by Upton Sinclair. New York: A. & C. Boni. 1928. 12mo. 2 vols. 755 pp. $5.00.
ONE’s first thought, when laying down this novel, is that it supplies an almost perfect disproof of the fact that Sacco and Vanzetti ever lived.
Mr. Sinclair’s method is the reverse of Swift’s and Defoe’s. They made fantastic stories plausible by loading them, especially at the beginning, with a wealth of small, commonplace, convincing details. Mr. Sinclair starts with what seem to be such monstrous whoppers about imaginary characters that when he comes to the real ones they seem fictitious, too.
If you believe that a celebrity, past eighty years old, can die after dinner and lie in his library all night, although surrounded by valet, butler, and maids; if you believe that well-bred women can quarrel furiously at their fathers’ funerals over the family heirlooms, caring much more for antiques than appearances; and if you believe that one of the best-known women in Massachusetts can run away from home and work for the Plymouth Cordage Company for a year without discovery — then you are well started in Mr. Sinclair’s new book.
Vanzetti makes his appearance after about forty pages; his broken English is reproduced in a way that casts ghastly humor, rather than pathos, over his fate. Many a martyr has spoken brokenly; but the biographer is wise who avoids a literal rendering of such phrases as ‘a great, reech clooba — I washa da deesh.’ He refers, with equally unhappy effect, to his codefendant as ‘Sacc’.’ Meanwhile, a second case is being described concurrently — the Willett-Sears litigation. Blue blood is apparently the synonym for had manners and for greed; black coats are usually a symbol for the black-heartedness of bankers, lawyers, and their caste. There are savage portraits of Judge Thayer and Governor Fuller; but the peculiar improbability of the imaginary characters has done its work, and these very real men become improbable, too. There are curious, almost ingenious little slips, throughout, like ‘Camp Putnam,’ and the ‘Friday dances’ and the ‘Alpha Delta Phi’ club of Harvard. They are all very nearly right; but they make the whole effect very oddly wrong.
The present reviewer cannot close without paying tribute to Mr. Sinclair’s sincerity. He writes, as always, from a burning sense of conviction. In Boston he has attempted what he describes as a contemporary historical novel, a new art-form. It is far and away the most ambitious novel of this year, or many years. Beyond most men now living, Mr. Sinclair is convinced. It is a pity he so seldom manages to be convincing, too.