Upton Sinclair, 1927
Hello there Ladies and Gents! Welcome to the third meeting of The Vintage Project Book Club. I'm not sure if anyone else started reading this novel - or if anyone finished it because, honestly, I suffered through this one. And it's times like these that I wish I could blame someone else for the book selection, but alas, I only have myself to blame. Oil! is dense - incredibly dense - and I did NOT love it.
I understand what Sinclair wanted to do with this work - he wanted to write a novel which functioned as social commentary on greed and a shifting of values and ideas. Unfortunately, the descriptor of "A classic tale of greed and corruption." on the back cover is rather misleading. Greed and corruption, I felt were merely peripheral. It felt like Sinclair's focus was on how generations and classes were pitted against one another as global ideals began to shift in the 1920's...yes mostly because of capitalism, but the focus is more on the struggle itself.
This clashing of the ideals of capitalism, socialism, and communism is further complicated by the relationship between James Arnold Ross, Sr. (Dad) and James Arnold Ross, Jr. (Bunny) and also between Bunny and his friends. While the novel is written in the third person, it is Bunny's narrative - we see him grow up, see the incredibly close relationship with his father, his attempts to make peace with the oil business that Dad had built, and trying to reconcile that with the plight of the working class and the new ideas that The Bolshevik Revolution and WWI had brought to the social consciousness. This is an interesting concept, but the novel is far too dense and far too long (548 pages), and I felt like Sinclair was daring me to give up towards the end. It is far more interesting to talk about this work than to actually read it. So, let's talk about it.
The story begins with a road trip to visit one of Dad's wells when Bunny is only thirteen and we quickly learn a lot about Dad's character and Bunny's adoration of him. 'For the most part you sat silent and dignified - because that was Dad's way, and Dad's way constituted the ethics of motoring...There was no hat on Dad's head, because he believed that wind and sunshine kept your hair from falling out...Fifty miles, said the speedometer; that was Dad's rule for open country, and he never varied it, except in wet weather...Fifty miles was enough said Dad; he was a man of order...' Dad begins the novel as a very stern character, a trait that was largely responsible for his rise from mule-driver to self-made oil baron. 'Clothing was a part of a man's dignity, a symbol of his rise in life, and never to be soiled or crumpled...he liked to talk with the plain sort of folks he met along the road, folks of his own sort, who did not notice his extremely crude English; folks who weren't trying to get any money out of him - at least not enough to matter...he went about with a supply of silver dollars and half dollars jingling in his pocket, so that all whom he had dealings with might share that spiritual wealth. "Poor devils," he would say, "they don't get much." He knew because he had been one of them, and he never lost an opportunity to explain it to the boy. To him it was real, and to the boy it was romantic.' And this is the fundamental difference between these two characters. Bunny is a compassionate romantic who never had to struggle for anything and Dad is a realist who struggled for everything. It was this struggle that made him incredibly compassionate towards his workers. '[the workers] respected this "old man," because he knew his business, and nobody could fool him. Also, they liked him because he combined a proper amount of kindliness with his sternness; he was simple and unpretentious...he was a "real guy"; and with this he combined the glamour of a million dollars.'
We quickly realize the fact that he loves Bunny with everything he has and is willing to do whatever he can to make him happy. Originally, he thought that to provide a life with financial stability and a thriving business to inherit would be enough, but as Bunny gets older, Dad has to make peace with the fact that Bunny was definitely not an oil man. On the trip which opens the novel, Bunny meets a boy named Paul who, over time, supercedes Dad in his influence of Bunny. Bunny has a strong sense of right and wrong, but Paul opens his eyes to things he'd never seen or even had to think about with his privileged upbringing - instilling a sense of fairness and truth that go way beyond the code that most people live by. It is under Paul's influence and the influence of the university that he later attends that Bunny really starts to see the way that Dad does business. While Dad had established himself and done incredibly well, he was still new in the oil game and definitely considered one of the little guys. To work his way up, Dad had to play by the same rules as the big boys. 'It was the difference between a theoretical and a practical view of the question. The lady teacher had never had to drill an oil well, her business didn't depend on moving heavy materials over a sheep trail; all she did was jist to sit in a room and use high-soundin' words, like "ideals" and "democracy" and "public service". That was the trouble with this education business, the people that taught was people that never done things, and had no real knowledge of the world...if you wanted things done, you had to pay for them.' It is only after Bunny sees Dad bribe a city official for the first time that we really start to see a shift. 'The father kept two compartments in his mind, one for the things that were right, and the other for things that existed, and which you had to allow to exist, and to defend, in a queer, half-hearted, but stubborn way. But here was this new phenomenon, a boy's mind which was all one compartment; things ought to be right, and if they were not right, you ought to make them right, or else what was the use of having any right - you were only fooling yourself about it.'
Along with this shift of consciousness, the first Oil Worker's Strike took place which would have caused a much greater rift between Dad and Bunny if Dad wasn't so good to his workers - allowing them to stay in the cabins he'd built for them and their families to live in while drilling and treating them FAR better than the other oil companies treated their men. 'He was losing a fortune everyday, and at the same time losing caste with his associates, who thought he was either crack-brained or a traitor, they could not make out which...' This was the first time Bunny had seen anyone challenge the status-quo and Bunny's support of the men in the strike instead of his father is simply foreshadowing his views on the war and how things should be. 'It was springtime all over the country, and yet everybody was preparing to go to war, and form vast armies, and kill other people, also groping for happiness! Everybody said that it had to be; and yet something in Bunny would not cease to dream of a world in which people didn't maim and kill one another, and destroy, not merely the happiness of others, but their own...Bunny was an "idealist," and such people are seldom satisfied in this harsh world.' Paul, having great influence over Bunny, explained the side of the oil workers during the strike and also explained how things really were once he returned from war. Paul had seen things and been forced to do things while stationed in Siberia that Bunny could hardly fathom. '"...I tell you, Bunny, if the private soldiers could have talked it over, there wouldn't have been any war. But that is what is known as treason, and if you try it, you're shot."' Through Paul, Bunny adopts socialist views and begins attending meetings only to realize that, due to his social standing, he does not truly belong. 'Bunny felt the thrill of a great mass experience, and yearned to be part of it, and then shrunk back, like the young man in the Bible story that has too many possessions.'
While Bunny was not the usual sort of Socialist, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly. Between Paul and one of his professors, Mr. Irving, he was absorbing as much information as he could. 'Thereupon Mr. Irving gave him the names of two weekly magazines which as it happened, had just been excluded from the library of the university, and from all the high schools of Angel City, for "dangerous thoughts". You can imagine what happened then. When you tell a high-spirited lad that he must not read certain publications, he becomes immediately filled with curiosity to know what they contain. Bunny went home and sent in his subscription to those papers, quite openly in his own name. So there was another entry in the card-indexes of the Military Intelligence Department and the Naval Intelligence Department and the Secret Service Department; to say nothing of many organizations which were using these card-indexes as their own - several patriotic societies, and several militant newspapers, and several big private detective agencies, including of course, the information service of the once-upon-a-time ambassador from a no-longer existing Russian government.' While early on, Bunny saw his privileged upbringing somewhat of an embarrassment in the company of other Socialists, it later brought him his fair share of fame. '"The millionaire red" became his future designation...Bunny was made into a centre of Solviet propaganda...Rachel insisted that Bunny was one person in a million capable of believing what was contrary to his economic interests.' As the situation became more heated and more of his Socialist and Communist friends started to get arrested for crimes against capitalism or as they are referred to in the novel, criminal syndicalism, he begins to use Dad's money to bail them all out of jail time and time again. This shows the level of compassion that Dad is capable of - while these new views also went against his personal interests, he was always willing to listen to his son, the views of his friends, and even went to a few Socialist meetings with Bunny. Because it was what made Bunny happy, Dad also continually gave him as much money as he needed to bail out his friends, to create propaganda publications, and even starting colleges for the working class. '"...it's going to be kind of tough on me if I'm to spend my life earning money, and then you spend it teaching young people that I haven't got any right to it!"'
While Bunny was funding this new movement, Dad was trying to get ahead in the oil game by donating an obscene amount of money with his business partner to help get Senator Harding elected to the White House. This happens late in the novel and by this time, we've already come to know Dad very well...up until this point, we'd only seen him bribe local officials in order to expedite roads and the construction of wells, never anything that could come close to this type of corruption, so with the fact that his business partner, Verne, came to him to solicit this money, I don't think Dad would have started 'buying' politicians on his own. Verne is a shrewd and pompous businessman and knew what he was doing - obviously, since Harding won the presidency, and in greasing this palm in particular, they were getting a President interested in oil, a cooperative Secretary of the Interior, and the contracts on government oil land that they could drill and then sell the oil back to the government. Everything was going very well for Dad and Verne until President Harding died and a new Congress was elected. It was then that the news of these dealings broke and flooded the newspapers. '...the thing was too sensational to be held down any longer. It didn't read like politics, but like some blood and thunder movie.'
This novel is (supposedly loosely) based on the life of Edward L. Doheny, Sr., his oil company Pan American, and his involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal. While Sinclair went on the record to state that James Arnold Ross, Sr. is not based on any one person, the similarities in character, life, and business are too many to ignore. This is the thinly masked story of Doheny who drilled the first successful oil well in a field just north of Downtown Los Angeles and set off the oil boom of Southern California in the late 1800's. I admit that, while I am more knowledgeable about the Doheny family than most, I am by no means an expert, but I will be doing my research and create another post about Doheny and the specific parallels between this novel and the Doheny family, which should be quite a read - the story of that family is more sordid and scandalous, glamorous and tragic than most people could create in their imaginations!
As dense as this post is, it is nothing compared to the novel, I have neglected whole story lines and a myriad of characters in the interest of focusing on what I felt constituted the main message that Sinclair wanted to convey. He was very passionate about his hatred of capitalism and this is his manifesto.
For those of you who have read this, what did you think? Am I being unfairly harsh? Are you proud of me for not defenestrating this book?
I hope I can make up for this novel with my April Book Club Selection!