If anybody still remembers Upton Sinclair, it’s probably because they learned in an American history class that his novel The Jungle was partly responsible for government regulations on the meat packing industry. Sinclair also ran for governor of California in the 1930s on a socialist platform called EPIC (End Poverty in California) and is the real source of the quote often attributed to Mark Twain that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” To further explore Upton Sinclair’s career is to discover the massive, buried history of American socialism. Karl Marx may have been German and the first communist revolution may have happened in Russia but socialism is as American as apple pie.
100% – The Story of a Patriot goes a long way to explaining why the history of American socialism has been so completely forgotten. If you listen to Democracy Now you’ve probably heard Noam Chomsky’s description of how pivotal Woodrow Wilson’s pro-war propaganda in 1917 was to American history. In 1914, there was a vibrant, broad American left, which ranged from native born American populists in the South and on the Great Plains to German immigrant socialists in the Midwest to Jewish labor leaders and Italian anarchists in the Northeast to the IWW in the far West. By 1920 it was all gone, never to return. Many people also know about Wilson’s persecution of socialist leader Eugene Debs, how Debs was stripped of his American citizenship and jailed for life simply for making an antiwar speech. But until I read 100% – The Story of a Patriot I had never imagined what a sheer hell scape those years were, how violent the repression was, how completely the American left had been infiltrated by agent provocateurs hired the business interests.
This is not to say that 100% – The Story of a Patriot is a well-written novel.It has none of the poetry or narrative focus of Joseph Conrad’s masterful, and very similar novel The Secret Agent. 100% – The Story of a Patriot is more of a series of vignettes than a fully developed novel, or to be more accurate, a thinly fictionalized journalistic account of Woodrow Wilson’s reign of terror, something no newspaper at the time would have dared publish, but a story Sinclair himself was able to get into the public debate by sheer force of will. But while no Joseph Conrad, Upton Sinclair was a literary innovator. Many of the techniques he pioneered, the alienated little man with no ideas or will of his own who commits crimes he doesn’t entirely understand, later surfaced in Albert Camus’s The Stranger. George Orwell would later portray all pervading sense of paranoia, the idea that a malevolent power was always watching, the fear that you could trust nobody, for much different uses in his anti-communist novel 1984. In fact, one impression I had reading 100% – The Story of a Patriot, an impression I often get when reading turn of the century writers like Sinclair and Jack London is that a lot of the novels we are taught in schools are gentrified, and socially acceptable knockoffs of the great buried tradition of American socialist literature.
But what is 100% – The Story of a Patriot about? Peter Gudge is a homeless drifter, somewhere in his early 20s, who has recently been fired from his job as a gopher for the type of evangelical Christian grifter so familiar today. Desperate, broke and hungry he casually pockets a leaflet given to him by an leftist agitator, then continues walking aimlessly through “American City” (probably Chicago) looking for something to do. To his initial misfortune, and ultimate good fortune, for his background as an evangelical well prepares him to be an anent provocateur and a police spy, he walks right into a terrorist attack, a loosely fictionalized version of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago or the anarchist attack on Wall Street in 1920. Gudge is “arrested” by a gang of private detectives, who take the leaflet in his pocket as proof of his guilt, tortured into making a confession, and forced to participate in framing a prominent labor leader for the crime. Sinclair never tells us exactly who carried out the bombing, although its strongly implied it was done by the business interests themselves.
A better stylist than Sinclair would have focused the whole novel on the initial terrorist attack and frame up but in 100% – The Story of a Patriot it’s simply the first episode in Gudge’s long career as an agent provocateur. A long, almost tedious litany of betrayals and frame ups follows, one after another, each the same as the one before, and the alienated, empty headed Gudge, who initially has no political opinions at all, eventually begins to consider himself as a “100 Percent American” patriot, a hero protecting White Anglo Saxon Protestant America from reds, Jews, anarchists, German spies and immigrants. The more of a patriot Gudge becomes, the more Sinclair reveals the rot underlying not only American society, but the radical movement that would provide an alternative. Everything, the police, the courts, the media, the military, the leadership of the antiwar movement, marriage, free love, sex, idealism, religion, is compromised and infiltrated by the business interests. Everything is corrupt. There is no alternative to self-interest and betrayal. Who can you trust? Nobody. Who rises to the top? Peter Gudge, the very worst self-interested and soulless little creep, the truest “100 Percent American” in what I might call Upton Sinclair’s dystopia were it not the world we live in today.