Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Oil! by Upton Sinclair (1926)

The history of California is a particular interest of mine, and the shortage of good historical novels set in my native state is distressing. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find this 1926 Upton Sinclair novel about early petroleum industry history.

Nearly everyone of a certain age read The Jungle during high school in California, but Sinclair's other novels are less well known. I suspect that Oil! was still a bit too left-ish for 1960s school curriculum, but well worth reading today. In fact, the topical relevance of a 100-year-old novel about near-contemporary events of that time is startling.

Of course, the history recounted in Oil! was very recent history in 1926. The tale begins early in the second decade of the 20th century, and ends with the 1924 presidential election that gave us Calvin Coolidge. The stock market crash, Great Depression and World War II were still in the future, although Sinclair's novel predicted with deadly accuracy how events following WWI would lead inevitably to another world war.

The fictional protagonist of Oil! is J. Arnold Ross, Jr., about 10 years old when we first meet him, and forever known to all by the strange-to-modern-ears nickname "Bunny". J. Arnold Ross senior is an oil man, one of a new breed who arose from hardscrabble beginnings to become titans in the new petroleum industry.

Bunny is like the stock cartoon character who has an angel sitting on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each giving contradictory advice. Except that, in Bunny's case, it's not so easy to tell which is angel and which is devil. Bunny grows up idolizing his father, a larger-than-life, take-charge entrepreneur who seems capable of surmounting any obstacle and overcoming any objection in pursuit of his business ambitions. As both get older, of course, Bunny learns that real life isn't black-and-white, and a boy's uncritical admiration for his father is gradually tempered by a man's understanding of the wider world.

The other angel/devil in Bunny's life is his unlikely friend Paul, rebelling against a poor rural upbringing to become a self-educated labor organizer; eventually a communist and defender of the Bolshevik revolution. Remember again that, in 1926, the dream of a "workers' paradise" in Russia was still very much alive - before the rise of Stalin.

Bunny's inner struggle between loyalty to his father and Paul's appeal to his youthful idealism create much of the dramatic tension in the novel. It also gave Sinclair plenty of opportunity to "compare and contrast" worker solidarity with unfettered capitalism. Another of Bunny's "radical" friends is the more moderate socialist Rachel, who shows him a middle way (think Bernie Sanders).

The few named historical characters are not part of the story except as a frame of reference. For instance, presidents Harding and Coolidge are named but have no actual scenes in the drama, while the oil tycoons who conspired in the Teapot Dome scandal are central characters and pseudonymous.

Many of the fictional characters, however, are very thinly disguised versions of historical counterparts. In that regard, Sinclair's historical fiction style was somewhat different from most novels today. Modern authors would probably be advised by their publishers to be careful of libel lawsuits when writing about still-living people and events.

The historical places of the southern California oil boom also get fictional names, for less apparent reasons. "Beach City" is obviously Long Beach, and "Angel City" is even more obviously Los Angeles.

There's also a lot of interesting social history in Bunny's coming-of-age story. During this period, straight-laced Victorian mores gave way to more independent and pleasure-centered ("decadent") upper class youth, WWI disillusionment, and the "lost generation" of the Roaring Twenties.

One other note: The 2007 feature film There Will Be Blood purported to be based on Oil!. Although it borrows some bits from the novel, however, it's an entirely different story.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Many historical parts of this story were unfamiliar to me. As a native Californian, I know where the oil fields are, but not much about how they got there. Also, Sinclair's account of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (including Paul's first-hand story) supporting the "Whites" in Russia after the 1917 revolution has inspired me to read more about that turbulent period. The crazy story of the Czech Legion would make a great novel on its own.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Major events of the time are followed closely and accurately. Readers' main disagreements will be with Sinclair's interpretations of those events.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. Same as above. Take a point off for the subjective nature of "accurate".
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Hard to say, as always, but probably as much as in any historical fiction. Fictional naming of characters based on historical persons gives an author more-than-usually-wide latitude for embellishment. However, Sinclair's accounts of events and the people involved in them seem accurate and, as Jesus said, "By their deeds shall you know them".
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Mostly. The only part that Sinclair failed to explain to my satisfaction was Bunny's early and strong attraction to Paul. Not many 10-year-olds would feel such immediate affinity with another boy from a totally different economic and social world. Seen as a plot device to introduce Bunny's internal moral struggles, however, Paul makes perfect sense.
Score = 4 

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