Upton Sinclair & Mental Radio

The Crusading Reformer Who Made the Case for a Non-Material Reality

One day, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), who wrote an exposé of the meat packing industry (The Jungle) so devastating that it forced passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, discovered that his wife Mary had the ability to intuitively locate research notes he thought he had irretrievably lost.

Sinclair tells us in his book on telepathy, Mental Radio (1930), that he was in the habit of jotting down notes on scraps of paper, sticking them in convenient places, and then being unable to find them. There was a particular occasion when he searched through the entire house for an important scrap of paper and then, going outside, worked out the direction of the wind and examined all the scraps of paper on the lawn that might have been blown forward by it.

His wife Mary (whom Sinclair often called by her middle name Craig) arrived home, saw the predicament he was in, and said, “Come, let’s make an experiment. Lie down here, and describe the paper to me.”

Sinclair did so. His wife took his hand and after a moment of concentration said, “It’s in the pocket of your gray suit.” Sinclair thought that was impossible; he had thoroughly searched that coat. But his wife got up, found the coat, and extracted the missing note from a pocket. Sinclair hadn’t looked hard enough.

This might seem like a minor event in itself, but Mary tracked down innumerable objects this way. In Sinclair’s office miles away, his secretary had misplaced some typewriter components; Mrs. Sinclair was able to remotely view, through Sinclair’s mind, the location of the missing components. Mary constantly and inadvertently “saw” what her husband was thinking or reading.  The phenomenon was so pronounced that she wondered if some controlling force in her own mind weren’t enabling her to make her husband think or read what she wanted, and even reach out for certain books and magazines.

She decided not. But, in Mental Radio, Sinclair tried to figure out which of Mary’s personal characteristics contributed to the paranormal gifts she did have. He noted that Mary had a “too tender heart,” writing that, “The griefs of other people overwhelm Craig like a suffocation.” People, often total strangers, constantly and instantly poured out their troubles to her and asked her for advice. Often she came away from these draining encounters with tears in her eyes.

From her girlhood on, Sinclair wrote, this capacity for extreme empathy enabled Mary/Craig to locate all manner of things, almost as if that empathy extended to the nonliving physical world immediately surrounding her. As a girl she found missing domestic implements, missing animals, and missing people; sometimes she knew when friends or family had abruptly turned up in unexpected places. In her adulthood this quality could express itself in painful ways. Call of the Wild author Jack London was a close friend of the Sinclair’s. In late 1916, Mary became extremely worried about London, who lived some distance away, and insisted that he was undergoing acute mental distress. Two days later, the Sinclairs learned their friend had committed suicide. (In 1930, the two attended a séance held by famed psychic Arthur Ford and apparently communicated with the channeled spirit of London. Mary told the discarnate author that she had known when he was about to die. The shade answered, “I’m sorry I did it, but now I’m out of it,” and then departed.)

Being able to retrieve missing research notes was an important attribute for the wife of a man who wrote so many books, and so quickly, as Upton Sinclair did. Born in a Baltimore boardinghouse to a ne’er-do-well father and a martinet mother, Upton didn’t start school till he was ten; a doctor had warned his mother that her brilliantly precocious boy ran the risk of his brain’s outgrowing his body if he learned anything more. Once in school, Sinclair, who would eventually write close to a hundred books, including a dozen plays, quickly leapt ahead. He graduated from Columbia before he was twenty, having read all the classics and learned German, French, Italian, and Greek.

Already in his late teens, Sinclair had described himself as “apocalyptic and messianic.” Fifty years later he told the New York Post he was “a religious man to the extent that I am sure this universe can’t be by accident.” In his autobiography he wrote that he often experienced a sort of religious fervor, and that if he had been religious he would “have seen Saints and Martyrs, or Stigmata.”

Upton Sinclair’s first two novels were dreamy, poetic, and not well received. Then he became a socialist and found his true calling, that of a firebrand social activist. This found expression in his fourth book, the runaway best-selling novel The Jungle (1916). Sinclair visited the Chicago stockyards disguised as a worker and came away outraged; gruesome descriptions of the slaughtering of livestock helped expose the poor sanitation measures and labor abuses of this exploitative industry.

Sinclair became the kind of journalist we could use today: he successively took on the government, the press, the corporations, the oil cartels, and the lobbyists. King Coal (1917) and Oil! (1918) did not sell well but won admiration for their fearless and searching analysis of corruption and mismanagement in the coal and oil industries. Sinclair’s withering attack on the church, The Profits of Religion (1918), which portrayed religion as the tool of clever exploiters working not on God’s behalf but as agents of greedy capitalism, caused an immense furor and won many supporters.

In the course of writing his first dozen or so books, Sinclair’s personal life had endured a bumpy path. In 1906, he ran for Congress on the Socialist ticket and was soundly trounced, the first of many electoral defeats. In 1906, he founded a Utopian community, the Helicon Home Company, which soon fell apart ostensibly because of sexual hanky-panky but actually due to mismanagement. His first wife, Meta, with whom he lived at Helicon, was moody, flirtatious, and caused Sinclair much anguish; she eventually left him with their son, David, from whom Sinclair was estranged until the last decade of his life. In 1913, the now-famous author married Mary Craig Kimbrough, who was utterly good, utterly devoted to her husband, and a psychic into the bargain.

During the happy middle period of their marriage, when Mary’s psychic abilities, described above, were in full bloom, Upton undertook to make careful notes of her telepathic communications from their house with her sister Dollie’s husband, Robert Irwin, living some distance away. The language of these communications consisted of “images of various objects—a chair, a water glass, a coat hook, a star, an elephant—that Irwin, or sometimes Sinclair, would sketch and then ‘send’ to Craig, thirty miles away.” Sinclair biographer Anthony Arthur (Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair) continues: “Craig would ‘receive’ and sketch the images, not always completely or correctly but enough to make the case that some kind of mental communication was happening.”

Sinclair determined that, out of a total of 290 drawings, Mary had scored 65 successes—roughly 23 per cent. The partial successes totaled 155, that is, 53 percent. There were 70 failures—24 percent. Sinclair asked some mathematician friends to work out the probabilities of these results; they found that the problem was too complicated.

One man who was beguiled by these results as reported in Mental Radio was Albert Einstein. He offered to write an introduction for the German edition. This appears, translated, in the 2002 Hampton Roads edition of Mental Radio.

Einstein wrote:

“I have read the book of Upton Sinclair with great interest and am convinced that the same deserves the most earnest consideration, not only of [by] the laity, but also of the psychologists by profession. The results of the telepathic experiments carefully and plainly set forth in this book surely stand far beyond those which a nature investigator holds to be unthinkable. On the other hand, it is out of the question in the case of so conscientious an observer and writer as Upton Sinclair that he is carrying on a conscious deception of the reading world; his good faith and dependability are not to be doubted. If somehow the facts here set forth rest not upon telepathy, but upon some unconscious hypnotic influence from person to person, this also would be of high psychology interest. In no case should the psychologically interested circles pass over this book heedlessly.”

Einstein visited Sinclair in his Pasadena, California, home, and they exchanged letters for almost twenty years. Sinclair’s biographer Anthony Arthur records a séance held in that house at which Albert Einstein was present: “According to Helen Dukas, Einstein’s secretary, who was with him, they were warned by Sinclair before the séance that ‘we shouldn’t be afraid if suddenly the piano starts to play and flowers come from above. I was frightened to death. It was a really scary atmosphere. And, oh my gosh, suddenly the doorbell rang and I nearly jumped out of my skin.’  It was only a telegram, but Ostoja [the channel] ‘went into catalepsy and made mumbling noises’ and the séance ended in failure. Sinclair said ‘hostile forces’ had ruined the experiment.”

Mental Radio also had a profound effect on the psychologist William McDougall, prompting him to establish the parapsychology department at Duke University.

Mary/Craig wrote a section for Mental Radio in which she instructed the reader in the art of conscious mind reading. “The first thing you have to do,” she said, “is to learn the trick of undivided attention.” By this she meant “putting the attention on one object, or one uncomplicated thought, such as joy, or peace, and holding it there steadily.”

Craig emphasized that you shouldn’t think about this object or examine it or appraise it or allow associated memories to attach themselves to it. You had to relax completely, “making the body insensitive and the mind a blank.” The goal was to attain a state in which you were aware of neither your mind nor your body; you were merely perfectly passive.

The next step was to have someone draw a half-dozen, simple designs on cards or slips of paper. These had to be folded so you couldn’t see the design. Then they were placed within easy reach so you could pick them up one at a time while you were stretched out on your bed.

Then you turned off the light, closed your eyes, and relaxed completely. You picked up one of the folded cards or papers. Then you sent an order to your unconscious mind to deliver to your conscious mind the shape of the hidden design. You had to talk to your unconscious mind as if it were another person. Then, with your mind as blank and your body as unfeeling as possible, you observed what gradually took shape in the void into which your mind’s eye stared. It was crucial not to strain and not to expect anything but to simply to continue to stare dispassionately into the void.

Craig wrote that her own experience was usually one in which “fragments of forms appear first—for example, a curved line, or a straight one, or two lines of a triangle. But sometimes the complete object would appear: swiftly, lightly, dimly drawn, as on a moving picture film. The mental visions appeared and reappeared with amazing rapidity; they never stood still unless quickly fixed by a deliberate effort of consciousness.” The images were never in heavy lines but always delicately sketched and even difficult to see.

Why was concentration so important?  Sinclair made a “humble guess” in Mental Radio. He speculated that, in forcing the mind to focus on a single entity, the act of concentration created a psychic imbalance. The mind was temporarily thrown out of its habitual state of balance; cracks appeared momentarily in its normally well-calibrated mechanisms so that “portions of the mind which are normally below the level of consciousness are raised to more intense levels of activity.” The mind was caught off guard, and for a brief moment paranormal activity could take place.

In the midst of intense literary activity, and despite being an ardent Socialist, in 1934 Upton Sinclair ran for the governorship of California. He was viciously and underhandedly attacked by all factions but, since Sinclair spoke clearly, simply and passionately, and had a gift for stump-speaking, he won 37.6 percent of the vote in this courageous bid for political power.

In the late 1930’s, Upton Sinclair set out to write a series of what became 11 novels—the “Lanny Budd” novels—which, along with The Jungle, are his claim to fame today. A critic writes that in this series the wealthy, socially adept, highly intelligent Lanny Budd “becomes a participant in almost every moment significant to Western history in the first half of the twentieth century. But unlike subsequent fictional witnesses to world events, he was neither a nebbish-like chameleon, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, nor a noble everyman like Forrest Gump. Things didn’t happen to Lanny; he helped make them happen.” The third of these novels, Dragon’s Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Sinclair in 1943.

Sinclair’s interest in the paranormal finds its way into the fifth novel of the series, Dragon Harvest (1945), which is rich in occult lore and includes beautifully rendered descriptions of séances and mediums that are an integral part of the plot. Critic/researcher Steven Sittenreich suummarizes:

“Lanny Budd is an art dealer and a playboy who is friends with Hitler and Goering (der Dicke) as well as with Churchill and Daladier. He is recruited by FDR and reports directly to him by means of a back channel: Lanny’s family permanently employs their own private medium, the elderly Panya Zsynski, who either can communicate with the dead or is very good at picking up thoughts in the Ether—or archetypes of the collective unconscious. In any case, Budd gets her an audience with Hitler (der Teppichfresser), and her Red [Native American] Indian control (who speaks with a Polish accent) summons up the shade of Hitler’s early mentor, Dietrich Eckart. The purported shade of Eckart deeply impresses Hitler and Lanny is able to pass along false information about Allied movements at Dunkirk along with phony deployments of the RAF. (Lanny Budd apparently did not know about the Ultra Secret.)”

In Dragon Harvest, Sinclair displays a certain playful ambivalence toward channeling. Perhaps he’s merely trying not to rile the reader. There is no doubt Upton Sinclair saw in psychic phenomena a great, mysterious, and ultimately unknowable reality. In Mental Radio he concludes:

“There may be spirits of the dead, and, again, there may be creations of our own imaginative faculties, taking life to themselves and working in the depths of our unconscious minds—which may all be one, with other minds underneath, as the ocean is one, beneath the bubbles made by the waves. One thing only I know, and I say it with all the emphasis I can give to words: there is another and supernormal way of getting knowledge.”

By John Chambers