Author’s Adventure

by Upton Sinclair

sinclair_pic_1934_redux (36K)
Upton Sinclair
circa 1934

When one hears the name Upton Sinclair, many images come to mind. The muckraking journalist whose 1906 novel, The Jungle, helped influence the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. The socialist reformer who ran for Congress. The author of Dragon’s Teeth, a novel that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. The failed candidate for governor of California, who was often vilified for his efforts. A deeply religious man who was interested in psychic phenomena, was married three times and, at the time of his death in 1968, had authored 90 books. Yet, in our rush to examine such an influential figure of the 20th century, it is often easy to forget the humble beginnings that marked his early years.

Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 20, 1878, and moved to New York City at the age of ten. His father was an alcoholic who moved from job to job and Sinclair spent part of his early life living with his struggling parents and his wealthy grandparents. By the age of 14, young Upton had completed his basic education and decided to enroll in the City College of New York. The problem, however, was how to support himself while continuing his studies. The answer, and the training ground for what was to come in later life, was found in the field of pulp magazines.

The pulp, and slick, fiction magazines that were big business in the US up into the mid-1900s, got their start in the late 1800s. Frank Munsey, fledgling publisher, established The Golden Argosy in 1882 and, within a few years, had switched to an all-fiction format, shortened the title to Argosy and it, along with Munsey’s Magazine, became the cornerstones of his publishing empire. Other publishers took note of Munsey’s success and soon one magazine after another began to appear on newsstands in an attempt to satisfy the American appetite for fiction. These fiction magazines, of course, needed writers and it was in the early era of the pulps that Sinclair was to find a source of income.

True Blue
No. 12
July 30, 1898
A Cliff Faraday story by Upton Sinclair.

Starting with short stories and filler items for both Argosy and Munsey’s, Sinclair was able to contribute to his family’s income and further his education. His big break came when, at the age of 18, he heard that Street and Smith, a rival publisher of Munsey, was looking for writers to contribute material on a regular basis. An interview with editor Henry Harrison Lewis proved successful, and Sinclair left the meeting with not only a contract to produce a series of short juvenile stories (possibly of novelette length) about cadets at West Point (later known as the “Mark Mallory” series) and a pen name: Lieutenant Frederick Garrison, USA. The Mallory novelettes proved to be successful and Sinclair soon added a second naval series, which he penned under the name of Ensign Clarke Fitch, USN.

With the pay of around $40 per story as incentive, and the editorial invitation to contribute any other writing he wished to do, Sinclair was, by his own account

“...turning out eight thousand words every day, Sunday included. I tell this to literary men, and they say it could not be done; but I actually did it. I kept two stenographers working all the time, taking dictation one day and transcribing the next.”

Able to support himself, his parents, and pay his way at Columbia University, Sinclair continued at this pace for nearly 3 years, only abandoning his pulp career due to his desire to write a serious novel, Springtime and Harvest, which he eventually self-published. He later returned to pulp writing in the early 1900s, but not at his previous breakneck pace.

The Fantastic Pulps
Edited by Peter Haining
Vintage Books 1973
Cover artist unknown

The story “Author’s Adventure” was apparently written by Sinclair at some point during his early pulp career and is one of the few of his early works to survive. According to Peter Haining in his anthology The Fantastic Pulps, the story first appeared anonymously in True Blue Library in 1897 and later appeared under Sinclair’s own name in Street and Smith’s The Popular Magazine in 1904. Unfortunately, Haining’s provenance for the story seems a bit confused.

Part of the confusion may exist that there were two publications with similar names that appeared in the 1890s. True Blue, published by Street and Smith in the US, was known as a half-dime novel—targeted at juveniles and half the price of the longer dime novels and pulps. True Blue Library was published by Aldine Publishing in the UK and, although Aldine seems to have reprinted many American half-dime and dime novels in True Blue Library there does not seem to be any connection between the two publishers, except for the similarity of the titles. To further muddy the waters, Sinclair, in an autobiographical piece in the 1935 Upton Sinclair; bibliography and biographical data edited by Joseph Gaer, states that he wrote for True Blue Library. It should also be noted that both True Blue and True Blue Library began publication in 1898—calling into question the suggested first publication date for “Author’s Adventure” of 1897.

A similar problem exists in Haining’s mention of The Popular Magazine. Neither the Gaer bibliography or the 1973 Upton Sinclair: an annotated checklist by Ronald Gottesman have any listings for The Popular Magazine (or “Author’s Adventure” for that matter). A further search of the first three years of content listings for The Popular Magazine (which had no UK edition) in the Contento Indexes produces no results for either Upton Sinclair or the story in question. Ergo, it shall have to remain a mystery as to where Haining discovered the story, where it first appeared and, to be perfectly honest, whether it was actually written by Sinclair.

“Author’s Adventure” first appeared at some point in the past and our reprinting of the story is based on The Fantastic Pulps, with some minor changes to Americanize punctuation and spelling.

Bob Gay
August, 2021
Introduction © 2021 by Bob Gay

ADVENTURE,” said the successful author, “should be lived before it is written.”

We were sitting around the little club room just after the business meeting, and the conversation had of course closed around Mark Lewis’s latest short story. Someone had asked Mark where he got his ideas, and Mark, always willing to talk of himself, had launched into what might be called a lecture on his success.

Mark was an interesting talker, and one forgave him his usual song of praise when his monologue was spiced with interesting anecdotes of other people. Mark had just told us how to write short stories, as though there were the slightest possibility that one of us duffers might get the urge. Since we’re all dyed-in-the-wool businessmen whose romances consist of the wife, the children, and a flower garden, with perhaps a drop of home-made wine occasionally, the lecture, as a lecture, didn’t greatly appeal to us.

“But look here, Mark,” Fred Clarke protested. “Practically all of your stories are horror tales, murders and mysteries. And we know the most horrible thing that ever happened to you was that you missed the five fifteen one night and had to take a taxi home.”

“Nevertheless,” Mark answered in his most pompous manner, “I live every one of those stories first. You’d be surprised at the number of times I’ve murdered each one of you fellows.”

“Murdered us ?” I gasped in astonishment.

“Exactly. For instance. Mallory, when you were reading the minutes of last week’s meeting tonight, I noticed that that boar’s head over your desk had slipped a little. Immediately, in my mind, I decided that you would have to return to this room after we had left, perhaps to steal Garrison’s priceless collection of cavalry pistols. The boar’s head fell on yours, the tusk pierced your brain, and you were found dead the next morning by the porter. Another mystery.”

I looked at the boar’s head and shuddered. Decidedly, it was not a pleasant way to die, and I could see that the damned thing had slipped a trifle. “And do you mean to say,” I asked, “that by mentally putting your friends through such accidents and ordeals, you create the stories and then write them up?”

“That’s it. Of course it would be lots better for the things to actually happen. I don’t mean, you know, that I’d like to see you fellows all murdered just to give me material for stories.” Mark was trying to be humorous now. “But you can write up an adventure a lot better if you actually see it or are in it. Without that, it isn’t just a case of sitting down and slapping out a lot of words. Before I can do that, I’ve got to construct the whole thing in my mind, and most important of all, I’ve got to get excited about it myself. And I don’t think anybody could get upset over the murder of someone who doesn’t exist; therefore, when I want a murder or a suicide, I get you fellows to do it for me.”

HE smiled triumphantly, but I could see the other men were as nettled as I was. Of course, what went on in Mark’s head couldn’t harm us, but nevertheless, it is uncomfortable to learn that a fellow club member, sitting alongside you, smoking the same brand of cigars, may be plotting your death in any number of ghastly ways. If Mark wrote love stories, now, romances with lovely ladies in the South Seas, I bet we’d all be willing to figure in the tales, but this murder business was not so hot.

“Well, all I can say is it’s a hell of a way to mistreat us,” said Garrison. “You can pretend all the adventures you want, so far as you yourself are concerned, but I’d just as soon be left out of the horrors if you don’t mind, even though they aren’t actual.”

Mark snorted. “Nonsense,” he said. “After all, the next best thing to actually living an adventure, is to create it in your own mind, and it makes it much more realistic when you place people you know in the middle of the experience.”

Seeing our blank faces, he expanded, became more animated.

“For instance,” he continued, “did any of you see Fitch standing at the French window here tonight, just before the meeting? He’s worried about something, I think. Anyway, he stood over here, like this—” Mark walked to the window through which came the faint hum of the street below—"and I thought. Fitch’s worried about something. The ghost of a wicked past is rising up from the grave, and he is haunted by a great Fear. Fear, you see, is with a capital letter. Then I thought, he’s thinking of his past misdeeds, when suddenly he hears a noise behind him. He swings around suddenly,” Mark screwed his fat body around in an attempt to depict a startled reaction—"and sees something large and vague approaching him. He draws back in horror as he feels a damp hand touching him. His foot slips!”

Mark Lewis’s story ended in a wild scream as his foot actually slipped on the polished floor. His arms whirled like windmills as he attempted to recover his balance. Then we caught a last glimpse of his terrorised face, and the window was empty. From the street below came a horrible sound of something soft and heavy landing. An ugly, grisly sound. A sound which found its echo in the sharply drawn breath of the men who had seen Mark Lewis actually live—and die—an adventure, THE ADVENTURE, of which he would never write.

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