Upton Sinclair is a name I remembered from college as the author of “The Jungle”, a book written in 1906 that exposed the terrible conditions of the Chicago meat packing industry. He died in 1968 at the age of 90, and left a legacy of over 90 books and some very incisive writing on our political and economic history.
One such example is “The Flivver King”, a fictional biography of Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company and an early leading industrialist. Fictional, because Upton writes about Ford and also a fictional person who works for Ford from the beginning of Ford’s career. This is a device of parallel lives which Sinclair often uses in his writing, to provide a contrast between the opportunities both men have and the choices that they make.
Sinclair gives a vivid picture of what life was like in America at the end of the century, when different inventors were hard at work inventing a “horseless carriage”, the early name for automobile. Before Social Security, the working class of people depended on the company that employed them – if they got sick or were injured, it was up to the company to decide if they got help or not.
We see Henry Ford climbing up the ladder of success, by his perseverance, his engineering ability, and his sharpness in knowing what the public wants. We see Abner Shutt, his employee, working hard in Ford’s factory and feeling proud that he has a job there. When hard times hit, as in the Depression, Abner is laid off and along with thousands of others, tries to find some other job, no matter what the paycheck.
Sinclair illustrates the invisible division between rich and poor. Shutt has initiative, but while it is rewarded early in his career, it doesn’t keep him from getting laid off. Sinclair shows us how Ford’s accumulation of wealth gradually separates him from others, from having bodyguards and professional spies, to being surrounded by people interested in his money, not himself. Some critics find Sinclair’s characters are not well rounded. Yet the reader can identify with their wants and their needs, and that is really all the writer wants you to do.
Sinclair paints the conflict between the labor advocates and big business as pretty grim, and by all accounts it was. It’s worth reading “The Flivver King”, just for a lesson in how to succeed in business (make it your number one priority), as well as an account of what you should try to avoid when you get to the top.
The book is here in our catalog.