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Ruth Engs
Department of Applied Health Science

Tracy James
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Upton Sinclair satirized, promoted healthful living

Unseen Upton Sinclair, edited by health historian Ruth Clifford Engs, includes unpublished works discovered at Indiana University's Lilly Library

Editors note: Indiana University Health Historian Ruth Clifford Engs will discuss and read from her edited collection, Unseen Upton Sinclair, Nine Unpublished Stories, Essays and Other Works, Thursday, Oct. 22, at 4 p.m. at the Lilly Library at IU Bloomington. A reception with light refreshments will follow.

Oct. 20, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Literary giant Upton Sinclair, best known for his social and economic commentary, is introduced as a Progressive Era health reformer in Unseen Sinclair, Nine Unpublished Stories, Essays and Other Works, edited by Indiana University health historian Ruth Clifford Engs.

"Unseen Upton Sinclair"

The Jungle, Sinclair's exposť of the meatpacking industry in the early 20th century, marked the tipping point that led to the Pure Food and Drug Act in the U.S. But there was more. While researching the people and personalities of the Progressive Era, Engs frequently came across Sinclair's imprint, in the form of writings, letters to the editor of newspapers and correspondence with other reformers.

"What I found was that he was involved with all sorts of reforms, from personal diet and exercise to eugenics and sexually transmitted disease prevention," said Engs, author of several books that explore Progressive Era movements and reformers.

As Engs began researching Sinclair's work for a potential biography detailing his health reformer persona, she found an interesting box in IU Bloomington's Lilly Library, which holds most of Sinclair's papers. The box was labeled "'unidentified major works' by Upton Sinclair," and contained a mishmash of folders -- and ultimately the basis for Unseen Sinclair, Nine Unpublished Stories, Essays and Other Works (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2009).

"He wrote about the merits of artificial insemination for single women and experimental marriage," Engs said. "I found a sketch for two plays, one poking fun at 'woman suffrage,' while the other, 'The Health Hunter,' talked about all kinds of cures, including water cures and raw food diets."

Some 'cures' are comically outrageous, such as the squirrel diet, a cure for freckles using radishes, a milk diet -- a sour milk diet -- and a daily dose of sand. Engs said Sinclair tried a variety of fad diets of the day, settling on the benefits of fasting, as he tried to address his own stomach problems, which he called "dyspepsia."

"The topics in the material are so similar to what's been happening in this country in the last 30 years -- similar patterns and similar concerns about health and how to keep well, avoid illness, cure through complementary medicine," Engs said. "The 'Health Hunter' sketch might be offensive to some people today because it's too close to home, satirizing the lucrative business of health and religious gurus who fleece the rich and famous."

None of the writings in Unseen Upton Sinclair are dated, but Engs estimates most were written between 1909 and 1915, toward the end of his first marriage and the early years of his second marriage. His papers reveal little about the status of the material, leaving Engs to speculate based on her readings of biographies and autobiographical writings by Sinclair and his close friends. She said it is possible they were not published because he or his editors considered them too controversial for the time -- or because he thought they would make it even more difficult for him to obtain a divorce from his first wife.

Engs includes in the book a 45-page biography, which she said includes new information. The book then is divided into three sections, each with three works: "Woman Suffrage and Emancipation," with titles such as Suffragetteland and The Emancipated Husband: A One-Reel Comedy; "Defying Sexual Convention," with titles such as Eugenic Celibate Motherhood and An Experimental Honeymoon; and "Search for Health," which includes The Health Hunters, Restore and Keep Your Health by Controlling Emotions and 'Little Algernon' Fragments.

She said she thinks the collection would be of interest to history and culture buffs, libraries, Sinclair fans, and scholars and others interested in the Progressive Era, early 20th-century literature and American studies.

Engs' other books include The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2005), The Progressive Era's Health Reform Movement: A Historical Dictionary (Praeger, 2003) and Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform (Praeger, 2000). Engs is professor emeritus in the Department of Applied Health Science in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.

Engs can be reached at For more information about Unseen Upton Sinclair, visit