As someone who is a total nerd about both World Wars, I have been meaning to tackle the Lanny Budd series of historical novels since first learning about them perhaps five years ago. [It is a shame they are now so forgotten, especially since the third book of the series won author Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) a Pulitzer Prize.]
Written between 1940-53, Sinclair’s novels use the life of Lanny Budd to tell the sequential history of Europe and America in the first half of the 20th century. So, now I have completed the first of 11 books. And it is nothing short of a masterpiece! Awarded five stars on Goodreads. Readable, compelling, full of complex and interesting characters, and deeply informative about both history and politics. In fact, much of it seems applicable to current events.
WORLD’S END begins in 1914 when Lanny Budd is 14– the son of a wealthy, American arms manufacturer, Robbie Budd, and a beautiful French woman who goes by the nickname Beauty. Though his parents don’t live together, Lanny remains a child of privilege, growing up in Southern France amid cosmopolitan members of the elite class, who are themselves primarily focused on, travel, social activities and the arts.
Attending the best schools, Lanny is popular, excels at his studies, and forms close friendships with fellow students Rick (British) and Kurt (German), who later wind up on opposites sides of the coming World War. Fiercely loyal, honest, intelligent, and curious — Lanny quickly becomes someone for us to both love and admire. Like me, you will no doubt identify with him, as I’m sure the author intended. Because Lanny, aside from being central to the story, also serves as the character who winds up asking the difficult questions and examining contradictions, when trying to figure out what is right in an increasingly complex world.
Sinclair skillfully presents a vivid picture of pre-war Europe — where class served as the most important organizing principle of society. One did not socialize outside one’s class, let alone contemplate marriage outside. Class opened doors OR limited opportunities. Lower classes maintained deep respect for those they perceived as higher up. Through the unfolding story of the Budd family and their friends, Sinclair then examines how World War I destroyed this structure, leaving countries open to new governments, social pressures, and political movements in the post-war era. That is QUITE a tall order, but honestly, Sinclair masters it!
NOTE: Known as a American muckraker (his popular novel, THE JUNGLE, was considered instrumental to the passage of both the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act) and activist, understand going in that Sinclair approaches history with a liberal bias. Which means committed Capitalists don’t necessarily come off very well in this novel.
World’s End is a long book (750 pages)— carrying us (as Lanny comes of age) through both the war and the lengthy peace process that followed in Paris, with President Woodrow Wilson, French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George leading the negotiations. Somehow, because of his position of privilege, Lanny always manages to be close to the key “dealmakers” who, in turn, expose him to the wide range of competing political viewpoints, economic imperatives, and sometimes desperate actions of the period.
I am truly in awe of the accomplishment of this book. And I WILL go on to read more Lanny Budd books.
More about author, Upton Sinclair.