Thursday, June 22, 2006

Upton Sinclair in Fairhope

June 22

Upton Sinclair moved to a cottage on the beach in Fairhope in 1909. He was a famous novelist at the time, having written The Jungle three years earlier. I have a chapter on Sinclair in my new book The Fair Hope of Heaven, and will relate some of its information here in hopes of capturing some of the attention now being given to Sinclair, a largely overlooked American writer of the 20th Century who was not atypical of the denizens of early Fairhope.

There is a new biography of Sinclair by Anthony Arthur called Radical Innocent, and I was very interested in the author’s presentation of that book on CSPAN 2 over the Memorial Day weekend. At the opening he casually mentioned Sinclair’s time spent in both Arden (Del.) and Fairhope. From time to time there is a flurry of interest, and maybe when When We Had the Sky is published, Sinclair will again receive deserved attention, at least in the area on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay where he once lived.

Most of us remember the name Sinclair Lewis from American Lit classes in college, but this is the other Sinclair. Anthony Arthur said that Upton Sinclair once remarked, “Maybe we should just both take the name Upton Sinclair Lewis.”

Upton Sinclair was a Socialist, an idealist, a food faddist, and a complex and interesting man who wrote books whenever he felt the world’s ills needed correcting, which meant that he wrote books constantly. He lived during a period in which like-minded idealists banded together, often in colonies, not unlike our own Utopian Fairhope. After camping in inadequate shacks since their marriage, with money from The Jungle Sinclair and his wife Meta had bought an old private school building on the Palisades in New Jersey to house the artists’ colony that was his dream. He called the project Helicon Home Colony, after the Greek muse of the arts, Helicon. John Dewey, also a figure in Fairhope, visited his colony and even the young Sinclair Lewis, a Yale student, helped out with janitorial duties.

Helicon Home Colony burned in 1907, and with it went Sinclair’s hopes for his own personal ideal world. From there he traveled with wife and baby David to Carmel, where he experimented with health foods and wrote books and plays intended to convert mankind to his two pet causes: health diets and Socialism. He wrote books about raw food diets, fasting, vegetarianism. He and his family were to spend time in Battle Creek at Kellogg’s and health guru Bernarr MacFadden’s establishments, and other such enclaves, before they moved to Fairhope to try it out.

Raised by a puritan mother and an alcoholic father, Sinclair early on thought of himself as a genius. His personal heroes were Shelley, Hamlet, and Jesus Christ. He was convinced that he was ordained to write the Great American Novel, and he made at least 60 attempts at it, most of which sold very well and had literary merit while succeeding best at presenting his latest propaganda soapbox.

As a Socialist, he would have been well-acquainted with the Single Taxers, and Fairhope had a strong attraction to those who sought a heaven on earth, as many did in those days. Young David, well-read in the books of his parents’ choosing, was getting old enough for school, and the Sinclairs probably saw the need for some life with other children. David Sinclair became one of the first children enrolled in the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education.

In his 1932 autobiography, Sinclair wrote: “For the winter (1909-10) I took my family to the single tax colony at Fairhope, Alabama, on Mobile Bay. Since I couldn’t have a colony of my own, I would try other people’s. Here were two or three hundred assorted reformers, having organized their affairs according to the gospel of Henry George; trying to eke a living from poor soil, and feeling certain they were setting an example to the rest of the world. The climate permitted the outdoor life, and we found a cottage for rent on the bay-front, remote from the village.

“…I was overworking again; and when my recalcitrant stomach made too much trouble, I would take another fast for a day, three days, a week. I was trying the raw food died, and failing, as before. I was now a full-fledged physical culturist, following a Spartan regime. In front of our house ran a long pier, out to the deep water of the bay. Often the boards of this peir were covered with frost, very stimulating to the far feet, and whipped by icy winds, stimulating to the skin; each morning I made a swim in this bay a part of my law.”

For The Fair Hope of Heaven, I have included some lovely diary entries by Maude, the young bride of Sinclair’s secretary – Dave Howatt, also a raw-food advocate – describing the scene in Fairhope of those halcyon, idealistic days. These pages deserve a blog post of their own, offering an enchanting portrait of a young woman in love in another era, in a bayside village that is long gone.

The marriage between Upton and Meta Sinclair, unlike the Howatt's, was not to last much longer. Meta's physical passion had been more than he bargained for, and he sought to quell it in any way he could, at last inviting her to bring her young lover, Alfred Kuttner, to join them in Fairhope, where such liaisons were not unheard of. It was here that he wrote his autobiographical work, Love’s Pilgrimage, allowing Meta to pen the portions concerning Corydon, the female protagonist.

I’ve bitten almost more than I can chew in one post here. I have included only fragments of the chapter from my book. The Fair Hope of Heaven is available on, Barnes &, and from my website,


John Sweden said...

Hej ff

Playing a little catch-up this morning. Of course please write more of these, as I love this kind of biographical piece. Makes me want to re-read Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree and openly hope for the publication of When We had Sky. As I’ve pointed out I think the book that needs to happen is the “Biography of Marietta Johnson and the history of the Organic School”. It is here that I believe you can weave all of this wonderful biographical material into a book that reaches beyond the confines of Fairhope. It is the school that is the one progressive thing that seems to remain and still speaks to the future, not only of Fairhope, but humanity as well. I do hope you will be moved in such a direction and I will be the first on line to buy a copy.

What do you other bloggers think?

P.S: I've done some preliminary checking and there seems to be no biograhies of MJ

Finding Fair Hope said...

Exactly the reaction I was hoping for, O Sage o' Sweden! Thanks for the encouragement. I think Alabama Heritage Magazine will be interested in a condensed version of my Upton Sinclair to work on condensing it, and pitch it. And a book on Marietta Johnson...there is so little known of her actual life, but what a wonderful subject for a Fairhope novel! Must get on that one. If only I weren't spending so much time writing my blog every day...

Peggy Ann Brown said...

Please let us know when WHEN WE HAD SKY might be published! I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Helicon Home Colony and am delighted at the renewed attention given to the colony and Sinclair! In my dissertation I talked a little about where the various Helicon Home Colony residents scattered after the colony's demise, and Freehope was the destination for several. I am very interested in learning more about the colony and Marietta Johnson. P.S. I love your blogger name!

Night Stranger said...

To Peggy Ann Brown:

At the moment there are no plans for the publication of When We Had the Sky. Perhaps we can interest a backer (The Fairhope Museum, for instance) in helping me self-publish it.

If you email me, I can send you a copy of the chapters you are interested in, or maybe the whole book. A copy of it is in the Marietta Johnson Museum in Fairhope (Alabama).

Mary Lois said...

This post promoted the book I had just written about Fairhope, with the working title of When We Had the Sky. It has been reworked somewhat and published under the title of The Fair Hope of Heaven. The book is available on and Barnes and as well as at Page & Palette bookstore in Fairhope.