UPTON SINCLAIR (1878-1968) America’s foremost Socialist, writer and activist was a Socialist and activist first and a writer second, as he himself was first to acknowledge. Sinclair defended the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti, plowed the money from his most successful book into a short-lived New Jersey commune, and ran for governor of California in the face of blistering attacks from William Randolph Hearst. (One of his campaign workers was future science fiction great Robert A. Heinlein.) Sinclair wrote his 90 or so books with torn-from-the-headlines urgency, with little regard for the niceties of character development and dialogue, and his many novels occupy a space somewhere between narrative outlines and political pamphlets. But throughout his life Upton Sinclair was the model of a publicly engaged intellectual, and his impact on American life was considerable, not least in the way his muckraking 1906 novel The Jungle helped bring about curbs on the meatpacking industry’s vilest practices. In the 1940s, dissatisfied with his own work, Sinclair conceived a massive series of historical novels built around Lanny Budd, the Swiss-born son of an American armaments manufacturers, whose life brings him into contact with every significant historical figure and event of the first half of the 20th century. Beginning with World’s End in 1940 and ending with The Return of Lanny Budd in 1953, the 11-volume Lanny Budd series remains Upton Sinclair’s most attractive and engaging work, with remarkably shrewd judgments and predictions about the influence of oil cartels, corporations and the press that still speak to our times. Though they are available in print-on-demand editions from Simon Publications, the Budd books are prime candidates for the black jacket club, in however many volumes are necessary. Another volume would suffice for the best of the muckraking novels: The Jungle, which every high school student knows; The Flivver King, a novel about Henry Ford that every high school student ought to know; Oil, about the early days of the California oil boom; The Wet Parade, the abstemious author’s denunciation of alcohol and its degradation of an American family; and the rueful story of his gubernatorial campaign: I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked. The videos posted at top and bottom are about Sinclair and his campaign.
PATRICIA HIGHSMITH (1921-1995) Though she was tagged early on as a writer of high quality crime fiction and thrillers, this Texas-born author had no use for the conventions of the genre — the standard tension and release structure of thrillers struck her as “a silly tease of the reader.” Instead, she wrote novels that slowly and steadily tightened their coils around the reader, plumbing the depths of criminal personalities or showing the shaky foundations of straight people. Highsmith’s characters have a tendency to lose, trade or steal their identities, or fall so deeply into fantasy that the real world becomes irrelevant. Though she was successful in her lifetime, Highsmith is an acquired taste. Even though I acquired it early on, I still need a long layover between her books — once I went on a Highsmith tear, reading six novels and two story collections in a month, and spent the next few weeks feeling like I was shaking off a bad acid trip. She’s best known for her 1950 debut novel, Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock turned into one of his best films, and the five novels she called “the Ripliad,” following the career of Tom Ripley, an ingratiating psychopath with a taste for the good life. (There’s a bit of Ripley’s DNA in Hannibal Lecter, though Highsmith’s original is far more believable.) The elegantly vicious Ripley novels deserve a volume of their own: The Talented Mr. Ripley, about how to use an oar as an instrument of social-climbing; Ripley Under Ground, a tale of better living through art forgery; Ripley’s Game, a study of the vulnerability of innocence to calculating, ruthless evil; The Boy Who Followed Ripley, in which the hero gives a younger man a master class in sociopathy; and Ripley Under Water, about why there’s no percentage in being too snoopy when Tom Ripley lives in your neighborhood. A separate volume would serve for the best of her one-off novels: Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt (a lesbian romance, published in 1951, that defied convention by offering a way to happiness for its principals), Deep Water, The Cry of the Owl and Edith’s Diary. Several filmmakers have had a go at the Ripley novels: the ones who got it right were Rene Clement, who adapted the first book as Purple Noon (Plein Soleil), with Alain Delon as young Ripley; and Liliana Cavani, whose 2002 version of Ripley’s Game showcases John Malkovich as the definitive older Ripley.
FREDERICK MANFRED (1912-1994) He spent his career tagged as a Western writer, but there’s no whiff of Zane Grey in the works of Frederick Manfred. He wrote broad-shouldered novels that delved into the souls of the rough, violent people who inhabited the West, and though he evoked whites and Indians alike with great imaginative sympathy, he depicted their conflicts with unflinching realism: the atrocity at the start of Scarlet Plume is one of the most horrifying things I’ve read. Manfred best-known novel is probably Lord Grizzly, based the 1823 ordeal of Hugh Glass, a mountain man left for dead after being ripped open by a grizzly bear, who then literally dragged himself hundreds of miles to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River. The book is a tour de force exploration of the survival instinct, obsession and a quest for revenge that turns unexpectedly absurd. Manfred had no peer in evoking the mental states of men in extreme conditions, and novels like Conquering Horse have passages of almost hallucinatory intensity. The obvious place to start is the five-novel sequence called the Buckskin Man Tales — Conquering Horse, Lord Grizzly, Scarlet Plume, Riders of Judgment and King of Spades — that chronicles life in the high plains region Manfred called “Siouxland.” Starting with the early 19th century, just before the first incursions of white settlers, then moving through the “Mountain Man” era, the 1862 Sioux uprising, the out-and-out exploitation of the land and the Wyoming range wars of 1890, Manfred offers a comprehensive, multi-hued portrait of thew westward expansion. A volume of novels and nonfiction, including The Golden Bowl and Prime Fathers, his prose portraits of Midwestern worthies such as Sinclair Lewis and Hubert Humphrey, would go a long way toward rescuing this forgotten American master from obscurity.