On Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth

“In tragic times like these, an elderly author has nothing to give but words. This collection of words is dedicated to the men and women in many parts of the world who are giving their lives in the cause of freedom and human decency.”
-Autumn 1941 (Upton Sinclair’s opening dedication)

Written during the throes of World War II, Dragon’s Teeth is the third novel in Upton Sinclair’s “World’s End” series (also sometimes called the “Lanny Budd” series). While it was initially considered for the 1942 Pulitzer Prize, Dragon’s Teeth actually won the Prize the following year in 1943 for reasons explicated below. Between 1940 and 1953, Mr. Sinclair published a total of eleven novels in the “Lanny Budd” series, each book featured the central protagonist Lanny Budd, a young left-leaning socialist whose upper-class activities are buttressed by his family’s wealth thanks to a successful munitions company entitled the Budd Gunmakers Company (in truth, there was an actual company named the Budd Company which manufactured arms during World War II, founded by Edward G. Budd in 1912). Apparently, Lanny Budd was a composite figure of several people known to Mr. Sinclair: art dealer Martin Birnbaum and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. among others. There is an interesting duality within Lanny –a contrast between Lanny’s elitist lifestyle on the one hand, and his abstract academic concern for the working poor on the other plays a central tension in the novel.

In fact, throughout nearly all of Dragon’s Teeth we experience the eccentricities of this prosperous patrician –his world is one of yachts, fine art, quality wine, operas, symphonies, and European villas– meanwhile economic and political troubles begin to brew all across the world. At the outset in France, Lanny’s wife, Irma, gives birth to a daughter named Frances. Irma is, herself, the daughter of a New York utilities magnate and she is heiress of the “Barnes fortune” –a family trust valued at $23M in assets alongside a vast Long Island estate. She represents the “old money” conservatism of yesteryear’s oligarchs as well as an outdated way of thinking which is in contrast to Lanny’s modestly righteous concern for social justice. After the birth of Frances, Lanny and Irma decide to leave their newborn daughter in the care of a nanny, freeing themselves to sail around Europe aboard a yacht entitled the Bessie Budd. En route to the best ports around Europe — France, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Germany, and Russia among others– Lanny and the group wander through ancient ruins while contemplating the decaying fabric of human civilization. To set the scene, their venture coincides with the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

After the stock market collapse, Lanny begins to sense a creeping specter of viciousness rising amidst the class warfare beginning to permeate Europe –from growing racial prejudice and demagogic populism, to newfangled anarchistic separatism and revolutionary bolshevism. “Nobody understood these events, nobody could predict them. You would hear people say: ‘The bottom has been reached now; things are bound to take a turn.’ They would bet their money on it – and then, next day or next week, stocks would be tumbling and everybody terrified” (135).

The excitement begins in Book II where we experience the impassioned exhilaration of an early Nazi rally. The yacht carrying Lanny and Irma arrives in Germany a week or so prior to the raucous 1930 election: “The city was in an uproar, with posters and placards everywhere, hundreds of meetings each night, parades with bands and banners, crowds shouting and often fighting. The tension was beyond anything that Lanny had ever witnessed; under the pressure of the economic collapse events in Germany were coming to a crisis, and everybody was being compelled to take sides” (107). Scores of disaffected lower middle class workers, burdened by the recession and dreams of regaining Germany’s lost greatness, chant ecstatically at the sight of the “everyman” Fuhrer. Waving flags, they berate the traitorous French and Poles, while blaming immigrants and Jews for poisoning their “superior” Aryan bloodline, and they hold fast to the promise of making Germany a great power once again –“Down with Versailles!”

Lanny and his friends are given an audience with Hitler, himself, along with several other high-ranking Nazi officers. These remarkable scenes examine characters with the courage to oppose the Nazi ethos (like Lanny) and those who decide to compromise their values in exchange for personal safety (like Irma). As time goes by, it becomes apparent that the forgotten “little people” of Germany who have been exploited by the industrialists of the west and the landlords of the east have willingly elected a monstrous new regime. Refugees quickly file out of the country and into France as academics, Jews, Romani, suspected homosexuals, socialists, bolsheviks, and other types of “others” are quietly rounded up. Newspapers are shut down and sham elections are advanced while Hitler marches toward solidifying his power. President von Hindenberg shocks the world when he appoints Hitler as Chancellor which is followed by immediate crackdowns under the auspices of neutralizing the communist “threat” and they mobilize young fanatics who begin a new reign of terror.

“Adolf Hitler taught that the masses did not think with their brains but with their blood; that is to say, they did not reason but were driven by instincts. The most basic instinct was the desire to survive and the fear of not surviving; therefore Adolf Hitler told that their enemies desired to destroy them and that he alone could and would save them…” (252).

One of Lanny’s Jewish compatriots –Freddi Robin– is placed in the Dachau concentration camp and, against his wife’s wishes, Lanny returns one final time to Germany under the guise of selling high-brow art works by his father-in-law, while secretly attempting to release his friend from imprisonment. Conversations with Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels seem to go nowhere, the Nazis then seize the yacht, and Lanny is also imprisoned where he is very nearly tortured but he is released at the last moment and the closing pages of the book reveal that his quest to be an unexpected success, but the greater tragedy is only beginning to unfold across the continent.

There is quite a lot of fluff which pads this 600-plus page novel as Lanny seemingly wanders aimlessly across Europe for most of the story, with much of the action occurring in the final sections of the book, however to the casual reader I might recommend reading only the specific sections wherein Lanny pays visit to Nazi Germany. Despite Upton Sinclair’s reputation as a bombastic socialist, Dragon’s Teeth is actually quite nuanced, or at least it is not a purely polemical work. That being said, I do not feel particularly compelled to read more of the Lanny Budd series.

The novel’s title comes from Lanny’s tearful reflections at the end of the book –he weeps for the Jews of Europe, the viciousness of the growing populist spirit, and for all the diligent men plowing the soils of Europe and sowing dragon’s teeth –from which, as old legends state, armed men will someday spring forth. A bit of research reveals this legend to be of ancient Greek origin, as featured in Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, in which the planting of dragon’s teeth breeds a new band of vicious warriors (“spartoi”) who fight amongst themselves and before the survivors found the city of Thebes. Colloquially, the phrase “to sow dragon’s teeth” is akin to spawning discord –perhaps not unlike the rising discord displayed throughout Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth. In a cruel twist of historical irony, Upton Sinclair’s books were later burned by the Nazis.


The following are some notable quotations I discovered while reading this Pulitzer Prize winner:

“…such details were eagerly read by a public which lived upon the doings of the rich, as the ancient Greeks had lived upon the affairs of the immortals who dwelt upon the snowy top of Mount Olympus” (7, regarding the details of Lanny and Irma’s wealthy families).

“Marriage was a strange adventure; you let yourself in for a lot of things you couldn’t have foreseen” (27).

“Instead of peace the nations of the world had got more armaments and more debts. Instead of prosperity had come a financial collapse in Wall Street, and all were trembling lest it spread to the rest of the world” (40).

“Play your music, read your books, think your own thoughts, and never let yourselves be drawn into an argument! Not an altogether satisfactory way of life, but the only one possible in times when the world is changing so fast that parents and children may be a thousand years apart in their ideas and ideals” (41).

“…he kept wishing that people would stop robbing and killing one another and settle down to this task of finding out what they really were” (50).

“The Hitler Youth constituted the branches where the abundant new growth was burgeoning; for this part of the tree all the rest existed. The future Germany must be taught to march and to fight, to sing songs of glory, hymns to the new Fatherland it was going to build” (111).

“Yes, there were still some who had money and would not fail in their economic duty! People who had seen the storm coming and put their fortune into bonds; people who owned strategic industries, such as the putting up of canned spaghetti for the use of millions who lived in tiny apartments in cities and had never learned how to make tomato sauce!” (156).

“Say the very simplest and most obvious things, say them as often as possible, and put into the saying all the screaming passion which one human voice can carry – that was Adolf Hitler’s technique. He had been applying it for thirteen years, ever since the accursed treaty had been signed, and now he was at the climax of his efforts” (250).

“Assuredly neither of the Plinys, uncle or nephew, had confronted more terrifying natural phenomena than did the Weimar Republic at the beginning of this year 1933” (277).

“It is a dream, and the German people will wake up from it…” (513).


The 1943 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The debacle from the prior year (1942) led the Pulitzer Advisory Board to consider awarding the Pulitzer Prize to Dragon’s Teeth, however since the book was technically published in 1942, it was ineligible for the award and Ellen Glagow’s In This Our Life won instead (click here to read my reflections). In the midst of behind-the-scenes tumult, all three long-serving Jurors abruptly resigned which suddenly opened the door for new voices to serve on the Jury in 1943.

The 1943 Pulitzer Jury was composed of: John R. Chamberlain (Chair), a former anti-war advocate who wrote for a variety of publications —The New York Times, Time, Life, Fortune, and Scribner’s and Harper’s magazines– but by the early 1940s he had shifted into a more libertarian/right-leaning political conviction. He began writing for The Wall Street Journal, taught journalism at Columbia University, and then became a celebrated book reviewer for a libertarian publication entitled The Freeman. The other two Jurors in 1943 were: Lewis S. Gannett, a writer and book critic for the New York Herald Tribune; and Maxwell S. Geismar, a Columbia University alumnus and teacher at Harvard who became a famous literary critic for a variety of publications including The New York Times Book Review, The New York Herald Tribune, The Nation, The American Scholar, The Saturday Review of Books, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Encyclopedia Britannica and Compton’s Encyclopedia (he also penned a notoriously belligerent critique of Henry James). These three Jurors continued to serve together the following year. Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Geismar would also continue serving for several more years thereafter, as well.

Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth was listed as the first choice of two Jurors, and it was the second choice of the third. Aside from Dragon’s Teeth, there were two other novels recommended among the Jurors: The Just and the Unjust by James Cozzens, and The Valley of Decision by Marcia Davenport. Because Dragon’s Teeth had been previously suggested by the Pulitzer Advisory Board the prior year, there were no objections this time around.


Who Is Upton Sinclair?

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) lived an extraordinary life. He was born in Baltimore, MD to an alcoholic liquor salesman for a father who died in 1907 due to delirium tremens, and a pious upper-crust mother. Upton Jr.’s paternal great-grandfather was a veteran of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The Sinclair lineage was considered aristocratic in the American sense. They were founders of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD and their sons were distinguished Naval officers until the end of the Civil War which displaced the Confederacy. As a young man, Mr. Sinclair studied at the City College of New York and even pursued a law degree at Columbia University. He regularly signed up for classes and then routinely dropped them while teaching himself many languages like French, Spanish, and German. In addition to studying for his degrees he also began supporting himself by writing and selling various pulp stories.

Mr. Sinclair was always a bit of an eccentric. He refused to speak with his mother for many years over a small argument. He was obsessive about consuming a rigid diet of raw vegetables and nuts. He also became enamored with the practice of strict sexual abstinence. Despite his proclivity for abstinence, Mr. Sinclair was soon reconnected with an old childhood friend named Meta Fuller and, against all advice, they were married in 1900. Amusingly, they both attempted to maintain abstinence throughout their marriage, but Meta soon became pregnant almost anyway (she made numerous attempts to terminate the pregnancy). At any rate, both spouses dabbled in affairs and Meta had an illegitimate child with someone else before eventually leaving Upton for a poet. Not to be deterred, Mr. Sinclair remarried that very same year to Mary Craig Kimbrough.

Throughout this period, he wrote poetry and gradually became politically active as an avowed socialist. At one point, he founded a socialist colony (it burned down under mysterious circumstances), he deepened his involvement in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Mr. Sinclair spent several weeks in cognito at a Chicago meatpacking plant which became the basis of his 1906 bestseller The Jungle, a muckraking novel published as a serial in the socialist newspaper Appeal To Reason (which was in operation from 1895-1922) The novel details harsh working conditions faced by immigrants in Chicago’s meat-packing industry. Mr. Sinclair intended The Jungle to be a call for socialism in America, however most readers were simply appalled by its depictions of unsanitary working conditions leading to stronger federal regulations like the Meat Inspection Act (1906). Today, The Jungle is remembered as Mr. Sinclair’s most important work. At the time of its publication The Jungle was praised by Winston Churchill and criticized by Theodore Roosevelt.

Mr. Sinclair became a well-known agitator. He organized demonstrations in New York against John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, and he also wrote polemics against big oil, coal, and the auto robber barons. Between 1940-1953, Mr. Sinclair wrote his bestselling Lanny Budd series –a collection of eleven novels following an aspiring young socialist as he encounters the most important people and events of the 20th century. The third installment Dragon’s Teeth won the Pulitzer Prize, though today these books are mostly out of print.

In the 1920s, Mr. Sinclair and his second wife moved to California where he grew connected to the burgeoning film industry, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Charlie Chaplin. Mr. Sinclair also developed a personal fascination with telepathy and the occult, as well as strict vegetarian diet. He founded the California chapter of the ACLU and twice ran unsuccessfully for United States Congress on the Socialist Party ticket: in 1920 for the House of Representatives and in 1922 for the Senate. He was the Socialist Party candidate for Governor of California in 1926 and again in 1930. In 1934, he ran as a Democrat under the “End Poverty in California” (EPIC), but he was resoundingly defeated by incumbent Governor Frank Merriam. After his populist, rabble-rousing campaign in 1934, big business Hollywood studio bosses turned against Mr. Sinclair and his questionable campaign tactics. He was expelled from the Democratic party.

After his second wife died, Mr. Sinclair remarried for the third and final time to Mary Elizabeth Willis. The couple moved to Arizona for a spell before returning to the east coast and settling in New Jersey where they both died in a nursing home –Mary in 1967 and Upton the following year in 1968. Today, his former home in Monrovia, CA is a privately owned historical landmark.


Sinclair, Upton. Dragon’s Teeth. The Viking. Press, New York, 1945 (originally published in 1942).

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Click here to read my reflections on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

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