Prelude to Pulitzer: World’s End by Upton Sinclair

Plot Summary:

The son of an American arms dealer and his mistress, Lanning “Lanny” Budd spends his first thirteen years in Europe, living at the center of his mother’s glamorous circle of friends on the French Riviera. In 1913, he enters a prestigious Swiss boarding school and befriends Rick, an English boy, and Kurt, a German. The three schoolmates are privileged, happy, and precocious—but their world is about to come to an abrupt and violent end.
When the gathering storm clouds of war finally burst, raining chaos and death over the continent, Lanny must put the innocence of youth behind him; his language skills and talent for decoding messages are in high demand. At his father’s side, he meets many important political and military figures, learns about the myriad causes of the conflict, and closely follows the First World War’s progress. When the bloody hostilities eventually conclude, Lanny joins the Paris Peace Conference as the assistant to a geographer asked by President Woodrow Wilson to redraw the map of Europe.
World’s End is the magnificent opening chapter of a monumental series that brings the first half of the twentieth century to vivid life. A thrilling mix of history, adventure, and romance, the Lanny Budd Novels are a testament to the breathtaking scope of Upton Sinclair’s vision and his singular talents as a storyteller.

My Thoughts:

My first thought on reading World’s End was that Lanny Budd was some sort of early 20th Century Forrest Gump. He just happened to be in all the important places and run into all the important people as he gallivanted across Europe in the years before and during World War 1. He is, of course, a literary device more than he is a character, and is most often a vehicle for perspective and commentary on world events. His father is a capitalist arms manufacturer, giving Lanny a view into the economy of war. His uncle is a communist sympathizer, organizing labor unions and protests, introducing Lanny to a variety of other political characters. His two best friends before the war are an Englishman and a German. His mother’s connections across France keep him tied to the wealthy elite of Europe throughout the book, and yet his penchant for playing with the village children growing up in France allows him to be at ease with the common folk across the world.

However, if you are able to look past this obvious, glaring, and at times forced technique, the book that unfolds through it is quite fascinating. Perhaps it is because World War 1 seems so distant to me, and, at least in how I remember the history being taught, overshadowed by World War 2. Perhaps it is because I learned a few names of battles and important events, but never really learned (or at least don’t well remember) the political machinations behind the war. Or perhaps it is because, thought it all, Upton Sinclair is able to maintain a level of suspense that draws you page by page (and there are quite a few pages to be drawn through). Whatever the reason, I found myself engrossed in this description of pre-war Europe, through the First World War, and concluding with the complex construction of the ultimately doomed Treaty of Versailles.

In another not so subtle move, Lanny begins the story as a naïve youth, enraptured with art, and certain that the beauty of the expression of art will help lead the world forward into an era of peace and prosperity. As the novel progresses, he finds himself faced with more and more events to challenge his beliefs. His faith in capitalism and money, instilled from birth by his father, begins to fall apart as he is introduced to various political figures working for socialism and communism. His faith in art is challenged as World War 1 sweeps across Europe and he sees the people around him maimed and killed in the fighting. His faith in world leaders and politics is challenged as he watches the proceeding for the peace treaty after the war, and has an inside view of the twisted political machinations going on behind the scenes.

It is a device, but one which works to display a wide range of ideas and interactions and events. Much like Sinclair had previously exposed the plight of immigrants and the unsanitary conditions of meat-packing plants in his book The Jungle, he works to expose Europe, and the world in the years surrounding World War 1. It is a fictional documentary of sorts, using characters and literary devices to paint a picture of the world as he saw and understood it. And while not necessarily an exposé of any particular country or movement or event, he works to hold all the ideas and actions and thoughts and participants against each other, contrasting viewpoints. And though Lanny begins to sympathize more and more with the communist ideas, Sinclair doesn’t seem to back that political movement, either. In fact, the novel concludes with Lanny witnessing an argument between his father and his uncle, both vehement that their own political stance is right, and the other’s is wrong, while Lanny muses that they both see the world in the exact same way, even if they have two different solutions for their perceived problems, and that the two of them have much more in common than they would ever be willing to admit.

World’s End is a long, complex, social and political novel set in the years of upheaval surrounding the First World War. It’s not the sort of book to pick up and read for leisure in an evening or two. But, if you allow yourself to be drawn in, and as long as you have even a passing interest in the time period, Sinclair gives a window into a world gone, and mostly forgotten, especially now, a century later. Though considering this is the first in a long series of books, it is perhaps a commitment that very few would still be willing to take on.

Favorite passage:

He awoke to the ringing of an electric bell, went to breakfast to another ringing, and thereafter moved through the day as an electrically controlled robot. He acquired knowledge in weighed and measured portions; memorized facts and recited them, forgot many of them until the end of the month, relearned them for a “test,” forgot them again until the end of a term, relearned them once more for “exam”–and then forgot them forever and ever, amen.

Why you should read it:

Written and published while World War 2 was still escalating, and before the United States had been drawn in, this book gives a unique an in depth perspective of Europe in particular in the years leading up to and during World War 1, that is often lost in the hindsight of World War 2. Though the characters are often just tools for providing this perspective, which is often enough for the story to remain compelling.

Currently reading: Between Two Worlds by Upton Sinclair

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