Study Guide for Sinclair’s The Flivver King:  A Story of Ford America (1937, 1984)

Prof. Childs




First, you should read the introduction by Stephen Meyer.


Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."


Upton Sinclair’s novel is a primary source from the period; as such, we should assess it as we would any other primary source.  While written in part to help attract new members to the union movement in the 1930s (its bias, if you will), the novel nonetheless offers us an accurate picture of the social effects of the development of mass production techniques (the second industrial revolution) in the 20th century.  In the beginning of the novel, the two worlds of management and labor appear harmonious; by the end of the novel, the two worlds are at war with one another.  What had happened?


Of course, the Shutt family is fictional, but Sinclair’s presentation of generational change within the family reflects the general transformations historians and sociologists have noted since.  For the most part, Sinclair’s biography of Henry Ford remains accurate.  Sinclair’s analyses of structural and social change in the political economy, from the 1890s to the 1930s, are, of course, subject to argument.  His analysis of the Stock Market Crash, particularly, has been modified.


Themes to ponder


A.  Henry Ford.


As you read Sinclair’s novel, try to come to grips with what kind of man Henry Ford was.  Note particularly the dream motivating his tinkering on horseless carriages; how did the dream turn out in reality?  How was he in control/not-in-contrl of the consequences of his actions?


Paradox seems central to understanding the nature of Henry Ford.  Be sure to note the examples when Henry’s actins and the consequences of his actions seem contradictory on the surface, but, after analysis, become less contradictory and more paradoxical (that is, rather than canceling one another out, the two sides of the contradiction coexist).


Time Magazine, January 14, 1935  January 14, 1935


Given that Henry was a dreamer of the future and that he decried history as bunk, how can you explain his turns to the past (museum, square dancing)?  What had the implementation of his dream left out?


Note also how Henry Ford seemed to lose control over what he had wrought and consider why this happened.


Perhaps the general paradox in Henry’s career was the sense that he used Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends.  Think about that!


B.  Working class life.


Note how the Shutts respond to the changes in their relationship with the Ford Motor Company.  Note especially the loyalty theme, which Abner reflects, but his children do not.  How much of the family’s periodic troubles can be traced directly to:


            Henry Ford’s actions?

            to their own choices?

            to forces outside their control or even beyond Henry Ford’s control?


Note how the Shutts responded to the Social (Sociological) Department at the Ford Motor Company.  Why was the department necessary?  How was it helpful to individuals and families?  How did it harm individuals and families?


  Crowd Gathering after the Announcement of the 5 Dollar Day, 1914


C.  Industrialism and the individual.


Think about the notion that Henry Ford reflects one of the most important individuals in the history of American business, if not American history generally.  Think about how he helped create an industrial system of production designed to meet the needs of the individual, but at the same time alienated the individual from him/herself.


Is mass production/industrialism fundamentally incompatible with promoting individualism?  Which is more important, individual choice or efficiency?  Can the two be balanced effectively?  List reasons why managers should be concerned with the individual.  List reasons why managers should not be concerned with the individual.


  Ford assembly line, 1913



D.  Industrialism and labor unions.


Why did Sinclair argue that working people like Abner Shutt should organize into unions?  Why would individuals like Abner disagree with Sinclair?  Why would they agree?


Why would men like Henry Ford oppose unions?


Given the context of the times (1920s—1930s), why were unions necessary (or not necessary)?


  Ford even hired blacks to work in Harry Bennett's dreaded Service Department, which was charged with keeping order in and around Ford plants. Here two service department employees -- one black -- are shown harassing a union organizer.


  Harry Bennett's Ford "service" men beat UAW official Richard Frankensteen in the Battle of the Overpass on May 26, 1937.





E.  Periodization.


The novel covers over 40 years of time.  To comprehend the flow of events and when and how changes in business and in working class life occurred, you might place your notes into the following framework:


            -- the early years:  1890s to 1910.

            -- the $5 dollar day era.

            -- World War I.

            -- the recession of 1920.

            -- competition in the 1920s.

            -- crisis in capitalism, 1930s.


For each period, you should note for both Henry and Abner:  the problems each one faced; each one’s analysis of the problems; each one’s response to the problems; and, the consequences of their actions.