Sunday, November 2, 2014

Reviving Upton Sinclair

     My experience with Upton Sinclair before reading U.S.! was limited to a half hour of reading through The Jungle and to what I remembered about him from eighth grade and high school history classes. Yet even so, it was easy for me to see his participation in some of the most oft-mentioned and oft-criticized traditions of melodrama. In The Jungle, the mighty Jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. Sorry. In The Jungle, probably Sinclair's best-known work, the dichotomy between the good, mistreated workers and the evil, unscrupulous plant owners is spectacularly clear. Furthermore, the book calls unabashedly for pathos. An excerpt we read for history class, I seem to recall, included accounts of workers, made numb and clumsy by severe frostbite, having hands cut off by the machinery and ground into the meat. Bachelder's novel draws out further emotional excesses in Sinclair's works, saying at one point with an implicit eye-roll how he has written another novel about somebody working to support a sick relative, and making a running joke of his love for exclamation points, even placing all 1,539 of the ones used in “Oil!” (not counting the title) in a box on page 170.
     Yet while Bachelder certainly pokes fun at Sinclair's writing style, he absolutely does not condemn him as categorically as do the negative critics who plague Sinclair throughout the novel. I think one essential passage comes when E. L. Doctorow tells an interviewer that “American fiction [has] gotten small,” and that “American writers [use] their incredibly developed technique to write about what happens in the kitchen, what happens in the bedroom.” Bachelder seems to criticize both the bluntly political style of Sinclair and the microfine psychological realism described by Doctorow, and he tries to hybridize them in his own work. Thus, U.S.! includes complex portraits of characters like Uncle Ray, whose loyalty to his nephew conflicts with his desire to stay out of trouble, and Huntley, whose well-informed disapproval of Sinclair's novels is tempered by the fact that he no longer considers him a threat, even as he is spurred to assassinate him once again to show himself he can still outdo the young upstart Billings. However, the book also contains blunt, goofy, Stephen Colbert-esque caricatures. For example, the GMCGA is presented as lying ridiculously in their responses to The Devil's Ears!, saying things like “the industry is shocked and saddened by the senseless destruction of primitive corn farms by non-industry thugs” (83)

      Bachelder definitely seems sympathetic to Sinclair's political views, and may even feel some bemused admiration for his vigorous, blunt writing, which does, after all, shatter young Stephen Rudkin's conception of box fan production. However, just as the editor rejects Sinclair's novel about an aged Lanny Budd, asking for “a younger hero, a hero for these new times” (193), Bachelder seems to realize that for most people, Sinclair's style is no longer convincing. I think the image on the front cover is important—it's not the novel's ancient, bullet-riddled Sinclair, but a young Sinclair, dressed in modern garb. I believe, then, that in agreement with the authors who have described melodrama as a perpetually modernizing form, Bachelder's novel aims to take Sinclair's ideals and strategies and make them young again, fighting for the American left with the same dogged optimism shown by the constantly resurrected Sinclair.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are restricted to course members only.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.