Resurrecting Upton Sinclair

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I received Professor Kevin Mattson’s new “Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century” (Wile~2006) as I read Lawrence W. Reed’s legitimate demolition of Sinclair’s “The Jungle” (1906) in the August Libert)’, where he repeats the familiar academic opinion that Sinc was out of sync for the rest of his literary life. Not so, brother Reed. One of the most important books in my professional history was Sinclair’s “The Cup of Fury” (1956), which I read while still a teenager, taking it out of the public library soon after publication.

Its theme is that the best writers of his generation were ruined – yes, ruined – by excessive drinking: Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, Edna St. Vincent Milla~ Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O’Neill, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, George Sterling, et al.; even Isadora Duncan, who wrote a marvelous book in addition to her revolutionary concert dance. Oddly in retrospect, Sinclair missed William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, perhaps because they were both still alive in the late 1950s and might have felt libeled. Both would soon be dead in their early 60s.

Published when Sinclair was nearly 80, “The Cup of Fury” is an older writer’s efficient polemic that I have purchased many times if only to give away to an aspiring writer who needs to know a certain truth. If a better book on the alcoholism of the literati exists, it’s not come to my attention in the past 50 years.

With Mattson’s new book I wanted an occasion to honor “The Cup of Fury” among the One Hundred Most Important Books in My Life and so went first to his index. Not finding that book among the several dozen Sinclair titles, I gave the new book away and, instead, honor Sinclair’s classic here and now.

“The Cup of Fury” scared this aspiring writer so profoundly that I avoided alcohol during my years at a college where it was plentiful (Brown U.) and have since drunk “not socially only privately mostly after midnight,” as I like to say. The book might also have scared me away from psychotropic drugs, as I never fell for the myth that anything other than my own nuttiness could fuel my imagination. Taking responsibil- ity for my own head was finally a political move.

I know of at least one other writer my age who has told me that “The Cup of Fury” had a similarly chilling effect on him, and, like me, Samuel R. Delany is still productive and sober in his mid-60s.

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