Dog Days Classics: Lanny Budd, Upton Sinclair’s Ideal Idler

“It was profoundly true that movements of the spirit came first, and that events of history were consequences thereof.”

-Upton Sinclair, Wide is the Gate

Several years ago I was directed toward Upton Sinclair’s socialist-minded quasi-spy novels about a young man named Lanning Prescott Budd. The 11 books span the breadth of time from the onset of The Great War to the rise of the Cold War, but as I have been able to acquire only the first half of the series, my investigation has followed Lanny only so far as the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. A New York Times reflection on the books gives a decent introduction to the protagonist:

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.

The historically rich novels lend themselves to extensive analysis regarding socialism, communism, fascism, economics and war in a period beginning more than 100 years ago, but the lens through which I found an interesting reading was that of Sinclair’s notions of art in the context of great social upheaval. It could be said that Sinclair devotes a dangerous amount of time at the beginning of the first novel to the protagonists’ interest in dance and music—what he has gleaned from his recent study of the Dalcroze method—and art; the exhausting thoughts of a budding aesthete.  I say dangerous because it might give one the impression that they are engaging in something more akin to À rebours/Against the Grain than what was—at the time of publication—an adventure story, fueled by an urgency to record that which Sinclair surely knew would go unremembered.

As we meet Lanny, he has made two important friends at the Dalcroze school who serve as windows to very different perspectives from his own free and easy life on the Riviera; Rick, the English son of a Baronet, and Kurt, a German whose family is favored by the feudal system at Schloss Stubendorf, a castle in Upper Silesia. Through his respective travels to his friends in their native lands, Lanny develops the insights that propel him beyond the easy life of sun-filled pleasure—a self-described idler—to the more rigorous investigation of the arts and philosophy. These two characters also serve symbolically as part of the complex dialectic within whose walls Lanny soon finds himself living.

As war breaks out, the abundance of thought devoted to aesthetics, particularly in regard to human beings’ relationship to movement in the world, gains new meaning. Sinclair has posited dance as an ideal, pure and beautiful use of the human body, countered by the gruesome gestures of war. We quickly see the descent of the human form as means of expression and creation to that of destruction and a tableau of body horror; within the months of the Archduke’s death, several people close to Lanny have become disfigured by fighting.

The most symbolic of these tragedies occurs to Lanny’s stepfather, a talented French landscape painter—unable to refuse the call to defend France—whose face is burned when his observation balloon is shot down as he performs reconnaissance on the encroaching German line. Similarly, a dancer and piccolo player whom Lanny has befriended on the Riviera loses his legs, compelled, again, by the call to arms. Rick, who has become a pilot, is shot down, disabling him to the point that he is denied physical independence, while Kurt, who had filled Lanny’s mind with German Idealism, remains physically intact, though we see his mind crippled as he is seized ever more by volkish ideology as his countrymen suffer at the hands of the Versailles Treaty.

Lanny’s friends, amidst lamentations of their own inability to further their respective enlightenments while at war, encourage Lanny to exist above the conflict and continue his devotion to art and the survival of the sensitive soul. Kurt, in an effort to forbid Lanny and those in his company from their “pinkish” inclinations, commands:

Never let anybody make you forget that you are artists. It is your function to provide spiritual illumination for mankind and not to waste your faculties in the clamor and strife of politics. If you are good artists, that is all the world has any right to expect of you.

Though there is always the hint of the speaker’s prerogative, it is in such moments that the question of art during war is present, and Lanny finds himself an artistic “jack of all trades, master of none.” He takes comfort in the arts, but experiences doubt as to his own ability to wield them in a way that might affect change in a world sliding towards “the end of our world,” as Sinclair saw it. Lanny’s doubts are seen again as he sets down the polarities of his life:

… [I have] been torn since boyhood by two sets of ideas, two sets of inclinations, two worlds which are in conflict, and each has a claim upon me and lays hold of me and pulls. It used to be tolerable, in the old days when ideas were not taken too seriously; but now these two worlds have gone to war, and they pull as hard as they can and don’t care if they pull me to pieces.

It is important to note that part of what tugs at Lanny is the fact that his privileged lifestyle is funded by two completely antithetical means: art and war. The death of his stepfather and the subsequent promotion of his paintings provides him with one steady source of income, but more awkwardly—as Lanny acknowledges—his father supplies him with stocks in the family arms business, and the dividends support his leisurely lifestyle.

Lanny, though a pacifist at first has a respect for guns and is capable of firing them. He even has a certain level of respect for his family’s involvement in the arms industry via a code of ethics his father shared with him from an early age. ‘The True Faith of an Armorer,” from George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara:

To give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them, without respect of persons or principles: to aristocrat and republican, to Nihilist and Tsar, to Capitalist and Socialist, to Protestant and Catholic, to burglar and policeman, to black man white man and yellow man, to all sorts and conditions, all nationalities, all faiths, all follies, all causes and all crimes.

Though Robbie Budd fails to lure his son into the arms business, Lanny maintains a very special friendship with many of his father’s contacts, including Sir Basil Zaharoff, Knight commander of the Bath, one of the more interesting historical characters in the series, and major player in the munitions firm Vickers (recently given a nod in popular culture with Charlize Theron’s utterly banal character in Prometheus.) Zaharoff, known for selling arms to both sides of a conflict becomes another personification of dialectic throughout the series. Sinclair’s Zaharoff often declares his regrets at the ends towards which his means of destruction are finding themselves; that he seems to believe that arms will dissuade aggression. Some of Sir Basil’s contributions to the worldwide arms race include popularizing machine guns and submarines, and acting as an early developer of what would become British Petroleum. He is also an interesting model of the transnational businessman, justifying his investment in American politics:

When I invest my money in an American company, I become an American, don’t I?

The complexity of arms as that which can both negotiate and circumvent peace is an easy companion to the issue that arises with the shattering of lives and liberty again and again: is it the responsibility of the artist to effect change in the present—by fighting for their cause, not making work about it—or to hope that their work as artist might produce change in the present and caution in the future?

For comrade Monck, with whom Lanny crosses over the gate of decent society and into a full-fledged supporter of the German underground, the answer is simple:

… I cannot have my pride, because I am a hunted man, and I have not only my own fears, but those of millions of working people, whose need is so great that no one can exaggerate it… Nothing else matters; literature, art, civilization itself—everything is gone if we fail…

It is this question, which resonates most profoundly with me. As the early 21st Century could fid many parallels to Lanny Budd and the World’s own experiences, the question of which action to take is increasingly difficult to settle upon. Is there an Ivory tower from which artists and intellectuals can look down upon matters as they wait for the dust to settle, or is laboring towards a noble end of such merit that culture can wait?

The question can seem easy for one so motivated to perform in the face of a clear call to duty, but nearly all of the characters who go fight towards “The World’s End” express regret; they feel manipulated by the “200 families that control France” and by those for whom “class is more important than country.”  This is perhaps best illustrated when French officers are punished for making the Thyssen and Krupp foundries in Germany their targets, as the people funding the war effort in France still have strong economic ties with this dynasty. It is for this reason that it could be argued that the problem lies, at times, with the ability to call to action. Lanny very nearly answers the call at one point, before dissuaded by his lover, Marie, herself one of the “200 families” of France, who asks if he will let himself “be drawn into that sort extremism?” Lanny assures:

Pretty soon I’ll meet somebody who will argue the opposite and I’ll find myself agreeing with him—at least part of the way. I suppose that to be a man of action one has to be able to see only one side, and be absolutely certain that it’s the whole truth.

And in the face of the Spanish government, run by the intellectuals who refuse to take preventative measures against Franco, who seek to be true:

We cannot commit murder, so we must suffer it!

In the instance of the Spanish Civil War, Lanny has ceased to be a pacifist and uses money earned as an art dealer to fund the Republic’s defense against the “Nationalists.” It is also the case for Jean Longuet, who also has a change of heart after the First World War:

There is something in each of us which makes us willing to die rather than consent to evil. Whatever that is, it lifts us above the brutes and makes it possible to have hope for the human race.

For Lanny, truth goes back to the dance, which is still a dance; only the steps are more complex. He is reconciled to living between two worlds, suavely folding one inside of his napkin when the time comes:

… Keep your thoughts to your own little group, and say nothing to your elders, who have grown up in a different world. You cannot convert them; you can only worry them and spoil their holiday. Play your music, read your books, think your own thoughts, and never let yourself be drawn into an argument! Not an altogether satisfactory 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.

Aside from all of the difficult moral questions raised by the novels, I must say that they are also extraordinarily entertaining, informative and full of amazing historical anecdotes that are worth holding on to. The fact that Lanny Budd maintains the degree of truth to his beliefs may not always be realistic, but we are apprised of enough of his faults so as not to be annoyed. Perhaps one of his more honorable traits, especially in light of what is most easily conjured by the term ‘spy,’ is his relationship towards women and progressive feminism. This is inspired by his first love with an independent suffragette, Rosemary Codwilliger, pronounced Culliver, a running joke throughout the novels about the aristocracy:

Lanny knew that English names were queer, especially the fashionable ones; the owners carefully preserved this queerness as a form of distinction, as one way of showing that they didn’t care a hang whether anybody agreed with them about the way to spell, or to pronounce, or to do anything else.

While one may criticize the romantic elements as fluff, I would offer a different perspective, especially in light of the series of spy novels proceeding almost directly on the heels of the Lanny Budd series; Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (Lanny Budd novels: 1940-1953, James Bond novels: 1953-1964), in which any respect gained by women in the period of Lanny Budd is (if their treatment in the films is any reflection upon their treatment in the books) completely thrown out the window by James Bond. But perhaps one of the best endorsements that might be given to the series comes from George Bernard Shaw’s quotation on one of the book jackets from the series:

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.

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