Sunday, January 04, 2009

Upton Sinclair, from The Fair Hope of Heaven

January 15, 2008

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 The Fair Hope of Heaven. Sinclair was a man looking for the perfect place to live, and for a time he tried Fairhope.

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 hundren 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.”

In The Fair Hope of Heaven I have included some lovely diary entries by 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 Howatts', 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 in Fairhope that Sinclair wrote his autobiographical work, Love’s Pilgrimage, allowing Meta to pen the portions concerning Corydon, the female protagonist.

Probably the member of the Sinclair family to benefit most from his brief time in Fairhope was David, who was enrolled in the Organic School, and loved the life out of doors, later becoming a scientist and probably early on imbued with the free spirit of Fairhope in those days. There is a charming excerpt from Sinclair's description of himself and David sleeping on the outdoor porch of their beach cottage. I'll leave it to you to find the description yourself in the book.

The Fairhope to which Upton Sinclair repaired a century ago is a very different one from the one you'll find today. Most of the beach cottages have been replaced by large, imposing and impressive multi-million-dollar homes. People no longer move to town for escape from the tribulations of modern life, or for the intellectual pursuits in planning a better world. But they move there because they love its possibilities, still. They want the best place they can find, and they very often find it in Fairhope.

The Fair Hope of Heaven can be found at Page & Palette Bookstore in Fairhope, on or on my website.