Sunday, February 3, 2008

Oil by Upton Sinclair Review

Upton Sinclair as seen on the cover of Time magazine in 1934

Oil by Upton Sinclair is a novel about the oil business in the 1920s in Southern California. It was written in 1927. Like most of Upton Sinclair's novels it is about the struggle between different classes of people and how it destroys peoples lives. Other people might see it as allegory.  Upton Sinclair was writing for social reform.  The book was very controversial and was a bestseller in its time.

One of the main characters James Arnold  Ross or "Dad" rises to prominence in the Southern California oil fields. The other character, his son Bunny Ross watches as "Dad's" life is destroyed by corruption, greed, and avarice.  Upton Sinclair satirizes the characters downfall.

James Ross does not start out corrupt. Upton Sinclair describes James Ross as an idealized small business man who is just and fair. He pays his men fair and gives them a square deal. It is when he tries to join the big oil syndicates that things become hard and dangerous for him. To become rich, James Ross slowly turns to bribery, deception to get peoples land, and lets go of his principles.  Upton Sinclair is decrying the process of corruption which small business men often face when they join bigger businesses..

 Bunny Ross reacts against the changes in his father, becoming a pink or socialist and siding with organized labor. Bunny reacts in horror as the syndicates bring in strikebreakers to break up unions and he tries to change James Ross's mind. Upton Sinclair is writing about labor in the 1930s which is very different from now.  He is also creating a classic theme of father against son.

James Ross, says he has to follow the big syndicates if he is to become wealthy, it is the way of the world for those who think to take advantage of labor. This is very old fashioned thinking.  Upton Sinclair is creating an everyman who is slowly becoming corrupt.

Bunny Ross  is given everything, a nice car, chances to meet nice young ladies, a college education, the freedom to go out and drink, play sports, and dance all night. He is even introduced to Vee a sexy movie star to get him away from his socialist comrades.  This does not change Bunny Ross who seems to be a symbol of working purity.  I didn't find this very realistic; but, the writing was aiming for the heart.

One of Bunny Ross's friends, Paul is a soldier who was in Russia and learned about the wonders of labor in the Soviet Union and how good it was for the working man there. This was at a time when socialism was idealized in its beginning stages.  Propaganda from the Soviet Union flowed freely into the United States and the United States in turn created propaganda to stop the Soviets.

The sections on the Bolsheviks are quite interesting from a historical viewpoint. They don't read anything like most mainstream textbooks. There is a feeling of revolutionary fervor.  The descriptions are also experiential which is different than dry history.  It is also written in a time before Russia was the United States enemy during the Cold War so it does not have the feeling of Russia being an enemy.

The book is very much a tragedy. Even though James Ross succeeds in getting money, he is still a small business man at heart. James Ross does not know how to handle his wealth. Eventually he is forced to flee the country in a scandal much like the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding Administration.  The book ends appropriately with betrayal.  You can tell that Upton Sinclair is drawing from the history and news of the day to turn it a more sensational deeper scandal than it was portrayed in the newspapers.  He is muckraking.  You see almost no muckraking novels these days.

This book is very complex. It is 548 pages long and took quite a lot of time to read. There is a lot of dialog and a lot to think about.  I think the book was very much ahead of its time. At the time it was written it did not have the same impact as his first work, The Jungle about the meatpacking industry.

Upton Sinclair does not spare either the unions or what he views as a corrupt corporate world.  He is writing for reform of the oil industry.  Unfortunately, this book did not have the same impact as the book, The Jungle.  I feel it is often misinterpreted. There are often attempts to rewrite peoples beliefs to make them more palatable.  I do not see this book as allegorical, but as an attempt to create a specific political reaction of heartfelt unease and horror at the oil industry.

The structure of labor has changed considerably in the corporate world.  Now, some companies offer things like profit sharing, collaborative work environments, and often are structured so there is some possibility of ownership in corporate America.  I think this book is useful as a way to look at labor in a historical sense.  There was a much sharper class divide in the 1920s than there is now.

I liked reading about the IWW (International World Workers), the socialists, and the other groups described in the book, Oil. From a historical perspective it is quite interesting.

This book seems to have increased in popularity now because of the corruption we are currently facing in the government surrounding oil.   There have been a number of disasters in recent years surrounding oil; the Enron Scandal, the British Petroleum offshore oil spill, the Halliburton contracts for oil in Iraq, and the continuing often unreported problems with energy in California.

The movie, There Will Be Blood, has also reintroduced this book to the public. I am not going to go see the movie. I think from reading the reviews, it is a very different story than the one presented in the book by Upton Sinclair.

This is a novel that has come of age and is actually more relevant now than when it was first published.


Anonymous said...
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platypusrex said...

at first, i thought the above comment was harsh. but no. your blog is more of a book report than a review. please read your comments and edit your blog.

Anonymous said...
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