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Sinclair, Upton

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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(1878-1968) US playwright and author known primarily for his work outside the sf field, particularly for his "muckraker" novels of social criticism, including The Jungle (25 February-4 November 1905 Appeal to Reason; rev 1906) and Oil! (1927), the latter filmed as There Will be Blood (2007); and for The Gnomobile: A Gnice Gnew Gnarrative with Gnonsense, but Gnothing Gnaughty (1936), a juvenile fantasy which was filmed by Disney as The Gnome-Mobile (1967). Sinclair was active as a writer from 1895, producing by the turn of the century a number of dime novels (see Dime-Novel SF), none of them apparently containing any genre interest, under various names, including Ensign Clarke Fitch, Lieut. Frederick Garrison, Mark Mallory and Douglas Wells. This experience may have done him in good stead in his shaping of the vast (and vastly popular) Lanny Budd sequence beginning with World's End (1940) and closing eleven volumes later with The Return of Lanny Budd (1953), a series of non-fantastic adventures whose protagonist nonetheless exhibits many features of the Superhero: mysterious past; wealth; anonymity; superhuman strength and ingenuity; and his appointment by the American government as a plenipotentiary secret agent, in which role he saves the West more than once over the course of the twentieth century up to 1953.

Prince Hagen (1903; vt as play Prince Hagen: A Drama in Four Acts 1909 chap) is of interest in its conflating of sf and fantasy, with the eponymous Nibelung ruler acknowledging that US capitalists are his superiors in avarice. Sinclair's first tale of direct sf interest is The Overman (May 1906 Harper's Magazine; 1907 chap), in which a shipwrecked sailor comes into contact, after years on a desert Island, with the successors to Homo sapiens (see Evolution), who communicate with their descendants through Telepathy from somewhere in space. The Industrial Republic: A Study of the America of Ten Years Hence (1907) is a Near Future Utopian tale; World War One is not remotely anticipated. The Millennium: A Comedy of the Year 2000 (19 April-2 August 1914 Appeal to Reason; 1924 3vols), based on an unperformed play from 1907, is set in a plutocratic New York soon to be depopulated by a Mad Scientist who has invented a Poison element that dissolves into piles of dust anyone not airborne at the time; the survivors of this Disaster begin to recapitulate the early economic stages described by the Marxist theory of history, but the pilot of the super-plane to whom they owe their survival (see Pax Aeronautica) returns in the end to found a socialist state.

Several of Sinclair's later works are Timeslip tales: They Call me Carpenter: A Tale of the Second Coming (1922) depicts the Messiah's excoriation of the modern world (after he manifests himself through a cathedral window); in the bittersweet Roman Holiday (1931), a young American playboy discovers parallels between his own time and a nascent Roman republic which cannot anticipate the indignities that history has in store for it (see History in SF); and in Our Lady (1938) the Blessed Virgin finds herself in modern Los Angeles, soon finding herself immersed in a gladiatorial football match (see Games and Sports) and in other manifestations of contemporary California, a state she cannot comprehend. Sinclair's more secular political Satires include the documentary Future Histories I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty (1933 chap; assembled as an omni, adding three non-fantastic texts, as The EPIC Plan for California 1934) and We, People of America, and How We Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future (1934 chap). In he 1930s Sinclair shaped the early political views of Robert A Heinlein, and may have had some indirect influence on Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" (June 1940 Astounding) through his advocacy of Edgar Chambless's concept of the Roadtown.

Sinclair's later work recapitulates earlier messages: A Giant's Strength: A Three-Act Drama of the Atomic Bomb (performed 1948; 1948 chap: vt A Giant's Strength: A Drama in Three Acts 1948) depicts the Near Future destruction of Manhattan (see New York) by an atomic bomb, which initiates World War Three, after which cave-dwelling survivors begin to experience the immediate Post-Holocaust period; the protagonists gain most of their knowledge via Radio, through breaks in the incessant Advertising to which nothing has put a cease. Another play, The Enemy Had It Too (1950), dramatizes a biologist's discovery that a Pandemic caused by a man-made virus has depopulated the planet; What Didymus Did (1954; vt It Happened to Didymus 1958) is a dispirited account of the failure of a reluctant miracle-worker – commissioned by an angel who gives him miraculous powers – to spread spiritual enlightenment in an unappreciative world. It is a sign of Sinclair's attractiveness, though it does not say very much about his grasp of the modern world, that his pessimism is so often tickled into optimistic outcomes by panaceas. But he remains a figure to be remembered. [JC/BS]

see also: Boys' Papers; Economics; Politics; Theatre.

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr

born Baltimore, Maryland: 20 September 1878

died Bound Brook, New Jersey: 25 November 1968

works (highly selected)

Many Sinclair titles are privately published, but are listed below only if these editions significantly precede trade editions.

fiction and plays


about the author

  • Mike Ashley. "Upton Sinclair" (March 2008 Book and Magazine Collector #292) [pp46-65: mag/]


previous versions of this entry

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