Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Upton Sinclair Defended

In Editor and Publisher Greg Mitchell tackles issues raised by a recent LA Times article about an previously unknown letter by Upton Sinclair. In the letter Sinclair writes to his lawyer that Fred Moore, a radical lawyer, had told him that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty. Some right-wing columnists have used the story to attack Sinclair and the left.

Last Thursday, a Reuters article by Arthur Spiegelman appeared. He took the trouble to consider Sinclair's entire letter-which, it turns out, was three pages long, typed. Pasco either didn't see the whole thing, or looked at it and chose to ignore key parts of it (or her editor deleted it). Spiegelman, also unlike Pasco and Goldberg, explored how Sinclair actually portrayed the Sacco and Vanzetti case in "Boston." Did he indeed "lie" about what Moore told him, or make proper use of it in a popular novel?

Spiegelman wrote that Goldberg "might have been better served if he had read the entire letter instead of the excerpts printed in the Times." In a copy of the full letter made available to Reuters, Sinclair explains that soon after he talked to Moore he began to have doubts about him: "I realized certain facts about Fred Moore. I had heard that he was using drugs. I knew that he had parted from the defense committee after the bitterest of quarrels. ... Moore admitted to me that the men themselves had never admitted their guilt to him; and I began to wonder whether his present attitude and conclusions might not be the result ofhis brooding on his wrongs."

Sinclair had even questioned Moore's former wife, who worked with the lawyer on the case, and she "expressed the greatest surprise" saying he had not expressed thoughts that the men were guilty before. All left out of the Pasco, and Goldberg, articles.

In the letter, he also vowed his novel "Boston" would tell all sides, focusing not on the question of innocence but the lack of a fair trial-putting him on very firm ground in that pursuit, most historians agree. The two anarchists may, indeed, have beenguilty-- but the trial was an outrage.

Further, Anthony Arthur, whose new biography ofSinclair will be published this June, provided excerpts from the book to Spiegelman. They show that in other letters, Sinclair quotes Moore as not even being sure both men were guilty. "Moore said neither man ever admitted it to him," Arthur writes.

In other words, it was only Moore's opinion: hardlythe "unvarnished truth," as {right-wing National Review columnist Jonah]Goldberg presents it. Yet Goldberg charged that Sinclair "knew" that the pair were guilty and "quite simply, lied."

And, finally, what about the charge that Sinclair ignored Moore's insights to save his lefty cred? In fact, "Boston" is a nuanced novel (rare for Sinclair) that introduces many reasons to question the defendant's innocence, and focuses on the question of the trial itself and the evils of the death penalty. In the same letter to Robert Minor, Sinclair explained that despite the troubling views expressed by Moore-and other debunkers--he could still write the novel "on the basis of certainty that they did not have a fair trial."

In the end, the heroine of his novel was patterned on himself: believing in the pair's innocence at the beginning and ending not knowing quite what to believe.

Arthur, the biographer, told Spiegelman that Sinclair's decision to end "Boston" on a note of ambiguity concerning Sacco and Vanzetti's guilt subjected him to "a torrent of abuse from the left." It came from Communists, anarchists and others on the
left-in other words, the kind of people Jonah Goldberg loves to target. Robert Minor called Sinclair "a hired liar, a coward and a traitor."

Once blasted by the left for his handling of the case, Spiegelman concludes, "Now he is being hit from theright." In each case, unjustly.

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