Title: Presidential Agent
Author: Upton Sinclair
Sinclair, Upton (1944). Presidential Agent. New York: The Viking Press
Date Posted: January 17, 2017
Sorry—but even the voice of the Pulitzer jury cannot make me one of Lanny Budd’s fans. This is the fifth in the series— and all the ingredients which apparently made for popularity of the first four are here again. The characters are chiefly old friends; Lanny and Irma are divorced; Trudy and Lanny secretly married—and then she disappears; Beauty continues to hold court on the Riviera; Irma has married her landed aristocrat, and becomes a vocal member of the Cliveden set; and Lanny’s closest friends have “gone underground”. Lanny turns all efforts into trying to find Trudy and during the period he attempts to carry on as she would have him. He uses his art contacts to keep in touch with the highest officials in the Nazi party, in France, in Germany; he plays up his interest (one is kept in some doubt as to the depth of his sincerity) in psychic phenomena, and eventually makes this a link with Hitler and Hess; he plays both ends against the middle, acting as “Presidential Agent” and getting important data out from neutral countries to F.D.R.—and at the same time, feeding the beast with tidbits (which were probably already known) to keep up the pretense of his own fascistic leanings (and conceal his “pinkness”). There’s one hair-breadth escape—a futile gesture—for ultimately he knows that Trudy has died at Dachau. Lanny is given credit for various world-shaping events—, the Quarantine Speech, etc; he has his finger in the Munich-Berchtesgaden-Godesberg affairs. He finds out what he needs to know, and holds on to the long-range view. The story stops short of the invasion of Poland. All the panoply of luxurious living is there; the sense of being at the heart of things. Probably many who get little from the papers will feel better informed on the steps leading to war because of reading these books. It will sell—and rent.
Review of the Lanny Budd series, by Julie Salamon
When I was about to turn 12, my mother came across a set of familiar books in a sale bin at a secondhand bookstore in Cincinnati, about 60 miles from our home in rural Ohio. She remembered being mesmerized when she read them years before, and bought the entire set for me, for my birthday.
The pages were yellowed, and the red cloth jackets were worn. But I knew the minute I began reading the Lanny Budd series that this was a significant gift, a sign that my mother considered me very grown-up. There were 11 volumes in all, covering the first half of the 20th century in 7,424 pages. The heft wasn’t merely physical. These historical novels engulfed me in the thrilling and terrible imperatives of history that had deeply affected my parents directly but seemed far removed from my time and place, a placid corner of Appalachia.
I assumed that out in the big world, everyone must know about Lanny Budd. But later, after I left Ohio and lived in Boston and then Manhattan, I found that no one I met, whether part of the literati or not, had ever heard of the books. The name of their author, Upton Sinclair, always evoked the same response: “Oh, yeah, I read The Jungle in high school. “
Why had the Lanny Budd books been forgotten in relatively short order? They were international best sellers when they were published by the Viking Press—primarily in the 1940s, not the 19th century. Dragon’s Teeth, third in the series, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. Their dust jackets carry blurbs to die for, from luminaries including H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and George Bernard Shaw, whose quotation reads: “When people ask me what has happened in my long lifetime, I do not refer them to the newspaper files and to the authorities, but to Upton Sinclair’s novels.”
But these novels, which had been published in 21 countries, quickly became obscure. My mother first read the series in the early 1950s, about the time it was completed. She found Lanny Budd by accident. She was a recent immigrant, and went to the library hoping to find another book by Sinclair Lewis, whose writing she had enjoyed in Hungarian translation back in Europe. Perhaps flummoxed by her accent, the librarian sent her home with Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair.
That case of mistaken literary identity evolved into a literary infatuation. Sinclair’s Lanny Budd—worldly, dashing, but possessed of a social conscience–meshed perfectly with my mother’s own romantic, political and historic yearnings. She has always been a persistent optimist, despite her own grim World War II experiences as a European Jew and concentration-camp survivor. Lanny was a bon vivant who had the means to avoid engagement with the world’s misery, but instead became a behind-the-scenes player, often at great risk but always escaping to face the next chapter’s conundrum.
Along with the books, my mother transmitted her passion to me. I read all 3 million words before my 13th birthday. And then I never opened the novels again, though they’ve remained prominently displayed on my bookshelves. I could say my neglect came from having so much else to read. But I often revisit books I’ve loved.
No, I kept away from Lanny because I wanted to keep my fond memories intact. I’d become aware that Sinclair is not held in literary esteem, being remembered most for his socialist polemics, his failed attempt to become governor of California and his fascination with the paranormal. Would Lanny simply seem ridiculous to me now, like so many heartthrobs from my adolescence?
The World’s Hs Stage
So it was with trepidation that I returned to Lanny Budd last January. I’m not sure why I did. Perhaps I was inspired by the arrival of the 60th anniversary of World War II’s end, or by observing my own teenage daughter’s growing fascination with global history, sparked by a charismatic teacher. Whatever the reason, one cold and gloomy day I opened World’s End, the first book in the series, published in 1940. An odyssey of several months began with these words:
“The American boy’s name was Lanning Budd; people called him Lanny, an agreeable name, easy to say. He had been born in Switzerland, and spent most of his life on the French Riviera; he had never crossed the ocean, but considered himself an American because his mother and father were that. He had traveled a lot, and just now was in a little village in the suburbs of Dresden, his mother having left him while she went off on a yachting trip to the fiords of Norway. Lanny didn’t mind, for he was used to being left in places, and knew how to get along with people from other parts of the world. He would eat their foods, pick up a smattering of their languages, and hear stories about strange ways of life.”
Lanny was 13 in that introduction and impossibly glamorous. Born in 1900, he was the illegitimate child of an American arms merchant and his mistress, named Beauty, who raised their son on the Riviera while her ex-lover maintained a respectable life with a wife and children in Connecticut. In that childhood on the Côte d’Azure, Lanny mingled easily both with local peasants and wealthy dilettantes. Over the course of the series, Lanny became a participant in almost every moment significant to Western history in the first half of the 20th century. But unlike subsequent fictional witnesses to world events, he was neither a nebbishy chameleon like Woody Allen’s Zelig, nor a noble Everyman like Forrest Gump. Things didn’t happen to Lanny; he helped make them happen.
Using his father’s conservative credentials and his own facade as an international art dealer, Lanny became a confidant of Hitler and Goering. He operated as a secret agent for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He charmed Einstein by playing excellent piano accompaniment to the scientist’s violin and risked his own life to rescue a Jewish friend from concentration camp. He spoke many languages fluently, casually quoted from Goethe and Byron, dabbled in both physics and metaphysics, and was a socialist and feminist while always behaving like a Victorian gentleman.
A Man of Action
When I completed the 10th volume last week, Lanny was 45, and World War II was over in Europe. (I still have one final volume to go, The Return of Lanny Budd, which takes place during the Cold War.) I felt exhilarated and relieved to discover that I hadn’t been a fool—far from it—for being mesmerized by the series. Yet I also understood why Lanny Budd had fallen out of fashion.
Sinclair, who had been a muckraking journalist, wrote the books with deadline urgency. And he was facing a deadline, a big one. World War II was well under way in Europe when he began. In a statement Sinclair prepared for the Literary Guild, which had made World’s End one of its selections in 1940, he wrote: “Fate has put you and me upon the earth in one of the critical periods of human history; a dangerous time, but exciting—certainly there has never been a time when it has been possible for the ordinary person to know so much about what is going on.” He then continued: “I saw the rise of Mussolini, and of Hitler, and of Franco; the dreadful agony of Spain wrung my heart; then I saw Munich, and said to myself, ‘This is the end; the end of our world.”‘
Even for a facile writer (he wrote more than 90 books in his 90 years, as well as numerous plays and articles), he was writing fast, producing the first 10 volumes in 9 years. So there is repetition; he often reminds the reader that Beauty, Lanny’s mother, must diet to ward off “embonpoint” (French for plumpness). Character development is not of primary concern: Lanny is a man of action, not introspection. The insouciance with which he handles adversity, so admirable when I was a child, can now seem an annoying absence of psychological depth. But Sinclair’s historical acumen and his calculations about powerful institutions—government, press, corporations, oil cartels and lobbyists—remain remarkably shrewd and often prescient. Surely there is enough there to compel at least some of the minions devoted to the History Channel.
I wanted to talk to somebody about the books. My own family had patiently endured my tendency to evoke the series in conversations covering a wide variety of subjects, especially Iraq and Karl Rove. But when one of my children stopped me one day and said, “Oh no, not Lanny Budd again!” I decided I needed to find other devotees of the series.
“An Entrancing Protagonist”
They do exist. On the Internet I found Andrew Simon, a retired engineering professor living in Florida who six years ago began a publishing company called Simon Publications (simonpublications.com), which specializes in books Mr. Simon considers long-lost classics, mainly history books. Four years ago, Mr. Simon republished the Lanny Budd series, which in his paperback version comes in 22 volumes because the print-on-demand technology he uses can’t handle books longer than 750 pages.
I spoke to him on the telephone and discovered we had other connections. Like my mother, he spoke Hungarian, and he had lived in Ohio for 30 years, teaching civil engineering at the University of Akron. He had read the Lanny Budd series in Hungary, in the late 1940s, but said he had to wait until immigrating to the United States to read the final volume because of its anti-Communist views.
What drew him to the books? “I felt they were very, very correct in a historical sense,” he said. “Though he was an American, he described Europe and European ways and thinking just as it was at the time.” Sales have been so-so, he said, about 100 to 150 copies of the series every year.
Lauren Coodley, a professor of history and psychology at Napa Valley College, edited an anthology of Upton Sinclair’s writings, published last year , called The Land of Orange Groves and Jails: Upton Sinclair’s California (Heyday).
She told me she had been trying to revive interest in Sinclair for a decade, since a friend handed her one of the Lanny Budd novels. “He is such an entrancing protagonist,” she said in a telephone interview. “The American abroad, the educated American of conscience. He stands for the dilemma of Americans in the world, of deciding what’s a good life, how much to enjoy yourself and how much good to do.”
Trying for Art
Maybe Lanny Budd will rise again. He is the subject of a chapter in Upton Sinclair: Radical Innocent, a biography by Anthony Arthur scheduled for publication by Random House next year .
Professor Arthur, a retired professor of literature at California State University in Northridge, told me he, too, had been wondering why the Lanny Budd books had more or less disappeared. “He was always regarded as a kind of guilty pleasure,” he said of Sinclair. “There are writers today that have that reputation, like Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum, but his style is infinitely superior to popular writers today who are praised for their adventure stories.”
Then he asked, “Did you notice how much untranslated German there is? Sinclair was condescended to by intellectuals who said he was writing for the middle class with a mild interest in ideas and negligible grasp of issues. If that’s true, then the level then was a good deal higher than it is today.”
For Professor Arthur, the Lanny Budd series marked a significant passage for Sinclair, who was in his 60s when he started writing the books. “He’d been tagged all his life with being a propagandist,” Professor Arthur said. “This was his moment of decision to become the closest thing to a pure artist that he could.”
I have returned my Lanny Budd books to their shelf. Maybe one day my children will feel the urge to have a look and keep our family’s literary infatuation going for one more generation.
Lanny Budd and Inflation: 11 Volumes to 22
Upton Sinclair’s 11-volume Lanny Budd series was originally published by the Viking Press in the 1940’s, except for the final book, The Return of Lanny Budd (1953). Copies of the hardcover edition are out of print but can be found on the Internet for varying prices. In 2001 Simon Publications brought the books out again, with each novel divided into two volumes. The retail price for these paperbacks is $29.95 per volume. They are available through most bookstores and Internet distributors, or can be ordered directly from simonpublications.com. The company offers a 20 percent discount for a complete set of 22 volumes, charging $530. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Simon Publications Inc., P.O. Box 91175, Phoenix, Ariz. 85066. Here is the Lanny Budd series in order of publication. Page numbers and dates refer to the original edition. The brief descriptions of the first 10 volumes were taken from the dust jacket of The Return of Lanny Budd. The books cost $4 each at the time.
Lanny Budd Series
Worlds End, 1940; 740 Pages. World War I And Immediately After.
Between Two Worlds, 1941; 859 Pages. From The Treaty of Versailles (1919) to the crash pf 1929.
Dragons Teeth, 1942; 631 Pages. (Pulitzer Prize Winner); 1929 to 1934 — The Nazis rise to power.
Wide Is The Gate, 1943; 751 Pages. 1934 To 1938—The Nazi blood purge and the Spanish Civil War.
Sinclair, Upton (1944). Presidential Agent. New York: The Viking Press
Dragon Harvest, 1945; 703 Pages. From Munich to the German occupation of Paris.
A World To Win, 1946; 627 Pages. Vichy—1940 To 1942.
Sinclair, Upton (1947). Presidential Mission. New York: The Viking Press—The African invasion and behind the scenes in wartime Germany.
One Clear Call, 1948; 629 Pages. 1943 And 1944—Sicily, Italy, France: D-Day to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-Election.
O Shepherd, Speak!, 1949; 629 Pages. 1944 To 1946—Battle of The Bulge, Yalta, Roosevelts death, the first A-Bomb, the Nuremberg trials.
The Return Of Lanny Budd, 1953; 555 pages. The Cold War.