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Upton Sinclair satirized, promoted healthful living

Unseen Upton Sinclair, edited by health historian Ruth Clifford Engs, includes unpublished works discovered at IU's Lilly Library

Editors note: Indiana University Health Historian Ruth Clifford Engs will discuss and read from her edited collection, Unseen Upton Sinclair, Nine Published 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.

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Fad diets, exercise, promises of spiritual and mental cures, crusades against alcohol and tobacco -- these common health themes from the last 30 years also were prominent fixtures of the late 1800s and early 1900s. And according to Indiana University health historian Ruth Clifford Engs, literary giant Upton Sinclair was in the thick of it.

"Unseen Upton Sinclair"

Author of classics such as The Jungle, the Pulitzer-prize winning author is generally known for his social and economic commentary, even though his exposť The Jungle marked the tipping point that led to the Pure Food and Drug Act in the U.S. Yet as Engs researched the people and personalities of the Progressive Era, she frequently came across Sinclair's imprint, in the form of writings, letters to the editor of newspapers and correspondences 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Sinclair," and contained a mishmash of folders -- and ultimately the basis for Engs' latest book, Unseen Sinclair, Nine Unpublished Stories, Essays and Other Works.

The collection, most of which are comedies or satire, firmly establishes Sinclair as a progressive health reformer.

"He wrote about the merits of artificial insemination for unwed motherhood 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 Hunters 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.

To read more articles from the Department of Applied Health Science in the School of HPER, visit