Upton Sinclair – Dragon’s Teeth

dragon's teeth“He traveled here and there over its surface, and everywhere had seen men diligently plowing the soil and sowing dragon’s teeth – from which, as in the old legend, armed men would some day spring.” (Sinclair 518)

I didn’t know what to expect from Upton Sinclair’s 1943 winner Dragon’s Teeth. When we first glanced over the list when Drew and I first conceived of this project both of us had heard of Upton Sinclair. We knew him from his acclaim for The Jungle which I own a copy of but have not read. Also, I had heard that one of his books Oil! was the basis for the movie There Will Be Blood. Those two works have a hard edge to them and the world view they spring out of is very pronounced. I didn’t know though that Sinclair was the founder of a Socialist commune until I talked with another interesting character, Mr. Sigwart at Classic Books in Dekalb. Mr. Sigwart told me that Sinclair had run for Congress as a Socialist and that he had founded his own commune. After that conversation, on the long road to the end of the Pulitzer collection phase, I was very excited to read Sinclair’s book. I haven’t gotten to this book until very near the end of this project which I think I might have been saving to keep my interest up in the remaining books.

Drew mentioned in his post that this book sits on the shelf alongside many other books about World War II which is correct. He also feels that many of those books portray an unabashedly patriotic version of that event which I am not sure I agree with, but his sentiment is true. We have one perspective on WWII via the Pulitzer Prize committee, the American perspective, bold added for emphasis. This book is not a great companion to that collection. Sinclair leaves America out of much of the consideration of world events leading up to WWII which is bizarre for an American book to do so. Dragon’s Teeth is the European perspective on the lead up to WWII told by a Socialist, not a very American book published in 1942, won the prize in 1943 at the height of the War in Europe. I was shocked many times throughout this book how Socialistic it was and how progressive of a pick this would have been for the Pulitzer committee during WWII.

Beside just the import of the pick and the circumstances around this novel, this novel is incredible. As Drew stated, there are many other WWII books that won the prize. The same troupe that applies to Academy-Awards seems to apply to Pulitzer’s. Sinclair’s writing impressed me more than many other Pulitzer winners. Sinclair is a master of plot, character development, and suspense. Through some of the conversations about this book along the Pulitzer path, Drew and I gather that this was a detective series. Much of the first part of this book does not seem at all like a detective novel whatsoever. Lanny and his gang are cruising around European a Jewish millionaires yacht for most of it. The entire gang seems aloof to the problems of the world, and content with just meandering around Europe throwing parties, complaining about trivial things, and hosting seances on the yacht. Without know the political leanings of Sinclair, this book would seem pedantic at times.

Sinclair’s highly Socialistic world view brings these events into sharp contrast, the one problem with not being familiar with Sinclair’s writing is that I couldn’t tell if he was being snarky about this people or not. I would gather that he probably wasn’t because of the arch of redemption for Lanny, that he finally overcomes his obsession with possessions and comfort for his near relative. There are a plethora of interesting moments in this book that draw out some of uniqueness and intrigue of this pick. One such bizarre event in the novel is when Lanny Budd meets with Adolf Hitler twice in this book, both under the auspicious of Lanny’s art dealings and prestige world wide, and also that Lanny was portraying himself as a Nazi-sympathizer to get close to the top leaders, Goebbels and Goring. Just Sinclair’s choice for a spy that infiltrates the highest levels of pre-WWII Nazi Germany is an aristocratic American art-dealer married to a wealthy woman is an very interesting choice.

I have not read many detective novels before the Pulitzer project started. I read Chabon’s Yiddish Police Man’s Union, and I believe that is it. I enjoyed the latter half of this book’s pacing, I felt visibly nervous near the end. I could not put this book down although with my ironic book dust allergy I became more and more allergic the closer I held the book to my face. I felt like I had to rend the words from the page. I had to find out what happened next, will Lanny get Freddi out of Dachau. The book mesmerized me by the end of it. I was very impressed by this book.

The one detraction I will offer this book as well as Sinclair the writer, politician, and Socialist organizer, Writers with pronounced world views often cannot put them aside. Sinclair often times does not do that clearly and it can be distracting. I feel like a fairly hard-leaning lefty as many in the arts are, but there are times when i felt short shrift to believe anything else in the world the Socialism. I loved the world Sinclair created. It is bold, dark at times, tense, but palpable.

I agree with Drew that I am also very interested in reading the rest of this series. There were so many plot points that went left unaddressed and hanging in very interesting ways that I look forward to seeing where the rest of these books go.

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