- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

According to legend, President Theodore Roosevelt sat down at breakfast one day

with a copy of Upton Sinclair’s expose of the meatpacking industry, “The Jungle.” Sinclair’s graphic descriptions of unsanitary working conditions and contaminated meat so horrified the president that he threw his breakfast plate out the window, allegedly splattering sausage on Secretary of State John Hay.

Sinclair is now the subject of a well-researched new biography, Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century (John Wiley, $25.95, 294 pages, illus.), by Ohio University historian Kevin Mattson. Sinclair is a worthy subject, for his career is a history of American reform in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Sinclair was born in Baltimore to a middle-class Southern family. When the boy was ten and suffering from a variety of ailments, the family moved to New York City. Mr. Mattson believes that “This sickly child tried his best to live in a dream world, one that was bookish.”

While attending the City College of New York, Sinclair turned his hand to pulp fiction. From the first, Sinclair demonstrated the energy that would make him one of the most prolific writers of his generation. In the end he would write more than 60 books, mostly fiction, plus some pamphlets on economic and social issues.

In October 1900, Sinclair married for the first time and became interested in socialism. He was never a Marxist, and remarked later in life that “what brought me to socialism more than anything else was Christianity.”

But he joined the Socialist Party in 1902 and four years later ran unsuccessfully for Congress from New Jersey. When American Socialists split over the question of whether to support the Allies in World War I, Sinclair broke with the majority of his party and supported President Woodrow Wilson. But the repression of dissent in the later years of the Wilson administration led Sinclair back to the Socialists.

Publication of “The Jungle” in 1906 put Sinclair in the forefront of “muckraker” journalism, in the company of Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. Sinclair wrote several other muckraking novels, including “The Moneychangers,” dealing with the relation of high finance to the panic of 1907, and “King Coal,” an indictment of working conditions in America’s coalmines.

No issue was too small for Sinclair’s attention. In the years after the “The Jungle” gained him a national reputation, he turned to dietary fads, extolling the virtues of what one reporter called a “squirrel diet” comprised of fruits and nuts.

In 1915 Sinclair moved to California with his second wife. He campaigned unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress and Senate, as well as for the governorship of California. In 1934, perhaps concluding that the Socialist Party was not the path to elective office, the erstwhile muckraker ran for governor as a Democrat on the slogan “End Poverty In California.” He lost by more than 200,000 votes.

Mr. Mattson holds no brief for Sinclair as a novelist. He quotes his subject as admitting that “my mind is absorbed in politics,” and that he had “a tendency to be indifferent to personal individual affairs” among his characters. This is a serious shortcoming in a novelist, and the reader is astonished to learn that a late Sinclair work, “Dragon’s Teeth,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1942.

Sinclair is best remembered as a reformer. The author sees him as a spiritual precursor of Ralph Nader, noting that a 1967 article by Mr. Nader was titled, “We’re Still in the Jungle.”

If an American soldier were to reflect on the founder of the U.S. Army he would consider George Washington — resolute in war, incorruptible in peace. The comparable icon for the American sailor would be John Paul Jones, a far more complex figure. Jones is now the subject of a new biography by naval historian Joseph Callo, John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior (Naval Institute Press, $29.95, 250 pages, illus.).

Jones was born John Paul in Scotland, and went to sea at age 12. He quickly worked his way up to master and to the command of merchantmen in the Caribbean. John Paul had a quick temper, and after an incident in the Bahamas in which he killed a seaman who had assaulted him, friends urged him to leave the area and take on a new name. He chose John Paul Jones.

When the American Revolution broke out, Jones became one of the first officers in the colonial navy. In two sloops, Alfred and Providence, he demonstrated skill and daring in the traditional activity of a weak maritime power: raids on the enemy’s sea commerce.

In November 1777, shortly before France entered the war as America’s ally, Jones was given command of a new sloop, Ranger. Operating out of Brest, Jones earned a reputation for his raids around the British Isles, which for the first time brought the war home to the enemy.

Jones’ officers and men appreciated the opportunities for prize money that their skipper provided, but he was not especially admired. Mr. Callo writes that “Jones could be mercurial and harsh, even prone to physical reinforcement of his orders at times.”

Jones’ next command was a frigate, named Bonhomme Richard for Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” It was with this vessel that Jones gained immortality in a bloody night engagement with the British Serapis off the Scottish coast. With the two ships locked in a death grapple and Bonhomme Richard on fire, Jones replied to his adversary’s demand for surrender with words which have come down as, “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Shortly thereafter an explosion aboard the Serapis forced her to surrender. Although Jones’ own vessel sank two days later, his victory over a stronger foe brought prestige to the fledgling colonial navy and made Jones famous throughout Europe.

Back in Paris, Jones was able to engage in two favorite pursuits, womanizing and complaining to the Continental Congress about matters of rank. When a friend, James Moylan, offered Jones hospitality in Lorient, Jones proceeded to seduce his wife.

The Revolution ended before Jones could take his next command to sea. Although the author makes much of Jones’ devotion to liberty, in 1788 Jones chose to accept the rank of admiral in the Russian navy and led a Russian squadron against the Turks in the Black Sea. Discouraged by intrigues in the czar’s government, Jones returned to Paris in 1790 and died there two years later.

If bravery is your criterion for greatness, Jones may be your man. He should be remembered for a sentence from a 1777 letter in which he wrote, “I wish to have no Connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”

Mr. Callo has attempted to write an objective biography, and for the most part he has succeeded. But he gets carried away, as when he attempts to correlate Jones’ hit-and-run raids with the micromanaged U.S. Navy of today. The reader’s best bet for a Jones biography remains Evan Thomas’ “John Paul Jones,” published in 2003.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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