Upton Sinclar: “Boston” – attacks on the system (archive)

“Boston” begins with the funeral of a patriarch, a member of the blue-blooded caste who runs the city. Josiah Quincy Thornwell, former governor of the State of Massachusetts, still called “Commonwealth” in nostalgic transfiguration of old times, sits slumped at his desk on a summer day in 1915. What Sinclair now presents in this first chapter is a panorama of resentment, greed and delusion. It is the overture to what will follow later. Because the dead man is not even under the earth, the bickering about the inheritance begins among his daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren.

Thornwell’s son-in-law, James Scatterbridge, had practically scoured the family-owned businesses from the old man through clever financial transactions. The rest of the family does not forgive the upstart. Now it is about carpets, furniture and jewelry and whether the company commissioned with the funeral is actually befitting. Stunned and disgusted, Josiah’s widow Cornelia looks at the undignified goings-on. Cornelia, the main character in Sinclair’s novel, is not of the origin that the narrow-minded urban society intends to accept.

“Though Cornelia’s smile was a mystery, no one thought of getting to the bottom of it; precisely because they never thought it would be possible to learn from a non-Bostonian, the Thornwells had to be good or bad as real Bostonians The fact that Cornelia’s father had taught as a professor at a small college seemed to be reasonably respectable, but his father had been an ordinary immigrant, and in three generations the top ten thousand of the city were supposed to whisper to their neighbors at dinner: “But yes, mine Dear, Cornelia’s grandfather came across the Atlantic in the wood class! ”

Description of the working class milieu

At the end of the first chapter, Sinclair takes a surprising move: Cornelia writes a farewell letter to her three daughters immediately after her husband’s funeral – and makes off. Supposedly to accompany an old friend on a long trip. In truth, to start a new life in the city of Plymouth, some 40 miles from Boston. A life as a worker in a christening factory.

Frankly, this phrase is not particularly credible, but Sinclair absolutely needed it strategically. Because Cornelia finds accommodation in the apartment of an Italian couple who has another subtenant; a man named Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who is immediately likeable to Cornelia. Sinclair’s way of working demonstrates this somewhat rough construction: he is not concerned with literary elegance. Sinclair earned his degree by writing penny books. He is concerned with social relevance.

In fact, Sinclair wrote in the idea of ​​changing and improving the world with his works. “Boston” is an overtly partisan book that completely sided with the underprivileged. And so it is teeming with pathetic, declamatory passages in which Sinclair drives attacks on the system.

“Why were the rich so blind? How could you rob workers of any respect for law and justice without wasting any thought on the consequences? What should all the talk about Americanization be if you gave ordinary people all the , yes, even denied human rights? They were beaten like dogs – and then reacted in surprise when they turned around and bit your calf. ”

Mix of facts and fiction

There has never been a Cornelia Thornwell, at least not as a contemporary of Vanzettis in Boston. Sinclair mixes fictional and real figures with the aim of creating a cross-class awareness of the injustice that has happened to the two Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. And by the way, he captures the widely diverging milieus that make up the workers’ movement of the late 1920s and early 1920s. There is no unity, but distrust. Irish Catholics warn Cornelia about dealing with dangerous Italian anarchists. A bomber whispers to Cornelia that they are bombers and unbelievers.

As an alternative to this, Sinclair gradually builds up the highly intelligent, readable and quoting Dante to a real saint. An idealistic dreamer, for whom the well-being of others is more important than his own suffering. Again, the literary foil was not Sinclair’s thing; he works with stereotypes that do not stop at physiognomic features. Just think of the red-faced, fat-beaded Boston bankers and industrialists who are shown here with relish.

Vanzetti, however, as the novel insinuates, is a thorn in the side of the power elite in the troubled times of strikes and workers’ uprisings. When the United States entered the great war in Europe, Vanzetti fled to Mexico as well as the shoemaker Nicola Sacco. The two had met shortly before at a political gathering. Their fear of being drafted into military service was completely unfounded – conscription only applied to American citizens. But in the later process, the supposed flight of flags should be another piece of the mosaic that would take the jury against the two guest workers.

Cornelia literally works her sore fingers in the christening factory and at the same time builds a network of relationships in the red working class. The Thornwell clan has now found them and is using all means of power to bring the renegade relatives home and to protect the family’s reputation. Vain. When Cornelia’s granddaughter Betty seems to be in trouble during a trip to Europe, Cornelia travels after her. To be confronted with a message on the ship.

“Two days later, the newspaper said that the Boston police had launched the two leaders of a gang of criminals who were accused of murdering the paymaster and a security guard at the Slater and Morill shoe factory in South Braintree, and looting around $ 16,000 in their raid It can be assumed that the same perpetrators have already robbed several money transports in Eastern Massachusetts. ”

Cornelia only learns that the names of the two detainees are Sacco and Vanzetti in a letter from home. The two are alleged to have committed two robberies on money transporters in December 1919 and April 1920. In the latter two security guards were shot. What happens from now on is an unprecedented spectacle of lies, twists, manipulations and fakes. At least if you want to follow the version of Upton Sinclair, and he does everything to win over the reader for his view of the world.

A mercilessly narcissistic judge

From the moment Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, “Boston” became a judiciary of such enormous proportions that it is hard to imagine today. At the center of this grotesque spectacle is by far the most successful character in the novel, which Sinclair unfolds in all its ambivalence: Judge Webster, called “Web” Thayer, an upstart with a veritable inferiority complex. A narcissistic boast who cares about the recognition of the blue-blooded Boston money company. Thayer is caught in a cycle: he feels the contempt for the top ten thousand, to which he does not belong. And he has to watch how every attempt to gain their favor makes him even more ridiculous than he already is. Thayer is a marionette with a quick temper and irrefutable judgments – which he made long before the trial started.

“Thayer ‘s angular, furrowed face symbolized the old Puritan ethos; and his voice, screeching like a hacksaw, was an heirloom from his ancestors, who had bravely defied the harsh climate of New England for three hundred years. Although he tried hard to exude calm , his hurried looks betrayed how much the many foreigners in the room worried him. As far as the Reds were concerned, he was plagued by the sheer delusion of persecution. ”

Redundancies and stereotypes

There are many objections to Upton Sinclair’s mammoth novel, which was actually published only a few months after Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution: it should be noted that the book was written breathlessly and with outrage. It is full of repetitions, redundancies and lavishly described secondary characters that will no longer play a role in the further course of the story. Sinclair did extensive research; he has filed trial files, interviewed several defenders of the two defendants and even visited Bartolomeo Vanzetti in prison. All of that, which can be felt, had to go into this novel; nothing could be left out or shortened.

And yet the book develops an ever increasing pull in the description of the course of the seven years it takes until the two delinquents are finally sentenced and executed. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that the complex socially and politically determined conflicts of interest of those involved are skillfully juxtaposed and processed into a clear picture of the times. In the growing number of supporters of the two accused, attitudes are widespread: moderate socialists fight communists; Anarchists simply refuse to cooperate with government bodies. Vanzetti says early on that he would rather die innocently than the real perpetrator, because he too is only a victim of exploitative conditions. And among the Irish workers who immigrated early there is mistrust of the new immigrants from Italy. The economic situation is coming to a head; prices go up, wages go down.

And while Judge Thayer and the sinister prosecutor Fred Katzmann pull one witness after the other out of the hat and ignore the defense witnesses, a real crime is swept under the carpet at the same time: Cornelia’s sons-in-law, who years ago robbed a manufacturer of his flourishing possessions have, wash themselves away from all guilt with legal nooks and cheers of the city society. Viola Siegemund’s new translation also depicts these social differences linguistically: Siegemund has closely adhered to the respective sociolects, especially in the transmission of the figure speech. The class society becomes audible in the verbatim speech.

“In this world of lies, lies reigned. Those who dared to speak about truthfulness were immediately labeled as utopians or dreamers, or worse – as traitors.”

Sinclair exaggerates the process into the mythical

From today’s perspective, it has a comic unlikely to be intended by the author, with what hair-raising audacity the court acts against the two accused. Sinclair exaggerates the process into the mythical; for him, there are not just two presumably innocent men on trial here, no: the Boston plutocracy is setting an example in order to establish public order and cement the shaky conditions.

The main witnesses are bribed, manipulated or unreliable. A hat that is found near the crime scene is waved around in front of Sacco’s nose until he admits that his hats were always as dirty as this one. The prosecutor’s conclusion: the hat belongs to the accused.

The ballistics expert turns his mouth around until the murder weapon and the one found at Sacco are suddenly supposed to be identical. Judge Thayer falsifies testimonials and intimidates witnesses. The bad luck of Sacco and Vanzetti: their witnesses of discharge are almost all foreigners and therefore not credible. When the lawyer suggests Cornelia to save the lives of the two Italians with a false statement, she is outraged. Meanwhile, one of the lay judges greets the American flag when entering the courtroom and publicly states before the verdict is pronounced that the accused belong in the electric chair. The jury: a collection of good, upright Boston citizens.

“Never in life could they have been made to understand that the ranks of the five eyewitnesses consisted of a convict who was convicted many times, a hysterical prostitute, a fool, a disturbed fan button and a pitiful victim of questionable questioning tactics, all of which either identified other candidates as perpetrators or at some point admitted not to have seen the criminals. Not only did the prosecutor know, the presiding judge knew more than he admitted – the trial resulted in a conspiracy between the district attorney and the judge. ”

Prisoners as saints

Cornelia’s struggle and that of the supporters’ committee is a struggle against windmills: whatever bias or evidence they submit – it ends up with Judge Thayer. In the end it is a race against time, which is finally ended by a governor described by Sinclair as smart, opportunistic and business-minded. It is known how the story of Sacco and Vanzetti ends: on August 23, 1927, both die on the electric chair.

In “Boston”, the novel, the two anarchists, but above all Vanzetti, transcend into religious spheres in their last weeks. Vanzetti becomes the all and all forgiving sage; a martyr who takes suffering to serve a higher purpose.

“That is our destiny and our triumph. In a dream we would not have thought that we could achieve so much, in the name of tolerance, of justice. Our words … our life … our pain – nothing! If we were taken away this life … the life of a good shoemaker and a poor fishmonger … everything. This last moment is ours … this agony is our triumph! “

Sinclair does not specifically spare his readers the description of the execution itself. It is part of his documentary claim to describe the smell of burned body hair in the death row and the respective strength of the electric shock. It is very likely that Sacco and Vanzetti will never be innocent again. Credible theories suggest that Nicola Sacco may have been involved in at least one of the two robberies. And that Bartolomeo Vanzetti could at least have been a know-it-all. At Sinclair, their execution becomes a breach of civilization.

Sinclair was quoted as saying that it was the most shocking crime since the murder of Abraham Lincoln. The verdict, Sinclair added, would poison public life for at least a generation. The protests against the enforcement of the judgment were immense not only in Boston and the United States, but also in Europe. Cornelia Thornwell, on the other hand, sees this only as strengthening the powers of the system to which she herself has belonged for decades.

“Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, scholars and simple workers, in the face of the sheer overwhelming power of evil, gradually came to bare despair, a helpless rage, a blind hatred, hatred of this great, important city, its immeasurable Greed camouflaged with piety – complacently, morally and insidiously, cultured and correctly and deadly. ”

But what about the topicality and readability of a novel like “Boston” in the present? Again, the literary weaknesses are obvious. “Boston” is a hybrid between documentary and fiction. You have to judge a political novel like this by special standards. Fiction has a duty to do justice to the attitudes of its characters. It has to create aesthetic consistency within its own world. Based on this, “Boston” is a book that lives up to its own claims. And if you take a look towards the center of power in the United States these days and see how political elites differentiate themselves from legal challenges and build walls of prejudice against supposed threats from outside – then you might get the idea that Upton Sinclairs ” Boston “may still be a fairly contemporary reading.

Upton Sinclair: “Boston”
Manesse Verlag, Munich 2017, 1024 pages, 42 euros