Upton Sinclair and five decades of the 20th century

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

(7:30 p.m.). Finished The Return of Lanny Budd, Upton Sinclair’s most vehement novel, far more vehement against the Communists as a threat than against the Nazis, perhaps because the communists had become a greater threat even than Hitler had been.

It occurred to me a while ago today, maybe talk to Upton Sinclair. Would that be of interest to you?

I know what you think of me, of course, or what you think you think of me. It comes with the territory, as you say.

“Think I think” because opinions change over time?

Because at any given moment we are aware of only those facets of a subject that meet us in that moment, and so most of anything is hidden from us. The best we can do is accumulate viewpoints and try to modify rather than redraw the total picture time after time.

When I was given A World to Win as a gift in 1994, I was astounded at how it pushed all my buttons – history, politics, warfare, ideology, culture, high life and low life, psychic matters taken seriously – it was an amazing tour de force, and as you know from dipping into my mind, I went searching in various cities between Petaluma and New York until I had all eleven, and have read them repeatedly. But this – somewhat forced – rereading has been very different.

Your views have changed.

More than that, I say – or less, I don’t know how to put it. Your perpetual sniping at the Catholic Church was just bigotry; so was your total dismissal of jazz, and of blacks except Prettyman. Your best arguments – I realized with surprise this time – were in Robbie’s mouth, though that did not make Lanny wrong exactly.

Your readers will be lost at this point.

Would you like to describe your eleven-volume World’s End series?

Having certain advantages in my background – being intimately familiar with society and yet also with the poor, I created a protagonist who had been born with the new century (or in mid-November 1899 which amounted to the same thing). The boy was precocious and lived on the Mediterranean coast of France. His society mother – well, his well-off mother, let us put it that way – and his far-off but emotionally important father between them teach him about the world from their upper-class point of view. Her brother makes him aware of the previously unsuspected existence of poverty all around him which many years later will make him into a socialist.

He is too young to enter into World War I, but his slightly older friends, one English, one German, serve and are each wounded. Lanny is taken to Connecticut when the U.S. declares war, and for the first time sees something of his native land.

Etc. etc., and by the magic wand of the author, he sees events on two continents – and eventually four – firsthand or at close secondhand, so that the reader may have it served up in melodrama.

By the time the last volume is finished, Laney is very near 50 and the reader has received an education as representative as I could make it of various forces that had shaped – or deformed – the unhappy first half of the 20th century. Fascists, Nazis, Socialists, Communists, plutocrats, democrats, monarchists, economic royalists, the military, the financiers, street brawlers, the industrialists, the leisure class, the patrons and executors of the arts – they are all portrayed, as are true psychics, frauds, astrologers, mystics and mystagogues, and all those in their orbits.

If at the end of these volumes you don’t have a better idea of what those years meant, I wasted a lot of effort and passion and study and grief and time.

True, very true. Yet – scarcely a mention of the show trials, or the moral depravity of Stalin’s rule. Nothing of the murder of three Baltic states and unnumbered minorities economic or ethnic or national or racial.

No, and perhaps there should have been, if only to keep people from being taken in so completely by the Soviet line. Yet in my defense, remember that I was doing what I could – I, an elderly author – to give aid and comfort and understanding to Hitler’s enemies, just as much as Churchill was.

Yes, but –

I know. I do know. But I can only plead as Churchill pled: he said something like, “Cromwell was a great man, but he placed his country in great danger by continuing to focus on Spain and underestimating the great danger represented by the growing power of France,” and then explicitly drew the comparison to himself and to Germany and Russia. If he could be blinded by the extremity of peril, I suppose I have the right to at least equal blindness.

I will harass you about it no more, for that is a convincing response. We can only do our best, and our best is none too good.

Thank you. On the other hand –

Yes. On the other hand you gave ample space to your investigation of psychic abilities and your wonder as to what they are really, and you never discredited the subject by undue credulity or forcing (trying to force) belief by bald statement or plot device.

Yet you find plenty to quarrel with in your mind. No, not “quarrel with,” you are correct, but plenty that does not or did not square with your own experience.

That’s right. Yet it turned out to be invaluable, and now I see one reason why I felt impelled to reread the eleven volumes yet again, because since the last time I read them has come my experiences starting with Joseph in December 2005, and close to 200,000 words brought down just like these.

It has been only half an hour but I am tired and will enter all this, then more later, either tonight or after. Thank you for that massive effort, Mr. Sinclair. All my reservations about it don’t wash out what is a mammoth achievement.

Thank you. The test will be to see if the volumes are revived yet again [as they were, in paperback, in the 1970s], and become seen as classics in the way that those of Balzac or Henry James are classics, or if this time they will die because those who lived in those times or learned of them as you did are mostly gone. Art is long, but from my present perspective perhaps not all that long.

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