Reading Group Guide
By the early 1920s Upton Sinclair’s reputation as a novelist had dimmed considerably. It had been more than a decade since his groundbreaking novel about the working conditions of the Chicago stockyards, The Jungle, had catapulted him to international fame. Although he was still a celebrated social activist he longed to write another novel of social importance and epic sweep. When oil was discovered on land owned by his wife outside of Los Angeles he decided to attend a meeting of local property owners to determine the best way to sell their lots to the oil companies. The spectacle of greed he witnessed provided the raw material for Sinclair’s next major novel, Oil!. It is also not difficult to imagine that Sinclair was watching with more than a little interest as the land lease scandals rocked the Harding administration. When the story first broke in 1922, newspapers revealed that President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, accepted bribes from oil companies in exchange for favorable leasing terms of public lands in Wyoming and southern California.
In Oil!, Sinclair dramatizes the oil boom years through the story of Bunny Ross, the son of an independent oilman. Bunny’s father, J. Arnold Ross, is a former mule driver who struck out to make his fortune in California. His rise has a rags-to-riches quality to it and Bunny certainly idolizes his father early in the novel. Ross’s attempts to educate his son about the business provide fascinating insights, for modern readers, into the tools and methods used for oil drilling in the 1920s. Despite Ross’s efforts, Bunny proves uninterested in continuing his father’s legacy, especially in light of the various nefarious strategies oilmen employ, from bribing local officials to land swindles. One glaring example of this is when his father manipulates the Watkins family, unaware their ranch is sitting on oil-rich land, into selling their property to him. The Watkins soon learn their land, instead of being used for a quail hunting retreat as Ross claimed, will be developed for oil drilling. The episode spoils Bunny’s idealized impression of his father and awakens in him a yearning for social justice.
The pivotal scene at the Watkins ranch introduces Bunny to Paul Watkins, a boy not much older than himself. Paul, like Bunny, is not interested in following in the footsteps of his father, a violent fundamentalist goat rancher. Paul has already chosen the path of a young radical and union organizer, an enemy to men of capital like Bunny’s father. While Bunny is busy living the life of privilege, Paul immerses himself in the writings of Marx, Huxley, and Herbert Spencer, to which he exposes Bunny. Paul is shipped off to fight in World War I and then to fight a covert war in Siberia against the Bolsheviks. He returns even more radicalized as a committed communist and attempts to educate Bunny to reality of class struggle. Paul firmly believes that only a violent overthrow of the government can redress the many injustices in the country. Throughout the novel Bunny will gravitate between the two poles of his father and Paul, or as he puts it “growing roses on the barbed wire fence which separated capital from labor.” By the end of the novel, with his father dead and his company’s wealth absorbed by a cabal of oil executives, Bunny converts to a life of social activism, founding a labor college with what little inheritance he has left.
The setting of the novel allows Sinclair to skewer a few of his favorite targets. Paul’s brother Eli, a young boy with a spiritual calling, eventually rises to national fame as an evangelist known as “The Messenger of the Second Coming.” This is Sinclair’s not so veiled satirical portrait of the popular preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. To Sinclair, the combination of old time religion and modern radio was a dangerous threat to American democracy. Similar to a highly publicized episode in McPherson’s life, Eli mysteriously disappears and is later reported to have drowned in the Pacific Ocean. His sudden reappearance weeks later is promoted as a miracle. Bunny is shocked to learn that the real cause of his disappearance is a romantic affair that threatened to ruin the preacher’s reputation. Eli, a womanizer, hypocrite, and corruptor of truth, is last seen in the novel announcing to the world his dying brother’s renunciation of his godless, Bolshevik ways. In fact, Paul’s final words are the Russian communist slogan “Bread, peace, and freedom.”
In addition to American evangelism, Sinclair brilliantly satirizes Hollywood and its budding film industry. The actress Vee Tracy, with whom Bunny has an extended affair, is portrayed as little more than a gilded, glorified prostitute. She is paid, after all, by Ross and his partner Vernon Roscoe to keep Bunny’s attentions occupied during a potential oil strike. Furthermore, she takes roles in propaganda films, such as Devils’ Deputy, which offer biased depictions of union organizers and Russian revolutionaries. In a denouement that neatly ties the novel’s various strands together, Vee marries a Romanian prince whose authoritarian regime is kept in power by anti-communist diplomats and American oil men. Vee’s movie producer Abraham Schmolsky is another example of Hollywood hypocrisy and greed. A Romanian émigré, he is nonetheless one of the most vocal supporters of banning German films like the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari following the Great War.
The press and higher education are two more institutions that are scrutinized by Sinclair. The newspapers are either tabloid rags reporting on the love lives of Hollywood starlets, such as Vee Tracy, or mouthpieces for the government and big business. Editors refuse to print stories about America’s involvement in the Russian revolution; nor will they investigate the causes of various industry strikes. Instead, the strikers are all branded as hateful, dangerous agents of a foreign communist government. When Bunny and his friends start a socialist college weekly, their history professor Dan Irving is dismissed and blacklisted. Sinclair based this episode on the actual “witch hunting” of leftists at USC, an institution built by oil money, during the first red scare. Taken together, the portrait Sinclair draws of 1920s America is not so different from that of contemporary America.
Of course, the novel squarely focuses on the oil industry. Oil, and for that matter industry at large, in and of itself is not the root cause of injustice in the country. Sinclair is writing at a time well before a true environmental movement and he seems genuinely impressed with American industrial might and ingenuity. The opening chapter in the novel is, in one sense, an ode to the automobile. Rather, Sinclair blames the unregulated capitalist system that controls the oil industry for the iniquitous distribution of the wealth it generates and for the corruption of government. Sinclair repeats this point in King Coal and in much of his fiction. Since greed for greater profits is the principle that runs the industry, ethical questions like paying the oil workers a living wage are of no concern to the oil operators. This is true even for Bunny’s father who, during the war, profits by selling oil to the American military and to its German enemies. Sinclair not so subtly warns readers that the real danger lies in unregulated industry like oil colluding with government, destroying the democratic system so completely that its citizens are compelled to believe only a violent overthrow can save it. It is a theory borne out in Ross and Vernon’s successful plans to replace President Wilson, who “wasn’t making [the world] safe for oil operators” with the oil friendly politician Warren G. Harding. Finally, and most important to contemporary readers, when oil operators control the government they have the ability to set in place domestic and foreign policy that does not necessarily suit the interests of the citizenry. Toward the end of the novel there is an incidental but fascinating illustration of this point. While fleeing a federal investigation into his business practices, Vernon Roscoe is said to visit Constantinople in order to “squeeze a bigger share of the Mosul oil out of the British.” Mosul lies, of course, in the oil-rich lands of modern-day Iraq and what seems like a small aside actually dramatizes the very beginnings of America’s oil interests in that region. It is but one of many examples of how eerily this novel still speaks to American readers more than eighty years since it was originally published.
ABOUT UPTON SINCLAIR
Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore on September 20, 1878 to a prominent but impoverished family. He attended City College of New York and later Columbia University before writing for various socialist newspapers. A prolific writer throughout his long life he first earned success with his Civil War novelManassus in 1903. This was followed shortly thereafter with the immensely successful and influential novelThe Jungle (1906). Its searing depiction of the brutal working conditions in the Chicago stockyards won both critical and financial success. Furthermore, the novel was directly responsible for the establishment of the country’s Food and Drug Administration. Its success placed its author in the ranks of other muckrakers at the time, such as Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens, who helped usher in the progressive era of American history. With the proceeds from The Jungle, Sinclair founded a utopian commune outside of Princeton, New Jersey, called Helicon Hall. Among the guests who participated in this experiment in alternative living were William James, John Dewey, Sinclair Lewis, and Emma Goldman.
At this time, Sinclair became intensely interested in politics, running for Congress in New Jersey as the Socialist candidate. After his bid failed and a fire consumed his beloved Helicon Hall he moved to California. There he founded the state’s first chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and ran for Congress twice on the Socialist ticket, both unsuccessfully. Still an active novelist, in 1917 Sinclair published King Coal, a novel he hoped would do for the coal industry what The Jungle had done for the meatpacking industry. Based on the miners’ strikes in Colorado, the book was a failure, due in part to its lack of a strong central character. Throughout the late teens and early twenties Sinclair devoted himself to journalism, writing especially for the socialist newspaper The New Appeal. One series of articles on religion was later collected in the book The Profits of Religion, an incendiary indictment of the collusion of big business and religion. The Teapot Dome Scandal and Sinclair’s firsthand experience with the oil boom in Southern California gave him the impetus to write his epic California novelOil!. This is generally considered among the finest of his fictional works.
The Sacco and Vanzetti trial was the next social cause that galvanized his literary aspirations. His research into the trial and execution of the convicted anarchists Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti resulted in his long novel Boston. He found it difficult to conclude the novel in part because he eventually doubted the innocence of the two men. The book nonetheless provides a detailed and mostly impartial account of the events leading up to and during this infamous trial. In 1934, Sinclair made his most successful run for office as the Democratic candidate for governor of California. He ran on the “EPIC” platform (End Poverty in California) but his communist past was exploited by his opponent and he failed again to win an election. He published an account of the election and the smear campaign that ended it in the book I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked.
Sinclair continued to write books well into his seventies, including the Lanny Budd series of novels about the son of an American arms manufacturer whose intelligence and luck place him at the pivotal moments in twentieth-century history. One of the novels in the series set during the Nazi takeover of Germany, Dragon’s Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. In all, he authored more than eighty books, most of them advancing his ideas for social and industrial reform. Sinclair died in 1968 and is buried in Washington, D.C. His former home in Monrovia, California, is a National Historic Landmark.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSOil! contains an extended, richly satirical portrait of California culture in the twenties. With reference to Hollywood and the oil boom, discuss Sinclair’s depiction of California as the country’s place of last hope.
J. Arnold Ross, Bunny’s father, is not your typical tycoon, though his company is worth at one point more than $70 million. Describe his rise to success and his motivations behind it. Discuss his relationship with Bunny. Why does he cave in to Bunny’s demands to help his unionizing friends? Do the two ever truly come to a mutual understanding?
Although set in the Jazz Age, Oil! is hardly your typical novel from the period. Compare this work with those of Fitzgerald and Hemingway that chronicle the same period.
Discuss how race plays a role in the novel, especially in the relationship between Bunny and the Jewess Rachel Menzies.
If you substitute the red scare as depicted in the novel with our current war on terror, Oil! reads remarkably like a portrait of contemporary America. Discuss the parallels as you see them. How do you think Sinclair would react to contemporary American society? Which contemporary writers would you consider to be descendants of Upton Sinclair?
From Bunny’s nearly absent mother to Vee Tracy to Ruth Watkins, Sinclair portrays women in a highly critical light. Discuss the female characters in the novel. Are there any positive female portraits offered by Sinclair?
The novel dramatizes a debate among the American left between radical approaches to social change—the communism of Paul Watkins—and more moderate approaches—the socialism of the Menzies and Professor Irwin. Discuss the arguments made by each side. Which did you find most compelling? To which side do you think the author belonged?
The novel was banned in Boston not for its political ideas but for its frank discussion of sexuality, particularly Bunny’s sister’s abortion. Discuss the sexual relationships in the novel. Do they strike you as authentic or terribly dated? Why do you think marriage is portrayed as a losing proposition in the novel?
Sinclair’s fiction grew out of the tradition of American naturalism, and as such it bears similarities with the work of Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris. Compare Oil! with other novels in that tradition, such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Sister Carrie, or The Octopus.