Oil! by Upton Sinclair

“The boy had got by heart every one of the Bolshevik formulas that the people of Russia had a right to run their own country in their own way; that our troops had no business shooting and killing them without a declaration of war by Congress; that people in this country had a right to express the above convictions without being beaten or tarred and feathered or sent to prison or deported.”

For the last few decades author Upton Sinclair has almost faded from view. Mainly remembered for his novel The Jungle, an expose of the U.S. meat packing industry that caused such a public uproar that it contributed to the passage of The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, Sinclair’s other books have been largely forgotten or shifted off to the dead zone of high school curriculums. With the release of the film There Will Be Blood which is very loosely based on Sinclair’s novel OIL! this author of American social conscience may gain a new generation of readers.

Written by Sinclair in 1927, the novel was created as a response to the oil scandals of the Harding administration. Set in Southern California, the protagonist is J. Arnold Ross, junior known affectionately as Bunny–the only son of an oil millionaire. When the novel begins, Bunny is a young, impressionable boy. Constantly at his father’s side so that he can learn about the oil business, Bunny takes a trip to assess a possible new oil field. Bunny meets a runaway from Paradise, a young boy named Paul Watkins, and this meeting has a profound affect on Bunny for the rest of his life. Taught by his father that everyone has a price, Bunny’s attempt to give money to the half-starved runaway is rejected. This act causes Bunny to question his father’s schema. And since Paul doesn’t fit into the oil millionaire’s theories of morality and money, Paul assumes heroic proportions to young, sensitive Bunny.

The novel follows Paul through his teen years and young adulthood. Attracted to radical elements at his father’s oil fields in Paradise, idealistic Bunny doesn’t understand why some people (the Rosses) have so much while some people (the oil workers) have so little. He attempts industry reforms, which are indulged by his father to a point but ultimately squashed by the ferocity of the oil industry billionaire owners. Attracted to socialism, Bunny eventually becomes a socialist and I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) sympathizer. But he straddles two worlds. On one hand he has to consider his father’s health and feelings–not to mention the demands of his Hollywood starlet girlfriend. But on the other hand, he defends the rights of the working class even as he leads a life of ease and luxury based on the hardships and deprivations designed to squeeze more out of the workers.

Many of Sinclair’s characters embody ideals, and the display of ideals sometimes preempts character development. In the case of Bunny, for example, while he does use his money to dabble in radical social change, he’s almost as impotent and reflective as a Jamesian observer. But whereas in a James novel, the observer brings a certain worldly wisdom to an interpretation of events, Bunny remains essentially the same throughout the novel–good, naive, and innocent. While the novel is extremely strong for the most part, it weakens towards the end as Sinclair tosses in elements of Spiritualism and a Socialist Colony–the rather transparent personal interests of the author, and the novel seems a little false at these junctures.

Those faults aside, however, the novel is at its strongest depicting Bunny’s dilemma. As the oil prince set to inherit millions, he’s viewed as a class traitor by his own kind, and he also never fits in with the workers. Generous, loyal, kind and sensitive, Bunny is troubled by the world he lives in, but he’s unable to commit one way or another until fate takes a hand. Bunny enjoys a good relationship with his father, a driven self-made man who dragged his family out of poverty through willpower, good luck, and great intelligence. Ross believes people are poor because they choose to be, and his attitude is “It was a world you had to help yourself in.” One of his favorite themes is “the shiftlessness of the working class,” and one of the ways in which Ross justifies his fantastic wealth earned with the sweat and sometimes the lives of his workers is by seeing himself as a responsible steward. A father figure to his employees, Ross is much loved by the workers until strikes occur, and then the atmosphere at the oil fields alters irrevocably.

OIL! is an incredible read. The novel charts the growth of the radical movement of the working class mainly through the character of Paul Watkins. Sent to fight in WWI, he sees first hand the atrocities of the Whites against the Bolsheviks–people he considers to be his own class. When he finally returns from WWI, he’s a changed man. Converted to Bolshevism, he’s fanatically driven to sacrifice everything for the cause. Paul’s brother Eli is equally fanatical, but his obsession is with religion. Whereas Paul’s idealism is pure, Eli is a scoundrel and a self-serving hypocrite who uses his position to sneak off for sordid liaisons at discreet hotels.

Oil! is an intensely political novel. Set in tumultuous times, its characters take their places in history as nations go to war and classes battle for power. Paul is radicalized by his WWI experiences. His time in Archangel has convinced him that only the bankers profit from war, and that the only war worth fighting is the war between the classes. Since the novel was written in 1927, the Bolsheviks are assigned a rosy romanticism that was subsequently debunked by the famines in the Ukraine, and the furor of Stalin’s bloody purges.

If you’ve seen the film There Will Be Blood and you are expecting the written version, well you’ll be disappointed. The film is an interesting adaptation of the book in its own right, but as a comparison, it’s a pale anemic version with the politics–the central part of the book–ripped out. But if you are looking for a serious political novel that examines the divide between the classes, then Oil! is a fascinating look at the immutability of class politics and human nature.

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3 Comments

Filed under Sinclair, Upton

3 responses to “Oil! by Upton Sinclair

  1. Mary

    Yes, it was a trying time to be alive in the world. All those golden promises that had been made to us, those bright hopes we had cherished! All the blood of young men that had been shed, three hundred thousand of them dead or wounded in France – and here were the allied statesmen, grim, cruel old men, sitting at the council-table and putting the world right back where it had been before! Perpetuating all the old hatreds, all the old injustices- with a thousand new ones to torment the future! Tearing Germans away from their own land and giving them to Frenchmen, giving Austrians to Italians, Russians to Poles- so on through a long list of blunders; condemning millions of people to live under governments they feared and despised, and thus making certain they would revolt, and throw Europe into uproar again!
    – Upton Sinclair, “Oil” chapter 10, 1927

  2. Fascinating. I’ve been kicking myself for ages as I nearly bought this about a year before There Will be Blood was released, didn’t and now can’t find it without Daniel Day Lewis’s face on the cover (I hate movie covers, I’m a terrible snob that way).

    It does sound though like I really missed out, despite the slightly unconvincing end parts this sounds a must read, I’ll keep my eye out for a new edition.

    • Guy Savage

      Several people told me NOT to read Oil as it was passe and not worth the bother. Obviously I totally disagree. Can’t help but wonder how people who loved the film will buy the book and then be disappointed….

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