Monday, September 29, 2008

Book Reviews: Upton Sinclair Lewis Books

Book Reviews: The “Two Sinclairs”
The (uncensored) Jungle, by Upton Sinclair and

“It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

Odd how many leftist fiction writers there were back in the ‘old’ days. We’ve certainly grown up, haven’t we? Why, we can now choose a wide array of books about deep personal problems, addictions, mental illness and criminal behavior. Or, for the high-brow audience, perhaps a delightful and intricate, oh so erudite, mousetrap mediation on individual or historical curiosities. It can’t get any better than that!

I exaggerate about the state of modern 'recognized' literature, but not much.

These two books were written at different times in history – “The Jungle” in 1906 and “It Can’t Happen Here” in 1935. However, both reflect periods of immense working class activism, which is probably why they became subjects of literature, and what links them together today.


The Jungle” is the most well known. It has been referenced as THE source for Teddy Roosevelt-era regulation in the meat and food industries to protect consumers from tainted or inaccurately labeled food. However, the thin version of The Jungle that ‘might’ have been read in high school was actually a censored version, missing almost 5 chapters, or 1/3rd of the book. The publisher Macmillan demanded the cuts of Sinclair, a Socialist, as they wanted a muckraking book on the meat industry, not a muckraking book on treating workers like meat. Because, of course, the ‘jungle’ is the society created by capitalism, in which the packinghouse and slaughterhouse workers work. As Sinclair says, “The jungle is not the packing house or Chicago … it is Civilization.”

The unexpurgated edition was first discovered by Gene DeGruson of Pittsburgh State in Kansas in 1980. DeGruson’s work was based on versions serially published in the Socialist “Appeal to Reason,” newspaper, which were found molding in a basement in Girard, Kansas. In the introduction, an analysis of the texts by Kathleen De Grave, also of Pittsburg State, shows most of the cuts were related to removing explicitly Socialist and working-class problems from the book. This Sharp Press edition is the first time the uncut version has appeared in paperback.

This book stands as one of the preeminent Socialist novels in American history, or perhaps THE preeminent one. It has recently inspired Eric Schlosser to write “Fast Food Nation,” an update of The Jungle, though without the specifically Socialist analysis. Schlosser shows conditions, especially in the slaughterhouses of factory meat, haven't improved much. Sick cows are routinely turned into food. Full of corn and antibiotics, they are the 'normal' fodder of the modern slaughterhouse. Schlosser also shows the lives of the undocumented and low-paid non-union workers, where overtime, accidents and abuse are common. Since the defeat of the packinghouse workers unions in the 80s during the P-9 strike in Austin, conditions in the factory meat industry have only grown worse.

This is the hardest book I have ever had to read, because of the amount of human misery contained within. Sinclair takes a giant Lithuanian immigrant farm boy, Jurgis, and throws at him everything capitalism can throw – poverty, prejudice, hunger, injuries, death, prostitution, the abuse of children, jail, homelessness, alcoholism, crime and a corrupt political system. It is clear that the brutality shown to the animals in the slaughterhouse is the same brutality shown to the workers. Gruesome scenes on the kill floor - where you have to eat your lunch as splashing blood gets in your food - don't take a back seat to shivering vagrants, crippled children, crooked bartenders, brutal police and sly real estate agents.

Jurgis, of course, eventually becomes part of the mass Debsian Socialist movement in Chicago, which was leading strikes and winning votes during that period across the United States. In that, it has an 'uplifting' ending - though he has to watch his wife and son die in the process. As such, you realize there really is no such thing as a 'happy' ending.


Sinclair Lewis was a different kind of Sinclair – a mild reformist or socialistic liberal, but an honest observer at that. He, of course, gently ridicules Upton Sinclair in this book, but also shows great affinity for the Grange and the Farmer Labor Party. Lewis is most famous for his novels making fun of small town boosterism and insularity - Babbitt and Main Street.  Lewis was sort of a an inspiration to Garrison Keillor. However, the novel “It Can’t Happen Here” is rarely taught or mentioned in regard to Lewis, because it is far more radical.

It Can’t Happen Here” is about the coming of fascism to the United States, and is far better regarding detail than Jack London’s “The Iron Heel.” The title, of course, refers to the clueless liberal that can’t imagine really bad things going on in this country. Sinclair is hilarious in his depiction of the different types of political animals in this small town in New England, Fort Belulah … people that eventually have to choose sides, and become either fascists or resistors. Lewis’ version of fascism is not foreign or "Germanic" at all – it is part religious, part patriotic, part conformist, part greedy and part a longing for a ‘strong man.’ And behind it all, all corporate. These people are recognizable Americans. It is nothing different than the instincts we see now among Republicans or the religious Right. The instincts are compounded in his depiction of a classic fascist formation - rabid armed force in the form of a brown-shirt militia, ironically called the “Minute Men." In the book, the descent into fascism is a gradual process, not a sudden shift. The head of the U.S. fascist movement – Berzelius Windrip - is brought to power by a ‘vote’ of the population – just as Hitler was voted into office in German. And then things start to change drastically.

Lewis’ small town newspaper editor Doremus Jessup eventually joins the underground resistance, which, it becomes clear, is the only way to fight fascism. He goes from town to town and safe house to safe house, organizing across the northern part of the country. Canada plays a role in this book - as it did as an escape hatch for anti-government native Americans prior to the Civil War; in the anti-slavery fight in the 1860s, and the anti-war movement in the 1960s - as a rear base for the opposition to U.S. fascism. He ends the book with Jessup holed up in a cabin in northern Minnesota, on the run from the brownshirts. Jessup is kind of a picture of Lewis – truly a middle-class individualist liberal, antagonistic to communists and other radicals, but understanding that only underground work and armed defense will suffice to oppose fascism. He does not join the fascists, nor does he collapse in fear. The key working class character in this book, however, is shown as prone to fascism. The leader of the Minute Men in Fort Beluah, Shad Ledue, is Jessups’ former gardener and handyman – his ‘hired’ man and an “Irish-Canuck.” Other workers, socialist and communist, are not so highly profiled, except as they bicker endlessly about who’s right.

This book wears well even now, and continues to address the problems the U.S. population faces. Some people on the left, of course, are always howling about fascism being 'here', because they do not have a scientific analysis of fascism. It is the unrestricted rule of capital – and I stress the word ‘unrestricted’ – unimpeded by court, law, ethics or force of arms. Presently, we are losing more and more legal rights, so the gradual slide towards authoritarian rule is already somewhat advanced.

The news that Bush has recently called for deployment of the battle-ready 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, to put down ‘civil unrest,’ including using ‘non-lethal means,’ should make anyone pause. It has been illegal under The Posse Comitatus Act since the end of the Civil War for troops to be posted as a standing force of law enforcement inside U.S. borders. However, this deployment is supposed to be permanent! It was authorized by the Defense Authorization Act of 2006 – a law supported by the Republican Party and many liberals like Kennedy, Warner and Levin. Only a small minority of Democrats like Patrick Leahy warned against it. The preparation for possible fascism or repression is already bi-partisan.

Red Frog
… and I bought them at May Day books!

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