So begins Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1943. Upton Sinclair, of course, is a famous name—the kind of name that folks who don’t read literature may remember from a high school class, the kind of name that creeps into Trivial Pursuit questions and Jeopardy answers. But most of us, of course, haven’t read any of his stuff: his magnum opus is 1906’s The Jungle, a look at the Chicago stockyards that’s so famously harrowing that most of us don’t have the stomach for reading it. I myself have only ever read excerpts, and generally haven’t wanted a hot dog for days afterwards. Maybe a very select few of us have encountered 1927’s Oil!, although I’ll admit I’ve never even picked it up once, and might never have heard of the novel (or that Sinclair wrote it) had Paul Thomas Anderson not chosen to adapt it (loosely) in an Oscar-nominated film called There Will Be Blood a couple years ago. Dragon’s Teeth, then, feels to me a little like one of those consolation prizes coming in—the author that the Pulitzers never got the chance to recognize (or felt like recognizing) before, winning a little too late in his career, perhaps? Certainly another Sinclair (Lewis, that is) got one of those pity prizes for Arrowsmith, anyway. The novel is the third in an eleven novel series (yes, eleven) that arcs through most of 20th Century American history up to that point, following along with the life and career of a man named Lanny Budd (a reference to Melville’s Billy? I kind of doubt it, but you tell me).
Lanny is the bright, cosmopolitan son of an American arms manufacturer, and as the novel opens, he is waiting for the news that his wife has given birth. The initial story we get is a bit outlandish: we are apparently in Europe (France, I’m pretty sure) and Lanny’s wife is someone who married him at the drop of a hat. Literally, we are expected to believe that she was a debutante who got into trouble in Italy, asked the advice of an American reporter there whose advice she trusted, and when he told her “ditch the guy you’re with, get on a train, find Lanny Budd and marry him”, she did, despite the fact that she’d never met Lanny before. They married within 24 hours of her stepping off the train. So now, here he is, a fish out of water as an American overseas, waiting for some nurse to stick her head into the reception room and let him know he’s a father. That’s as much as I’ve read so far, and it’s a little too far-fetched for me so far. Maybe all of this will settle down soon, but for now it’s hard to see how I’ll identify much with these characters, or take an interest in them. I wonder (as I always do when the Pulitzers award a sequel) whether or not I’m just out of luck picking up characters who were really introduced elsewhere, and who I won’t ever really understand.
Sinclair, though, is a fascinating guy, and it’s possible that this novel (which seems to be starting out around the late 1920s) will explore some of the political landscape of America in a meaningful way. Sinclair wasn’t just the muckraker who exposed contaminated food in the stockyards—he remained active in politics throughout the first half of the century, backing socialist candidates, founding ACLU chapters, ultimately running for Governor of California on the EPIC platform (End Poverty in California) unsuccessfully. He remained a little marginalized by all sides—a man too capitalist for the real radicals but too radical for the mainstream—and for that reason is interesting to me. I learned a little about the leftist movements on the West Coast in the 1920s and 1930s when I was working on digitizing labor history documents at the University of Washington, reading the letters of folks like Anna Louise Strong and Lincoln Steffens and occasionally encountering mentions of Upton Sinclair and his work, and it makes me curious to see what his fiction is like. I think right now my expectations of him as a novelist are not very high, but that I’m trying to make myself ready to be satisfied with a work that’s historically and politically interesting even if it’s not very successful as prose. But I also don’t want to draw too many conclusions just yet: Lanny may yet win me over! Onward and upward.