In For the Long Haul
While in high school, I read a series of “classics” as part of my preparation for college. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was one of those books and I “almost” became a vegetarian after reading it. If you’ve never read The Jungle, Sinclair exposes the unsavory working conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry during the early 1900s. Like any new subject, the author has to hook the reader (which happens) and in a few pages, you are plunged into this horrible business. The book stirred lots of controversy and laws were passed to change and improve this industry. Sinclair was a writer who understood that he was in the business for the long haul.
From time to time, The New Yorker magazine will feature an author. Last week, in his excellent article, Uppie Redux?, David Denby turned to Upton Sinclair and I knew little about this author. Consider his prolific output: “In 1906, Upton Sinclair was twenty-seven years old; he continued publishing for more than sixty years, a clattering typewriter that would not stop. No two scholars seem to agree on exactly how many books he wrote, but the number is above ninety, and his output, in addition to social-protest and historical novels, includes plays, screenplays, tracts, journalistic expos�s, didactic dialogues, instructional manuals, and autobiographies. Sinclair spoke at rallies, joined strikes and protests, and repeatedly ran for political office; he sponsored Sergei Eisenstein’s epic unfinished documentary about Mexican Indians, “Que Viva M�xico.” Ezra Pound, who knew a thing or two about obsession, said that Sinclair was not a maniac but a “polymaniac.” During many periods of his life, Sinclair’s activities were widely discussed in the press, and in the eyes of some prominent contemporaries, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Bernard Shaw, he was an invaluable guide to twentieth-century politics. To many people, however, he now seems remote and musty—the author of flaking volumes encountered in country book barns. Apart from “The Jungle,” Sinclair’s works have been largely forgotten, or perhaps simply mislaid, his name confused with that of Sinclair Lewis, the author of “Main Street,” “Babbitt,” and “Dodsworth.””
Yes, it’s amazing the volume and variety of Sinclair’s work for more than 60 years. But look at what he did in his early days: “Sinclair didn’t waste much time at home; he entered City College at the age of thirteen and then transferred, as an eighteen-year-old graduate student, to Columbia, where he was generally bored in the classroom and spent his time writing stories and jokes for the pulp magazines published downtown. By the time he was nineteen, he was composing pseudonymous hack novels about the debonair adventures of West Point and Annapolis cadets. With the help of two stenographers, he churned out eight thousand words a day.”
Now eight thousand words a day in the pre-computer era was remarkable. I love reading about these authors and their consistent commitment to publishing—and in different areas of the work. Many writers seem to get stuck in a particular area. Maybe they have a novel which they insist needs to appear into print. Now it’s certainly OK to be working on a novel but is that novel moving toward publication or just in a continual loop experience where it doesn’t go anywhere? At conferences in particular, I meet writers who are dreaming about publication but aren’t publishing.
I’d encourage you not to be mired in one area of the writing world. Because of the diversity of writing, one day I can write a magazine article and the next day a short book review. Or I can keep making progress on my book proposal then yet another day, I can write some words for a chapter of a novel. I’m in for the long haul and maybe you can gain something from the role model of Upton Sinclair.