Upton Sinclair was born in 1878 to a Baltimore family of rapidly diminishing respectability. His father was a whisky salesman who drank a good deal more than he ever managed to sell. When things got especially bad, Sinclair’s mother would seek refuge in the home of her own father, who was secretary-treasurer of the Western Maryland Railroad, or that of her sister, who was married to one of the richest men in Baltimore. Sinclair’s early childhood was a study in social contrasts – a bedbug-infested room in a boarding house one week, ‘silk coverlets’ and ‘terrapin suppers’ the next – and his most successful novels contain similar juxtapositions between the extremes of wealth and poverty.
Reading and writing were Sinclair’s main distractions from the ‘long moral agony’ of his father’s alcoholism. He claimed to have taught himself to read at the age of five, and by his fourteenth birthday he had entered the City College of New York, paying his way by writing pulp stories in which swashbuckling American lads pitched their wits and muscles against malevolent foreigners. He worked fast – producing an average of eight thousand words a day – and on graduating in 1897 got a job with a firm of junk publishers, turning out adventure stories for boys. None of this helped to establish him as a serious writer, and his first novel for adults, Springtime and Harvest, a dainty romance, was rejected several times before he self-published it in 1901, a year after his marriage to Meta Fuller, a childhood friend. It sold a total of two hundred copies. His next few books didn’t fare much better, and Sinclair was forced to move with his wife and infant son to a three-room cabin outside Princeton. In this bucolic setting he soon abandoned his Romantic inclinations and developed in their place ‘a savage hatred of wealth’. He joined the local chapter of the newly founded Socialist Party of America and over the next few years became obsessed with the idea of using fiction to convert the American public to the cause.
Sinclair’s first serious attempt at this came in his fifth novel, The Jungle (1906), an exposé of the exploitative and hazardous conditions in the meatpacking industry. It was a radical departure from his earlier work, both in its proselytising spirit and in marrying its sensational plot to painstaking research – he spent seven weeks touring the stockyards and slaughterhouses of Chicago and interviewing workers. Its publication made him a household name at the age of 27. Meat consumption in the US is said to have dipped for several years after the novel appeared. Some of its influence can be attributed to the backing of President Roosevelt (‘the greatest publicity man of that time’, according to Sinclair), who sent the young author a three-page analysis of The Jungle and an invitation to visit him at the White House for further discussion. These events led directly to the passing of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act (although not, to Sinclair’s chagrin, to the drafting of new legislation promoting workers’ rights. ‘I aimed for the public’s heart,’ he said, ‘and by accident hit it in the stomach’).
It was perhaps inevitable that Sinclair would have trouble living up to what his own publicist described as ‘an almost overwhelming inundation of fame’. He sank most of his earnings from The Jungle into an experiment in communal living in Englewood, New Jersey, which came to a sudden and ignominious end when the site burned to the ground. The tabloids hinted at bohemian sexual goings-on, a suggestion that seemed to be borne out when, not long after the whole thing unravelled, Meta left Sinclair for his best friend. None of this affected his productivity: he continued to bash out several thousand words a day while running unsuccessfully for Congress on a socialist ticket and, for a brief period, editing a magazine from his living room. But by the beginning of the 1920s, his sales were in decline and the critics agreed that he was no longer grappling with the important issues that had made The Jungle a hit.
Oil! (1927) was intended to change all that. It follows the career of a character closely modelled on the oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, as seen from the perspective of his son. Doheny did more than anyone to usher in global petroleum dependency. In 1892 he drilled the first oil well in Los Angeles. The crude oil he found there was too viscous to be turned into kerosene economically, but it could be used as a substitute for coal in combustion engines. He persuaded the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Santa Fe Railroad to try it. By the outbreak of war in 1914, oil was being used to power tanks, trucks and planes; it was clear that control of its supply would be central to future geopolitical considerations. Doheny (who had by that point expanded his operations into Mexico) emerged from the war years a figure of outlandish wealth and huge political influence.
It was Doheny’s political connections that got him mixed up in the Teapot Dome affair, the biggest scandal in American public life before Watergate and the inspiration for Sinclair’s novel. In 1921, Albert Bacon Fall, an associate of Doheny’s from his time as a prospector, was appointed secretary of the interior by President Harding. The following year, he was accused of leasing drilling rights to two naval oil reserves for his own enrichment. During the subsequent congressional investigation, it emerged that Doheny’s son had delivered $100,000 to Fall ‘in a little black bag’. It was corruption at the highest levels of government. The Senate hearings began in October 1923 and on 5 June 1924 Doheny was formally indicted. Fall was convicted of accepting the bribe, becoming the first American cabinet member to spend time in jail, but in a feat of legal escapology, Doheny was acquitted of having paid it.
At the time of the Senate hearings, Sinclair was living in Pasadena with his second wife, Mary Craig. It was her job to manage their finances (Sinclair had a high-minded aversion to anything money-related) and at some point she began making small investments in the local real-estate market. When oil was discovered near some vacant lots she had bought on the west slope of Signal Hill, her gamble seemed to have paid off. She clubbed together with the other local owners to discuss a joint sale. Sinclair accompanied her to ‘many disputatious meetings’ and took notes. The greed displayed by some of the owners – who argued that their lots were worth more than others of the same size – appalled him.
Scenes based on the Signal Hill meetings went straight into the manuscript of Oil! By June 1925, Sinclair was predicting it would be ‘the best thing I have ever done’. The story begins in 1912, when the oil-powered world was still in its infancy. We first encounter our protagonist, thirteen-year-old Bunny Ross, belting down the freeway with his father, J. Arnold Ross (the Doheny figure, but just ‘Dad’ to Bunny):
Any boy will tell you that this is glorious. Whoopee! you bet! Sailing along up there close to the clouds, with an engine full of power, magically harnessed, subject to the faintest pressure from the ball of your foot. The power of ninety horses – think of that! Suppose you had had ninety horses out there in front of you, forty-five pairs in a long line, galloping round the side of a mountain, wouldn’t that make your pulses jump? And this magic ribbon of concrete laid out for you, winding here and there, feeling its way upwards with hardly a variation of grade, taking off the shoulder of a mountain, cutting straight through the apex of another, diving into the black belly of a third; twisting, turning, tilting inwards on the outside curves, tilting outwards on the inside curves, so that you were always balanced, always safe – and with a white-painted line marking the centre, so that you always knew exactly where you had a right to be – what magic had done all this?
Dad’s answer is ‘money’, which establishes him as wrong-headed from the get-go (the correct answer is ‘labour’), but he isn’t exactly a villain, and we aren’t invited to scorn Bunny’s feelings about the pleasures afforded by oil. The opening chapters have many of the elements – speed cops, hitchhikers, fender-benders – that road movies still use to reel in audiences a century later.
In his introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition, Michael Tondre calls this ‘a procedural problem that Oil! never resolves, but rather converts into a source of ongoing fictional intrigue. How to more properly hate oil … becomes both an ideological impasse and a literary plot.’ His confidence that the ultimate target is oil, as distinct from the oil industry, rests on the belief that ‘the question at the heart of Sinclair’s novel’ is ‘how may we transition to a post-carbon democracy?’ It isn’t clear what led him to this conclusion. While it would be nice to find Sinclair anticipating our current ecological concerns, there’s little evidence that the notion of ‘a post-carbon democracy’ ever crossed his mind. The novel draws a sharp contrast between the American oil industry (‘a little ruling group of operators, who wouldn’t pay their men a living wage, but would work them twelve hours a day’) and the Soviet system (‘a state trust, in which the workers’ unions were recognised, and given a voice in labour affairs … a new culture, based on industry instead of exploitation’), but it doesn’t offer any alternative to Dad’s view that ‘there has got to be oil … This is an oil age, and when you try to shut oil off from production, it’s …like you tried to dam Niagara Falls.’
Sinclair wanted to use the novel not only to lambast oil capitalism, but to stake his claim on Southern California as a literary setting. As well as automobile culture (and the new sexual freedom it enabled), he describes the burgeoning movie industry (Bunny dates a well-known Hollywood actress) and the ‘weird cults and doctrines’ that were already coming to define Los Angeles County (one character, a preacher, becomes an early radio evangelist and ends up in real estate). There’s even a brief cameo from a woman who has had ‘surgical operations performed on her face to keep it from “sagging”’. The novel dips into these different spheres without ever taking its eye off oil, which sets them all in motion.
The modernity of Sinclair’s California is at odds with his style. He had no time for recent developments in literary technique and his primary models were Zola (from whom he learned the importance of shoe-leather research) and Dickens (from whom he derived a sense of social scale, but not a sense of humour, unless you count the sledgehammer irony that occasionally batters his descriptions into a conspicuous point). His handling of the plot is so laborious that you almost wince in recognition when he comes to describe an oil well starting up: ‘Bunny moved the lever, and the engine gave a thump, and the chain gave a pull, and the gears gave a rattle, and the rotary table gave a turn.’ He’s pedantic with social detail (which partly accounts for the book’s length) and inept with psychological detail (he once told his daughter-in-law that he was ‘indifferent to personal individual affairs’, something he had the grace to recognise was ‘a bad handicap in a novelist’). At times he asks the reader to do the work – ‘You can imagine what fun Bunny had’ – as if his job stopped at sourcing the raw material for a story.
Paul Thomas Anderson therefore had room to experiment when he adapted the novel for the screen as There Will Be Blood (2007). His protagonist, Daniel Plainview (the role for which Daniel Day-Lewis won his second Oscar), is a much richer and more disturbing version of Doheny than Sinclair attempted. Even before he commits the first of two murders, his sociopathic tendencies are evident in the sadism with which he treats everyone around him; his only tender feelings appear to be for oil. At the height of the Teapot Dome scandal, the real Doheny tried to persuade Cecil B. DeMille to make a movie about his life. It’s safe to say There Will Be Blood wasn’t what he had in mind.
Anderson’s film was made almost twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which accounts for some of its other deviations from the source material. Although it retains a prominent role for the sanctimonious Prophet of the Church of the Third Revelation (Eli Watkins in the novel, reborn as Eli Sunday in the film and played by Paul Dano), it has considerably less use for his brother Paul (also played by Dano) and none whatsoever for Paul’s left-wing activism. Plainview, with no son to secure his empire, adopts one when the opportunity arises – the blood of the title is as much corporate strategy as dark prophecy – before sending the boy away after a mining accident leaves him deaf. Bunny, by contrast, grows up to become a socialist, while managing to stay on excellent terms with his industrialist father. The film has a visionary quality: it starts out as a punk-Western and ends up somewhere between expressionism and myth. The mode of the novel is socialist realism.
Bunny’s political awakening begins early in 1917, when the workers at his father’s mines go on strike, and accelerates later that year, during the Red Scare. These events teach him not to trust the government, the police or anything he reads in the newspapers. He comes to see that the war in Europe is killing and maiming working-class boys in their thousands, while making the oil men richer, and that the American military maintains a presence in Siberia only because the government wants access to the oil fields. Soon he’s using phrases such as ‘class consciousness’ and ‘exploitation of the workers’ and bankrolling a Bolshevik magazine.
His sister calls him an ingrate, and she has a point. Bunny spouts off about socialism without renouncing his playboy lifestyle or having it out with Dad. Sinclair, however, treats him with patience and respect, because it’s through Bunny that the reader can be shown both the insensitive rich and the exploited poor. His political education is a conduit for our own, and the novel is full of moments when things ‘become clear to him’, usually in the form of unwieldy propositions such as ‘the present system could not go on forever – the resources and wealth of the country thrown into an arena, to be scrambled for and carried off by the greediest.’
Christopher Hitchens once wrote that in The Jungle ‘Sinclair’s realism … got in the way of his socialism.’ Nobody could say the same about Oil! Sinclair flexes his research, but it’s always pressed into the service of the socialist cause. Once the attempt to buy the naval reserves comes to light, Dad repents of his part in it: ‘How many, many times he wished that he had listened to the warnings of his young idealist and kept clear of this mess of corruption!’ He flees to Europe, where he dies of pneumonia. Paul is beaten to death by a right-wing mob. In the final pages, the narration rises to fire-and-brimstone pitch warning of ‘an evil Power which roams the earth, crippling the bodies of men and women, and luring the nations to destruction by visions of unearned wealth’. We’ve encountered this register elsewhere in the novel, but not in the narrator’s voice. ‘Upon these hills have I tended my father’s herds, like the prophets of old,’ Eli declaims, ‘and have harkened unto the voice of the Holy Spirit, speaking to me in the storms and the thunders.’
Sinclair’s zeal was at least authentic. He seems reflexively to have discounted the legitimacy of anything that showed the left in a less than admirable light. On 16 September 1920, a bomb was left in a cart outside the J.P. Morgan building on Wall Street: it killed forty people and injured hundreds. Detectives established that the device had been made from TNT and packed with iron weights. They didn’t find the person responsible, but did recover four printed flyers bearing the message: ‘Remember we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchist Fighters.’ The incident was a PR catastrophe for the radical left. This is the way it’s depicted in Oil!:
It chanced that a wagon loaded with blasting material, making its way through Wall Street with customary indifference to municipal ordinances, met with a collision and exploded. The accident happened in front of the banking offices of Morgan and Company, and about a dozen people were killed. A few minutes after the accident, the bankers called in America’s sleuth-celebrity to solve the mystery; and this able businessman, facing the situation that if it was an accident it was nothing, while if it was a Bolshevik plot it was several hundred thousand dollars, took three minutes to look about him, and then pronounced it a plot.
There’s something chilling about Sinclair’s readiness to slash more than two-thirds off the death toll, not to mention his insouciance in pulling a conspiracy theory out of his hat. He may genuinely have suspected, as he wrote in an op-ed for the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, that the official version of events was ‘a deliberate plot of the authorities to discredit the radical movement’, but he knew beyond doubt that his own version was hogwash. The passage does at least clarify one thing: a novel like this isn’t trying to achieve literary distinction. It wants its success to be measured in political terms. The Jungle owes its current reputation less to its enduring relevance than to its status as a work of fiction that demonstrably changed things. Oil! belongs to a much larger category: works that didn’t.
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