Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Capital and Labor

Critical Literature

Throughout the Twenties, writers used their talents to support a variety of causes. Supporters of the labor movement were no different. On the pages of magazines like The Masses or in novels, they created stories intended to sway the collective mind of the American public and diffuse the hostility to organized labor.

Upton Sinclair, best known for writing The Jungle (1906), an expose of the meat-packing industry, supported socialist causes throughout his life and continued to write novels that illuminated the injustices he saw in the United States. His 1927 novel Oil! examined the potential for greed and corruption in the oil industry, prompted in part by the Teapot Dome Scandal.

Before Bruce Barton imagined Jesus as the founder of modern business, Sinclair depicted a Jesus called "Carpenter" who finds he is out of step with American society in They Call Me Carpenter (1922). Like Barton, Sinclair's work suggested that Americans did not know the real Jesus. Unlike Barton, Sinclair believed that business had effectively usurped him. In the novel, Carpenter hangs a portrait of a bank president in the church window in the space formerly occupied by Jesus. The novel concluded with Carpenter written off as an anarchist and threat to society.

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Excerpt from <em>They Call Me Carpenter</em>
Excerpt from They Call Me Carpenter
Upton Sinclair

In this excerpt, the narrator and Carpenter are in the midst of a discussion about labor and the potential for worker freedom without the use of force. The narrator finds himself struggling with Carpenter's suggestions.

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