Upton Sinclair is best known for writing the groundbreaking book, The Jungle, about unsafe working conditions in the United States.
Sinclair was born on September 20, 1878 in Baltimore Maryland. He moved to Queens, New York with his family in 1888. He was extremely gifted and attended City College in 1892 at age 13. Another notable alumnus of City College is Oscar Hijuelos best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Sinclair’s family was poor, so he put himself through City College and helped provide for his family by writing dime novels for the Manhattan firm Street and Smith (27 Rose and 2 Duane), New York pulp magazines and newspapers.
In 1897 he attended Columbia University and majored in law. Though he excelled at school, he found himself disappointed by the lack of course on socialism, to which he increasingly found himself attracted. So much so, that when he graduated in 1902 he joined the Socialist Party.
In a short period around that time he wrote four politically charged books: King Midas (1901), Prince Hagen (1902), The Journal of Arthur Stirling (1903), and a Civil War novel titled Manassas (1904). Largely about social injustice, the books were well reviewed by critics, but not commercial successes.
Sinclair wanted to help spread socialism to Universities in America. In 1905 he founded the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. At the first meeting at Peck’s Restaurant, 140 Fulton Street, in downtown Manhattan members elected novelist Jack London, a good friend of Sinclair, as president and elected Sinclair himself as vice president.
By 1904 Sinclair had gone undercover to get a job in the meatpacking district of Chicago. He experienced firsthand the harsh conditions and the exploitation of immigrant workers. This was his inspiration for his most well-known novel The Jungle. His fellow socialist and friend Jack London described it as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery.”
The novel was first published in serial form in 1905 and published as a complete book in 1906. His goal was to garner support for socialism but, the book had another impact that he did not foresee. The public was more concerned about the health and quality control issues presented by the book than the social issues. Sinclair famously said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” This long term impact of this was the founding of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In spite of the book’s unexpected reception, it was so successful that Sinclair was able to use the profits establish a socialist colony in Englewood, New Jersey. In 1914 he organized protests against John D. Rockefeller at the Standard Oil offices (26 Broadway) because of allegations of taking advantage of workers.
Sinclair was married three times and had one son. He died in 1968 in New Jersey.
This article was written by Steven Attorri, a Summer Scholar with the New-York Historical Society in 2016. A junior from Poly Prep Country Day, he contributed this article as part of a joint research effort between the Historical Society and Literary Manhattan.