Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Melodrama in U.S.! and Upton Sinclair

Rather like some other students in the class, my familiarity and relationship with Upton Sinclair is limited to rumblings about “The Jungle” in high school from other classmates who were in the standard junior year U.S. history course. After skimming a bit of “The Jungle” and taking note of its various themes, I gathered that Upton Sinclair is quite a melodramatic character himself. He uses the story of Jurgis and Ona to describe the evils of capitalism and how socialism should be embraced by society, rather than simply a taboo topic that automatically is associated with communism. Melodrama is used in “The Jungle” to help sway the reader into thinking that capitalism is our society’s true evil. Sinclair’s annihilation of Jurgis’s immigrant family by the capitalist system illustrates socialism as the cure-all to our society’s injustice and portrays socialism as the victimized hero. By doing this, he also attacks capitalism and shows that capitalism itself is an attack on the values that support the American Dream, and that those who succeed in this corrupt capitalist system are indeed corrupt themselves. Sinclair uses “The Jungle” as his own form of melodrama and to discuss his own political opinions.
            As a result of publishing “The Jungle” and nearly 87 other books, Sinclair received much criticism. He ran unsuccessfully in a campaign for congress as a socialist in 1934. Sinclair was a natural muckraker and liked stirring the pot, bringing up issues he knew would be unpopular, and he used melodrama to do this. In Chris Bachelder’s novel U.S.!, he examines Upton Sinclair using many forms of political satire. Bachelder criticizes Sinclair and judges him quite harshly, pointing to examples of other writers’ critiques of Sinclair as well as his own. Bachelder is constantly “assassinating” Sinclair, and in turn, brings him back to life to symbolize the political left’s constant need to bring Sinclair and his ideals back to the forefront of American politics, only to be shut down again.  For example, in one of Bachelder’s satirical pieces, he describes a fictitious syllabus that Upton Sinclair writes. “Students will use journalistic techniques and sexual repression to write socially engaged, morally outraged fiction with unambiguous endings. Students will also grow their own food on the narrow but fertile strip of land that runs between the Junior Faculty Parking Lot and the Graduate Student Parking Lot. On Wednesdays we will fast” (Bachelder, 67). Not only does Bachelder satirize Sinclair’s politics, but also his various ways of life (e.g. "no sex and no alcohol", 67).
One might assume after reading Bachelder’s novel that he is not a fan of Sinclair and that the book is more of a criticism of his role in American politics. However, after listening to an NPR interview with Chris Bachelder on his novel, I got the impression that Bachelder doesn’t dislike Sinclair. He has more of a general interest and appreciation for Sinclair’s revolutionary spirit that can’t be fully stamped out and simply keeps coming back to haunt the American right and left. At one point during the interview, Bachelder even states that we could use Sinclair in our society today because of his extreme passion for social justice. Perhaps both Sinclair and Bachelder would be supporters of “Passionate Politics”? Overall, Bachelder’s novel uses melodrama in its extreme to show Sinclair portrayed both as the victimized hero and the villain of our society, and does so in a satirical way to prove that Sinclair was a controversial but important figure in our political history.

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