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Upton Sinclair made his mark as a muckraker. His vision for California now takes the spotlight.
- Annie Nakao, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Mention Upton Sinclair, and his 1906 exposé of Chicago's meatpacking industry, "The Jungle," instantly comes to mind.
Local historian and Napa Valley College Professor Lauren Coodley wants to change that with a new book she has edited -- "The Land of Orange Groves and Jails: Upton Sinclair's California" -- which presents Sinclair not just as a famed 20th century muckraker but also as a brilliantly engaged citizen of California whose political and cultural legacy transformed the state and is still relevant today.
"It is, in fact, impossible to understand Upton Sinclair without reference to his life in California, and it is equally incomplete to think about California in the 20th century without turning to Upton Sinclair's work, " Coodley writes in her introduction.
The book is part of a wavelet of current interest in Sinclair, who died in 1968 at age 90. And Sinclair devotees think it's high time.
The man, they point out, spent 50 years in Southern California. Yet few Californians are aware that he ran for governor in 1934 on the Democratic ticket and nearly won in an exuberant Depression-era campaign that vowed to end poverty in the state. Or that he wrote prodigiously about forces that shaped California: the Hollywood dream machine; the power of the media, notably the Los Angeles Times; the struggles of labor; the discovery of oil; and the subsequent paving of California with freeways.
The Pulitzer Prize winner wrote no fewer than 100 books, a remarkable number of them made into films, including "The Gnome-Mobile," a children's story inspired by California's redwoods.
After retiring in the 1940s with his wife, Mary Craig Sinclair, to his parapeted Spanish Colonial home in the foothills of Los Angeles County's San Gabriel Mountains, Sinclair began writing the phenomenally popular anti- fascist "World's End," otherwise known as the Lanny Budd series.
He counted as his friends Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, Jack London, Henry Ford and Albert Einstein, with whom he spent many hours playing violin. He was no stranger to Northern California, often spending time in Carmel and taking an orange juice at the Bohemian Club (he hated alcohol).
Along with all his charisma and zest for life, Sinclair was "thoroughly Californian," according to Coodley. For example, he loved physical activity and was a top tennis player.
He was also an oddity in the early 20th century world of cigar-puffing, booze-guzzling he-men: He was a health nut who never drank, a feminist who believed in women's suffrage and, until his gubernatorial bid, a card-carrying Socialist. He was fond of declaring that the words "social justice" could be found written on his heart.
"Upton Sinclair was a girly man," Coodley says, "if you accept such a category."
But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent mockery of Democratic legislators only reflects age-old stereotypes of masculinity that she says Sinclair's life tweaked every day.
"He was a role model for both men and women in the way he lived his life . .. in redefining masculinity," she says.
A student of Sinclairiana for the past decade, Coodley, 54, edited the new anthology of Sinclair's writings as part of the California Legacy series, a collaboration between Berkeley's Heyday Books and Santa Clara University.
She will speak about Sinclair at several Bay Area appearances, including one at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Oakland's Pardee Home Museum.
Coodley, whose grandparents settled in Los Angeles about the same time Sinclair did, became interested in the writer in the mid-'90s, after her own students were deeply impressed by a documentary she showed them of Sinclair's EPIC, or End Poverty in California, campaign.
Coodley also went back to school to get a second master's degree, in history. Her thesis was titled, "Towards a Reinterpretation of Upton Sinclair."
"As a Californian, I've never felt I'd been taught California history," says Coodley. "He taught me so much about my own state."
A petite woman with soft brown hair flowing past her shoulders, Coodley has lived and breathed Sinclair for a decade now. But she was also busy raising a family -- son Nils, is 21, and daughter Caitlin, is 27 -- and teaching. She developed a women's history course, as well as one on California history. In 2003, she won the McPherson Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Coodley is also concluding two terms as head of the Academic Senate at Napa Valley College and is the first woman to serve as chair of social sciences at the college.
A chance meeting on campus with poet Dana Gioia, now chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, led to the Heyday anthology.
The Sinclair volume wasn't Coodley's only book in 2004. She also wrote "Napa: The Transformation of an American Town" (Arcadia Publishing).
"We're swimming in it, surrounded by our local history," she says recently at lunch in the Ferry Building. "Look at what they did to this building. Ever since I wrote about Napa, I'm haunted by the ghosts we see behind the structures."
Filling in those missing stories is what her Sinclair book is about, she says.
"Let's think of this guy," she says. "He's not just the answer to the "Jeopardy" question about who wrote "The Jungle."
Coodley's book isn't the only sign of a Sinclair comeback. A musical, based on Greg Mitchell's 1992 book, "The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics," is being produced by singer-songwriter Steven Lutvak and his writing partner, Robert Freedman.
Also in 2003, Sinclair's "Oil!," a novel about greed and scandal following the discovery of oil in California, was performed by San Francisco's Word for Word Theater Company.
The same year, the first annual humanitarian Uppie Awards were held in San Pedro in Southern California, not far from the Liberty Hill Monument, erected in 1998 to mark the unsuccessful strike by longshoremen and oil workers in Los Angeles harbor. Sinclair was arrested there while reading from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As a result of that incident, he founded the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Sinclair may be headed for a revival," says Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, whose book gave contemporary Californians their first glimpse of Sinclair.
Long before, though, a small group of Sinclair devotees, including Robert Hahn of Aptos and Nick Beck of Los Angeles, both retired professors at California State University Los Angeles, and Sinclair bibliographer John Ahouse, literary curator for University of Southern California's Doheny Library special collections, kept his legacy alive by publishing the Upton Sinclair Quarterly for several years.
"He was kind of a ladder for me to find out more about California," says Ahouse. "By learning more and more about Sinclair, I learned more and more about the state. That's what so important about Lauren's book. It really connects him to California."
Coodley hopes the Sinclair flame passes on to others.
"His legacy is that it's really important for people to feel they can participate in simultaneous social movements and not be ridiculed for it, or misunderstood," she says. "Sinclair gave us a sense of how that's possible, and he did it very gracefully."
Laura Coodley will do a book signing at 2 p.m. Sunday at Pardee Home Museum, 672 11th St., Oakland. (510) 444-2187. At 11 a.m. on Feb. 19, she will be at the Vallejo Naval & Historical Museum, 734 Marin St., in Vallejo. (707) 643-0077.
E-mail Annie Nakao at email@example.com.
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