Tag Archives: american novels

Reading Upton Sinclair

It’s technically considered fiction, but it’s really more a biography or a history. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, it’s pretty darn magnificent. It’s Upton Sinclair’s book The Flivver King (1937), and, like his more renowned book The Jungle, it almost single-handedly reformed an American industry. *[See my previous post for more recommended reading on the subject of capitalist exploitation of labor.]

The so-called Flivver King was Henry Ford, and Sinclair depicts in substantial detail the life and times of that titan of industry, as well as two generations of a fictional family that worked for him. While I knew that Henry Ford was a powerful industrialist with a reputation for conservative politics and narrow-mindedness, I had no idea of the extent of all those features. Neither, apparently, did the American public during Ford’s lifetime, at least until Sinclair’s book appeared. When it was published, it helped to make the United Auto Workers a viable union, and other industries and unions followed suit. Can you imagine how many peoples’ lives have been drastically improved by this one small book?

Now, you might think such a book would make for less-than-scintillating reading. But in fact the book is enthralling, even chilling, and Sinclair’s subtle brand of irony spices it beautifully. I read The Jungle in my sophomore year of college, and never picked up another book by Upton Sinclair until now. Shame on me!

A World to Win

My blog entry for April 6, 2014 (scroll down a few months) discusses three top-notch works of fiction dramatizing the plight of the American working class in the early 1900’s. I have just finished a fourth, which deserves equal credit for a powerful portrayal of the exploitation of industrial workers from a Marxist perspective. There is no doubt in my mind that A World to Win, by Jack Conroy (published 1935), is one of the best books I’ve read in a decade, and one of the great novels of his era. I can’t judge Conroy’s body of work because I had never heard of him before I came across A World to Win in the library. The book had been out of print for several decades, but recently republished by the Univ. of Illinois Press’ series called The Radical Novel Reconsidered.

Conroy’s novel is the story of two brothers who grow apart as post-World War I America goes through expansion of industrialization, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the rise of world fascism. Each brother, in his own way, discovers firsthand the unremitting hardships endured by blue collar workers and the hopelessness which clouds the future of an entire class. Conroy’s characters and their dialogue are as real and colorful as if we were walking those picket lines ourselves. There is little to distinguish A World to Win from the best of Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s prose may have a sharper, more naturalistic edge to it, but Conroy has an earthy Zolaesque frankness in which no subject is taboo, and the sordid details of these humble lives sit side by side with the mundane.

One of the most brilliant devices of this novel is role reversal, and Conroy skillfully utilizes that device not once, but twice, between the two Hurley brothers. The dynamic sibling relationship between these two strong characters is an unforgettable metaphor for the sort of crisscrossing journeys that workers and intellectuals made during some terrible and tormented periods of our history. These journeys, this history, deserve to be made more familiar to the generations of today, and A World to Win deserves to be read and appreciated as a key exponent of this critical process of familiarization.

Frank Norris’s Octopus

I’ve just finished one of the notable novels about the American West, The Octopus by Frank Norris. Norris, also a talented short story writer, finished the book around the age of thirty and, sadly, only survived the book’s 1901 publication by a year or two. Even so, I believe he proved himself one of the great novelists of his era. In its scope and Naturalism, The Octopus clearly paved the way for later generations of Western writers, like Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, or Wallace Stegner in The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

The Octopus is a fictionalized saga of the conflict between the wheat farmers and the railroad monopoly that raged in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the two decades preceding the book’s publication. Although some critics may be right in finding Norris’s style occasionally too flowery and repetitive, those flaws did not spoil for me the superb storyline and character development. Those wheat farmers and their families became so real and important to me. Much of Norris’s prose is stunning and, though certainly less lyrical than Dickens or Eliot, I believe he may possess as great a command of the English language as any writer in any era – including a fair number of words I had never seen before in my life.

So, if you enjoy reading about the West, right versus might, progressive politics, and even a bit of romance thrown in, The Octopus would be high on my list of suggested novels. As a great novel should, it held my interest continuously, never flagging in its realism and humanity.

Didion’s trumpet

     I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game? — Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (1970)

     I doubt if any portrayal of the sordid side of Hollywood (the entertainment industry) equals the brutal scathing honesty of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play it as it Lays. Certainly Didion built upon Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, which gave us a gritty, grainy portrait indeed of Hollywood’s fiends, misfits, and lost souls. Presumably other works such as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice helped lay the appropriate setting and mood for Didion. But she reached new heights (depths actually) in her dramatization of the ruthlessness and decadence that we have come to associate with the so-called Hollywood lifestyle. Play it is a book of intense realism, heightened by its understated narrative. In that respect, and also in its structure and use of alternate narrators, it reminds me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But Didion’s prose is much more accessible than Faulkner’s, and nothing is lost by its unadorned frankness. I was altogether “blown away” by this stark little Hollywood gem.

The Trespassers

I don’t know what book was the first to be written about Nazi aggression and the Holocaust. Certainly The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was one of the first. But I would guess that The Trespassers by Laura Zametkin Hobson, which was published in 1943, was also among the earliest. Considering that it was written in the midst of World War II and the Holocaust, Hobson’s novel is quite remarkable. She captures much of the terror and misery that pervaded Europe during the very end of the 1930’s. She also foreshadows the increasing magnitude of that terror and misery, which the 1940’s would spawn through war and genocide.

The book especially dramatizes the plight of Europe’s innocent refugees in the face of worldwide immigration policies fraught with xenophobia. I have to say that that theme struck a personal chord in me and made me do a little soul-searching, because of my work. Although Hobson’s style may be a bit soapy or schmaltzy, her book is a very moving saga and as timely now as it was then.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone know of any earlier-published books about the Holocaust?

A FLASH of insight

     My son Josh gave me a book for my birthday: It’s called Flash, by a young writer named Jim Miller. The book was published by AK Press, which mainly puts out books relating to anarchist themes. Although stylistically Miller’s novel may not be best-seller material, conceptually and morally the book is a very compelling piece of literature. Anyone interested in California political history, labor issues and human rights might appreciate the book. It delves into the I.W.W. (the Wobblies) and other revolutionary or anarchist movements in the early 1900’s. That historical period is skillfully juxtaposed with present day. Miller’s book makes a good companion, subject-wise, to two of my favorites: Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and Wallace Stegner’s The Preacher and the Slave (alternately titled Joe Hill). Read any of the above, and you will have a deeper appreciation for the hardships and courage of the workers of the world.

A book you can put down

I generally like to read one book at a time. Switching back and forth wrecks my concentration, such as it is. But I’m in the middle of a book that I read only infrequently, and I’ve finished dozens of other books, of all kinds, in the meantime. The book is Can You Forgive Her  by Anthony Trollope. I can pick it up after weeks of neglect and feel that it’s all still fresh in my mind. And I intend to finish it. Eventually.

It’s one of those Victorian novels that’s like walking in an English country garden on a day with intermittent spells of clouds and sunshine. It’s all utterly pleasant, the story moves at a snail’s pace but you’re in no hurry because it’s so peaceful and you want it to last. Nothing really bad happens, there’s plenty of English wit and polish. Reading a book like that is therapy, and cheap therapy at that!

If you want a book that’s hard to put down, and, along with Catch-22, might just be one of the two best American novels of the last 50-odd years, you could pick up Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger. I saw the movie with Dustin Hoffman when I was a teenager, but didn’t get around to reading the book until 2 months ago. It’s sensational, a real work of genius. A great movie, and an even better book.

Happy holidays, Happy reading, and PEACE to all.