on Works by Upton Sinclair