Thursday, January 15, 2009

Upton Sinclair in New Jersey and Fairhope

January 15, 2009

Upton Sinclair was a novelist who yearned to live in a perfect community. So much so, that he started one of his own in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1907. Helicon Home Colony was founded to demonstrate a way of living that Sinclair deemed to be the path to perfection: free thinking, free love, a cooperative form of self-governance based on his commitment to socialism, and no drugs or alcohol.

Less than a year after its beginning, his colony’s home burned to the ground, leaving the author still seeking a community of like-minded idealists where he wanted to live. One stop on his journey was in the single-tax utopia of Fairhope, Alabama, where I was raised some fifty years later. The Fair Hope of Heaven/A Hundred Years After Utopia, my book, describes the fortunes of the little town from its inception through the 20th century and tells the story of Sinclair and his year in Fairhope.

Sinclair was not atypical of the type of people who were attracted to early Fairhope. A successful writer and dabbler in health foods, he had a stressful marriage and a backlog of anger at the way things were in his times that kept him writing constantly. Known as a muckraker, he wrote to change things and people. He and his wife Meta spent some time in Fairhope, where his son David was enrolled in the radical School of Organic Education.

Following is an excerpt from The Fair Hope of Heaven.

“Upton Sinclair found solace in writing. He wrote compulsively; whenever he perceived something in the heart of man that wanted correcting, he wrote a book about it. He would move to a cabin in the woods to write, or to the mountains,
Upton Sinclair and son David or to the beach in the islands or in Florida. He had dreams of creating a Utopian community in which mankind would learn to behave in ways acceptable to him. So moved was he by Thus Spake Zarathustra in the original German in 1902 he wrote a short novel (The Overman) asserting man's ability to experience "rapture and unutterable holiness." Nietschze inspired in him an almost-religious conversion to the political doctrines of Socialism.

“His most well-read book, The Jungle, was published in 1907. It dealt with the meat packing industry in Chicago, describing the lack of sanitation in the packing plants and the miserable conditions of the workers in those plants. As always, he felt he was producing art, and indeed The Jungle was a sensation, but more because of its revelations about the inhumane practices in the industry it portrayed than for its merit as literature. President Theodore Roosevelt was so moved by The Jungle that he made contact with its writer and drafted the first Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair met with the President on several occasions, and their letters back and forth show an amusing clash of egos and ideas of how to get things done. Roosevelt had no patience with Socialists or muckrakers, but he was determined to right the wrongs of the meat-packing industry as outlined in Sinclair's book.
“It was about this book that Sinclair stated, ‘I was aiming at the heart of America, but instead I hit it in the stomach.’

The Jungle provided enough money for Sinclair to live his long-held dream of utopia. He started a colony of like-minded idealists in an old private school building on the Palisades in New Jersey. The building was called Helicon Hall, named for the Greek muse of the arts, and his settlement was called the Helicon Home Colony. This idyll was to last for only six months. However, during that time it attracted some 100 people; some, like educational philosopher John Dewey, who were to have an impact on Fairhope. Even the "other" Sinclair, (Lewis), a Yale student at the time, helped out with janitorial duties at the Hall.

“Helicon Home Colony burned to the ground in March 1907, and with it went the hopes of Sinclair to realize his own personal ideal world. He and his wife and baby traveled to Carmel, California, where he experimented with health foods and wrote books and plays intended to convert mankind to their use as well as to the cause of Socialism. Again under the stress of great poverty and the growing difficulties in his marriage, Sinclair had developed health problems which he found he could solve using unorthodox diets – raw foods, fasts, vegetarianism. Again he wrote to solve the problem, a book called The Fasting Cure. Upton did experience some relief from the headaches and stomach troubles that had plagued him during his days of deprivation and ignorance of nutritional requirements. As he wrote in his autobiography, 'I had been reading literature of the health cranks, and had resolved upon a drastic experiment; I would try the raw food diet, for which so much was promised. I ate two meals a day, of nuts, fruits, olives, and salad vegetables; the only cooked food being two or three shredded wheat biscuit or some graham crackers. The diet agreed with me marvelously, and for the entire period I never had an ache or pain.' As he became more converted to this nutritional regimen, he was very strict with his wife and child about what they ate, and was probably as much a tyrant on a personal level as he was where any other of his crusades might be challenged.
He and his wife Meta spent some time at the establishments of Kellogg and of health guru Bernarr MacFadden in Battle Creek, Michigan, and then traveled to Cutchogue, Long Island, where he hired a personal assistant named Dave Howatt, who took care of his house as well as much of his business affairs. Howatt was very compatible with his employer, and shared his commitment to the Spartan diet..."

The Fair Hope of Heaven goes on to outline Sinclair's life for a year in Fairhope, including Dave Howatt's bringing a young bride to live in the little community. The book contains excerpts from the wife's diary describing vividly the life in the little offbeat colony on Mobile Bay.

The early 20th Century in America abounded with utopias and the dreamers who lived in them. It has been said that New Jersey was an unlikely spot, yet it was home to some six or seven of them at one time. I would think southern Alabama was far less hospitable, yet it held the place called Fairhope.

The Fair Hope of Heaven is available from or on my website.

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