May 23, 2012

Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” Born in a Shack on Princeton Ridge

Not since Byron awoke one morning to find himself famous has there been such an example of worldwide celebrity won in a day by a book.

—New York Evening World

The novel that made Upton Sinclair rich and famous “in a day” was written in a tarpaper shack behind a farm house on the Princeton Ridge. By all rights, The Jungle should have been written in New York or in the urban nightmare of its setting, Chicago, or anywhere but “the hills north of Princeton.” Why there? What brought the young muckraker to our neck of the woods? And where exactly had he written the book?

Last fall I was researching a photo-based piece for Princeton Magazine on the local residences of famous writers. My mission seemed simple enough. The other houses had been easily located and photographed. But Upton Sinclair had apparently resided in a whole slew of mostly vanished tents, cottages, shacks, and farmhouses in at least two different locations between the western edge of Ridgeview Road and Province Line Road.

The rub is, I could have solved the mystery at the outset simply by visiting the offices of a local realtor. No need to study old maps or old issues of the Princeton Recollector, no need to drive all over the Ridge buttonholing residents in my quest, no need to consult former Ridge homeowner John McPhee, who graciously played a wary Watson to my hapless Holmes in The Case of the Disappearing Cottage. Nor was it necessary to join forces with another Ridge resident, the dauntless, ever resourceful Sherri, who played Nancy Drew to my Frank and Joe Hardy in The Adventure of the Chimney in Back.

Of course I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Into the Mystique

As he helped me put the facts of the case in focus, even at one point consulting Sinclair’s autobiography on my behalf, McPhee contended that “an accurate location” of Sinclair’s “early dwellings or sites thereof … would be something close to impossible to achieve. You can’t, of course, just drive up to some place and think ‘that’s probably it.’”

But that’s just what I did one sunny, hazy, mid-November Sunday afternoon.

Anthony Arthur’s biography, Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair (Random House 2006), includes an old photo of the Sinclair house “near the intersection of Drake’s Corner Road and Province Line Road.” That’s pretty specific. No mystery there. Even if the house had been demolished or renovated or added to, I could scout the spot, and if the house was there, I could ask the owner’s permission to have a photographer take some pictures of it.

So, down Drake’s Corner toward my goal I go, only it’s a road I’ve never been on before, I know nothing of its ways, its twists and turns, ups and downs. What starts as a paved surface begins to narrow, slip out of definition and direction and sense, as if it might simply disappear, leaving one to drive off the edge of the world. Now it seems little more than a path, no room for oncoming vehicles, nature’s closing in with Blair Witch overtones, the light’s gone strange, as if strained through a filter, everything more intense, more haunting, and yet even as it seems most strange it’s becoming excitingly familiar. A force far more compelling than the possibility of finding the house in the photograph is at work. I’m picking up flashes of southern Indiana, some scary thicket of childhood, Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, the mysterious landscape the schoolbus used to plow through every schoolday morning.

Yes, there’s a frame house of the right vintage at the intersection of Drake’s Corner Road and Province Line Road. The owner is doing yard work, I pull over, introduce myself, explain my mission, and am thrilled to hear that his house had belonged to someone named Stout, which is the name of the farmer who had sold it to Sinclair. I send hopeful emails to Sherri and McPhee. The next day I show the owner the photo in the biography, but nothing matches, neither the house nor the lay of the land. So I go on my way, neither sadder nor wiser, but never mind: I’m in a state of benign mystification. It’s all to the good that the previous day’s quest led nowhere because I know there’s no such thing as nowhere in this somewhere. I’m on the other side of the Looking Glass, in the suburbs of Xanadu. Yesterday’s drive has created an enchanted neighborhood around Drake’s Corner, Province Line, the Ridge. References to other names associated with the locale — Cedar Grove and Hanging Rock — make my eyes light up and my heart beat faster. And all to find the work space of a writer I’d never read a word of — no, not even The Jungle. Not until the quest began.

Reading Sinclair 

The Jungle was not the first book Upton Sinclair wrote on Princeton Ridge. If you wonder what made him come here in the first place, the answer is a novel about the War Between the States. In his preface to the revised edition, retitled Theirs Be The Guilt (Twayne 1959), Sinclair explains that the book was written in 1903 and published a year later as Manassas: “Its author was twenty-four, living in two tents in the hills north of Princeton, New Jersey …. I had moved to that hillside woodland in order to have the use of the fine Civil War collection at Princeton University Library. They allowed me to take home a dozen volumes at a time, and I would rent a farmer’s horse and buggy for $1 a trip and drive down from the hills to load up a week’s groceries and an armful of reference books.” He claims to have studied over 200 volumes.

The two tents were pitched on the property behind a farmhouse on Ridgeview Road. According to a New York Times piece from July 21 1985 (“Upton Sinclair’s Princeton Hideaway),” all that then remained were “a few hand-hewn logs” forming “a skeletal frame” and a “chimney … of mortar and stone” under “a canopy of oak and poplar branches.” When my fellow investigator Sherri and I explored the spot in February, all that remained was the base of the chimney and some wooden remnants like railroad ties. The owner had been kind enough to give us a sheaf of material that answered all the essential questions about both Sinclair sites. That there had been two tents, yes, along with one 16’ by 18’ cottage and a “tar paper shack for writing” that in 1905 was moved to a spot behind the farm house Sinclair purchased a mile and a half away on Province Line Road upon his return from the famously productive stockyard adventures in Chicago.

I’ve been to both the Province Line and Ridgeview sites now, and have rushed through both books. Walking around the proximate location of the “black shack” where The Jungle was written, I tried to imagine how it had been. Wife and child in the house with the carpenter’s gothic front porch, Sinclair scribbling his fiendish work in that poorly insulated hut while the winter wind howled like an outraged muse. Apparently, that’s how he wanted it. He’d written the first book in the same flimsy, storm-besieged structure during the previous winter.

It makes sense that Sinclair wanted to endure heavy weather or at least a semblance of exposure to risk and adversity. He needed to write in a wilderness. The worst thing he could imagine was to be trying to work in the same space with his wife and baby. That’s why he pitched the second tent, built the second cabin. He had to be haunted, on the edge, aware of the precipice. Adversity is what The Jungle is all about. You don’t finish that book, you wake up from it, shaking your head, pinching yourself, as from a nightmare. What gets you isn’t simply the hair-raising stuff about the meat-packing plant, the rats, the filth, but the relentless punishment Sinclair lavishes on Jurgis, his Lithuanian Job whose wife is raped and later dies in childbirth and whose only son, a toddler, falls from an elevated sidewalk and drowns in mud. At the plant, where men drown in tubs of lard, a 13-year-old relative is locked in a storage room and eaten by rats. Jurgis is hammered at every turn.

Think about the writer who is conjuring up this nightmare. Did his wife and child shudder when he came back into the house of a night, wild-eyed, after one of his bouts with the demon muse? Here’s a budding socialist who wanted to write, as he boasted to Ernest Poole when he first arrived in Chicago, “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Labor Movement.” Instead he wrote a novel as nightmarish as Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, a far greater work.

Imagine this unlikely creation burning like a fire in the windows of the wind-blown shack, seen flaring and fading through the trees on Province Line Road as the author hounds his protagonist through every imaginable circle of urban hell. This is the passionate, anguished, pull-out-all-the-stops narrative Sinclair wraps around his documentary dynamite, an explosion heard round the world (“I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit its stomach”). “By accident?”

Recalling the eerie, exciting chill I felt that first day driving down Drake’s Corner Road, I wonder if Sinclair’s muse isn’t still haunting those woods. I talked about it that November afternoon with the owner of the house I mistook for Sinclair’s. When I said, “This area feels strange, spooky,” he told me that the people living in the nearby McMansions had said as much.

The Chimney in Back

It was thanks to Sherri’s considerable charm that we were allowed to explore the yard behind the house on Ridgeview Road, which turns out to be not far from the home owned by Sherri and her husband, who, coincidentally enough, has always had “a fascination with The Jungle.

All that remains of the cottage is the base of the chimney, the open hearth that Sinclair, his wife and baby warmed themselves by during the vicious winter of 1903-1904. The author must have been better company when he was working on Manassas, where one striking domestic detail makes an unlikely appearance in the next to last chapter. With the battle raging, bullets flying, Union soldiers are barricaded in the home of a “poor white,” where, “near the fireplace of the little room,” two kittens are playing together: “one would lie on its back and the other would bite it, and they would roll over and over.”