We need Upton Sinclair to keep our sense of outrage alive

Poet’s Notebook

click to enlarge We need Upton Sinclair to keep our sense of outrage alive

with usura

no picture is made to endure nor to live with

but it is made to sell quickly

with usura, sin against nature,

is thy bread ever more of stale rags

is thy bread dry as paper . . .

Every morning I log on and read “A.Word.A.Day” by Anu Garg, which includes with the day’s word “A Thought for Today.” Sometimes this combination fills my whole day. Jeanne might come up and ask “How’s it going?” and I’d say something like “Hey, did you know dotard came from Middle English doten, meaning ‘to be foolish’?  Years ago, I’d occasionally sweep into my poetry class a wee bit late, and say, “Good morning, dotards!” not exactly knowing what it meant, but that it was a fine Shakespearean insult. The class liked me to talk like that.

Recently Today’s Thought was this: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon not understanding it.”  It caught my eye because the previous evening we heard Rudy Giuliani spouting five minutes of gibberish defending Trump that even Giuliani couldn’t have believed (or understood): a perfect example of a man ruined by his salary. So I looked the Thought up.

It was written by Upton Sinclair in 1935 in “I, Candidate for Governor,” an account of Sinclair’s running for governor of California as a Democrat during the Depression. He won the Democratic primary but was crushed in the election by a Republican who labeled him a socialist, which he was. Beware, Bernie!  (Beware, all Democrats!)

Sinclair, a muck-raking novelist who wrote nearly 100 books, is mostly remembered for his first one, “The Jungle” (1905), a detailed and grisly exposé of the meat-packing industry that helped pass our Pure Food and Drug Act (1906). This made him a writer with some clout. “Oil” (1927), his book on corruption in California oil companies, was revived in 2007 because it inspired the movie “There Will Be Blood,” and its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, won the Oscar’s Best Actor award. (Its ending is wild and bloody—Jeanne covered her eyes.)  “Dragon’s Teeth,” about the Nazi take-over of Germany, received the 1943 Pulitzer Prize, but is hardly remembered today. Even then, it gathered dust on the shelves of bookstores while Kathleen Winsor’s bodice-ripping “Forever Amber” (1944) sold 3 million copies. Both of these books huddled in my mother’s modest bookcase, so I was about 13 when I read them. I won’t tell you which one I preferred.

Sinclair (not to be confused with Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature) had some fine qualities as a writer: he possessed the same idealism and passionate support of the duped and oppressed as Charles Dickens; but alas, unlike Dickens, he seems to have had no sense of humor and little interest in style. Still, Sinclair fearlessly took on, besides meat-packing cruelty and oil-drilling greed, some of our major American capitalistic heroes, including Henry Ford (“The Flivver King,” 1937), underlining Ford’s antisemitism; as well as John D. Rockefeller and his support of the 1913 Ludlow massacre in the Colorado coal mines (“King Coal,” 1917).

Sinclair (1878-1968) was a bit like his contemporary, the poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) — quoted above and below — whose anger clouded his sense. Pound focused on the banks and usury, but his target was the same as Sinclair’s. Both  wrote about the built-in brutality of capitalism: neither would have been surprised that a major 2017 study (Oxfam International Survey) found that eight rich people, six of them Americans, own as much of the combined wealth of the world as half the human race. In these days — when President Trump seems to deaden our senses by daily violations of normal fairness — we need writers like Sinclair and Pound, flawed as they are, to keep our sense of outrage alive.

Usura rusteth the chisel

It rusteth the craft and the craftsman . . .

Usura slayeth the child in the womb

It slayeth the young man’s courting . . .

                      CONTRA NATURAM . . .

Quotes from “Cantos” in Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, a New Directions Paperbook, 1957.


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