The best of the 1906 bestselling novels for most twenty-first century readers are books that clothe social or political criticism in a strong story: Coniston by Winston Churchill, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and The Spoilers by Rex Beach.
Each of the novelists had some first-hand, emotional connection with his subject, which makes their stories especially powerful. The characters may have been invented, but the situations are true.
The Spoilers is probably the most accessible of the three for today’s readers. Rex Beach’s novel is a thriller with the requisite amount of romance.
Two film versions of the novel were made. Gary Cooper played the male lead in one and John Wayne was leading man in the second, which tells you all you need to know about Beach’s characterization.
The protagonists of The Spoilers confront a scheme cooked up by politicians to legally rob Alaska miners of their gold. The scheme, promoted as a plan to protect the miners, has the blessing of the federal government and its courts.
The intrepid heroes not only have to figure out what’s going on but also defeat the men in suits back in the lower 48 with little more than their wits and shovels.
The Spoilers is based on true events that Beach observed while in Alaska. He had trained for the law in Chicago, but the gold fields had more allure than the law courts.
During the Klondike Gold Rush, Beach spent five years unsuccessfully prospecting for gold.
In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair follows a fictional Lithuanian immigrant family who have come to America early in the 1900s seeking new opportunities.
They find only the same old oppressions.
They arrived with little and, despite their hard work, that little is gradually taken from them.
Sinclair uses the family to expose the working and living conditions experienced by immigrants who found jobs in Chicago’s stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meat packing plants.
The lead character in the novel turns toward socialism which offers some hope of a better future.
Sinclair himself was a socialist and a muckraker (the Progressive Era term for an investigative reporter). He went undercover, working in the Chicago meatpacking plants to get a first hand look at conditions.
The Jungle was first published as a serial in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason for which Sinclair worked.
Besides writing on political topics important to socialists, Sinclair became a socialist politician. He ran as a Socialist Party candidate for Congress, and in 1934 ran for governor of California as a Democrat.
He was unsuccessful both times.
Coniston focuses on the figure of Jethro Bass, a cloddish country lad from the lower socioeconomic class, which in the middle half of the 19th century was usually called “the wrong side of the tracks.”
Jethro becomes a a deal maker, a behind-the-scenes string-puller. Smoke-filled rooms are his natural habitat.
Jethro exploits the vulnerabilities of the New Hampshire political system to amass great power.
Coniston‘s author Winston Churchill knew a thing or two about New Hampshire politics. He was twice elected to the New Hampshire state legislature.
The same year that Coniston was topping the bestseller list, Churchill lost a bid to become the Republican nominee for governor. Six years later he ran for governor again, this time as a Progressive, and was again defeated.
The Spoilers, The Jungle, and Coniston are novels whose subjects readers will remember but whose stories will slip the mind.
The value of such books is that they can be picked up and read again without ruining the story or lessening the value of the writing.
Their downside is that they aren’t memorable enough for readers to seek them out for a second reading.