One of the most prolific writers in the history of American letters, Upton Beall Sinclair published 90 books and thousands of essays over the course of his career, most of his work focusing on the need for social and political reform. Born on September 20, 1878, in Baltimore, Maryland, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of fourteen and published pieces in several magazines while still an undergraduate. He began work toward a master’s degree at Columbia University but left in 1901 without completing the program. That same year his first novel, Springtime and Harvest, was published, but neither it nor any of his three subsequent novels met with favorable critical response. With the publication of his fifth novel, The Jungle, in 1906, Sinclair suddenly established a reputation as one of America’s preeminent writers and crusaders for reform; his expose of the meat-packing industry won him an audience with President Theodore Roosevelt and prompted the passage later that year of the U.S. Pure Food and Drugs Act.
While The Jungle focused on the destructive effect of capitalism on the lower classes, later works such as The Metropolis (1908) and The Moneychangers (1908) examined its corrupting influence on the upper class. King Coal (1917) targeted the atrocities of the mining industry much as The Jungle had focused on the meat-packing industry, but the public received the book with little enthusiasm. During the 1930s Sinclair was active in California politics, and in 1934 he ran for governor on the Democratic ticket. None of his Depression-era books contributed to his reputation as a novelist. Between 1940 and 1953 Sinclair published eleven novels about the adventures and shifting political allegiances-from Socialist to anti-Communist-of a character named Lanny Budd; one of them, Dragon’s Teeth (1942), won a Pulitzer Prize. When Sinclair died in Bound Brook, New Jersey, on November 25, 1968, he left behind an awe-inspiring volume of work: the depository of his writings at Indiana University’s Lily Library weighs more than eight tons.
The Jungle’s impact on early 20th-century American society has insured its continued popularity among students of that period’s social history. Ironically, Sinclair’s position in world literature-few American authors have been so widely translated-is the result of this one work’s social effect rather than critical appraisal of its literary merit. Sinclair at his best was a muckraker, a propagandist who used his writing as a means toward achieving social progress. Although none of his other works proved as popular, The Jungle brought Sinclair the kind of honor he sought: the satisfaction of having changed society for the better.