Friday, May 27, 2005

Upton Sinclair’s Oil!: A High Octane California novel!

In Sinclair's novel Oil! oil magnates giving bribes to politicians in exchange for favors; evangelical preachers crusade; leftists are witch hunted; and Hollywood movies do right-wing political propaganda. Doesn’t that sound like 2005? The novel in question was published in 1927. Oil! brilliantly shows us our modern world taking shape in the 1920s.

Though famous for his novel The Jungle about Chicago’s meat packing industry, Sinclair moved to Pasadena in 1916 and spent over thirty years of his life in Southern California, writing both pamphlets and novels set in California. The best of Sinclair’s California writings is Oil! Lawrence Clerk Powell, former UCLA head librarian, has said Oil is a “novel of high California octane … the largest scale of all California novels.”

The novel starts with thirteen year Bunny Ross and his father Joe Ross, a small independent wildcat oil man, drive in a car hurtling down country roads to Beach City, a fictionalized Long Beach, Ca, as oil has just been discovered. Sinclair is fictionalizing the beginning of the Signal Hill oil field right outside the Los Angeles in the early 1920s. Ross wants to educate his son into the oil industry, and the whole novel is both Bunny Ross’s and our education.

Bunny Ross sees the small folks who had dreams of oil wealth from leasing their land again and again get nothing while his father bribes one politician after another starting with the country superintendant of roads; the elder Ross grows rich from his oil fields. In an early chapter Bunny meets Paul Watkins, a sixteen year old boy who runs away from his fundamentalist Christian poor father farmer and is starving on the streets, so Bunny starts to learn about destitution.

The main conflict is between Dad Ross who wants his son to become an oil tycoon like himself and Bunny who has first developed a conscience and then becomes a millionaire socialist. This is an epic novel, capturing the reader as it hurtles forward showing Dad’s rise from small independent oilman to part of a big oil syndicate, Bunny’s progress through the left, and their conflicts. The elder Ross is not any stereotyped tycoon, but a roughneck and sentimentalist, aruging with Bunny about politics but usually breaking down to give money to get his son's friends out of jail.

Bunny sides with the oil workers in two hard fought strikes, tries to organize a left-wing newspaper while at Southern Pacific University (a fictionalized USC), and gets involved in left factional fights between Socialists and Communists. Bunny is our guide to all classes from the high society parties where wealthy young women are flirting with a oil prince to his USC Jewish socialist friend Rachel Menzies and her garment worker family to the Watkinses, starving dirty farmers who are Holy Rollers. What’s fascinating about the Watkins is the reminder that destitute rural Protestants have turned to fundamentalism in the past.

One fascinating character who reappears is Eli Watkins who becomes a famous preacher like Aimee Semple MacPherson. Though Watkins preaches against immorality, he is seeing a pretty young thing on the side and pulls a good phony disappearance to hide his love affair. The other Watkins, who remain Holly Rollers, also support the oil strikes when the union comes to their countryside. Sinclair’s novel gives hope that if a fighting anti-poverty politics again comes to rural America, many of the blue collar fundamentalists would change their politics leftward.

Upton Sincliar's novel illuminates 2005 and 1925

In his novel Oil! Sinclair wonderfully sketches the Los Angeles of the 1920s: oil tycoons making bribing politiians; a tiny left being witch hunted; and Hollywood celebrities—it sounds just like 2005. A wonderful character in Sinclair’s Oil is Vee Tracy, a Hollywood sex star appearing in an anti-Bolshevik film, who goes after the hero Bunny Ross and gets her oil prince. Here Sinclairgives us celebrity romance as well as shows us an early instance of Hollywood churning out propaganda films like Vee’s anti-Bolshevik epic. Vee, of course, aligns with Dad Ross to try to end his son’s Bunny’s socialist politics

For oil tycoons like Dad Ross it was boom times during the 1920s as the country was switching to automobiles; the power of the Ross and his other Western oil tycoons is seen in their funding Harding’s successful presidential run. Sinclair is fictionalizing history, making it exciting. Dad Ross teaches his son that oil tycoons, unhappy with President Wilson letting European countries get control of the new oil fields in the Middle East, decide spend millions of dollars to elect their choice, Harding, as U.S. president.

After Bunny Ross sees his good friend Paul and other union organizers trying to defend the oil workers were arrested during the 1st Red Scare after World War I, Bunny learns from his college history teacher that the anti-Red scare had a cause: after the Russian Revolution, Russian aristocrats were forced into exile. Displaced Russian aristocrats and U.S. bankers, who had loans to the Czarist government and who were going to lose a fortune if the Bolsheviks stayed in power, made a political coalition that convinced the U.S. government to send troops to Russia in 1918 to try to end the revolutionary government; also the coalition started a Red Scare in the United States that illegally imprisoned trade unionists and deported radicals. Bunny is faced again and again what to do as a person of conscience when his friends wind up in jail during the anti-Red post World War I witch hunts. The question reverberates today: how does a person of conscience act today?

Sinclair is also capturing Los Angeles’s and United States politics in Oil! In the novel oil tycoon Pete O’Reily is a fictionalized Edward Doheny, the Los Angeles oil magnate who was indicted in the Teapot Dome oil scandal for bribing President Harding’s appointees. In the novel as in real the oil magnates paid bribes to government officials and got in exchange cheap leases on navy-owned land which had oil. Sinclair shows how Pete O'Reily, Dad Ross and the oil syndicate are likewise indicted for bribing the president's men. In an amusing chapter the oil magnates flee the country to avoid testifying in front of a U.S. Senate committee. Later in the novel the big oil syndicate’s try to influence U.S foreign policy to countries where they want to drill for oil such as Mosul, Iraq! Well, right now our government has troops in Mosul! Again, the novel focuses on how Bunny Ross reacts? Does he help his friends? Or does he run away?

Sinclair shows us the oil politics of1925 that have ramifications in 2005; the novel allows us the distance to gain understanding of the 1920s as well as our own era. As the Republican Party ends parts of FDR’s regulatory commissions and social safety network, the United States of 2005 more and more resembles that of 1925. How does Bunny Ross and his friends deal with the make-it-rich atmosphere of the 1920s? How do they offer alternatives? The novel is totally relevant to today's problems and world.

In our era Sinclair who didn’t flee to Europe and who had a brilliant understanding of the United States in the 1920s is becoming more relevant.The University of California Press reprinted Oil! in 1997 as part of their fine California Fiction series. In the last ten years there has been a Sinclair revival as part of a increasing sense that Sinclair has important insights into American history and culture. George Mitchell’s 1992 book Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics has inspired a musical which was produced in 2003.

Also in 2003 the first annual Uppie [humanitarian] Awards named after Upton Sinclair were held in San Pedro, California, near where Sinclair was arrested for reading the Constitution in support of striking long shore and oil workers. In that same year San Francisco’s Word for Word Theater dramatized the first chapter of Oil! Two years later in 2005 Lauren Coodley published an anthology The Land of Orange Juice and Jails: Upton Sinclair’s California which is a selection of his California writings including Oil! (Heydey Books).

Get Oil! It’s a fascinating read. You’ll learn a lot about California and the United States, then and now.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Wallace Thurman's lost classic novel

I just finished reading Wallace Thurman's novel The Blacker the Berry, a lost classic work of the Harlem Renaissance. After graduating from USC in the 1920s he put out an issue of a black literary magazine in Los Angeles, hoping to start a literary renaissance on the West Coast, but soon moved to New York where he became part of the Harlem Renaissance. In New York he put out a literary magazine with Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston. Besides his novel The Blacker the Berry, he published other novels; had a play on Broadway; and returned to Los Angeles to write two screenplays for films which were released. He died much too young at thrity-two in 1934 from tuberculosis.

Blacker the Berry was controversial in the 1920s because it was the first African-American novel to explore prejudice among blacks. The heroine, Emma Lou Morgan, is born to a middle class "high yellow" family in Boise, Idaho; her family keeps their distance from other darker Blacks as well as puts down Emma because of her black color. They do, however, send her to USC for a college education where Emma futilely tries to win the friendship of lighter skinned Blacks who are polite but think her "too dark" to be their friend. As the author points out Emma herself is a snob, devaluating herself because of her dark color and endlessly wanting to be friends with light-skinned girls and to marry a light-skinned man. After experiencing much loneliness at USC, Emma flees to Harlem.

Thurman has wonderfully portrayed the Harlem of the 1920s, showing Emma at night clubs, rent parties, vaudville shows and dreadful employment agencies. He portrays a whole panorama of characters from black writers to bellboys and maids to college students and schoolteachers as well as white writers interested in Blacks. Thurman shows Emma's heartaches in a romance with a light-skinned black man who uses her, takes her money, and betrays her again and again. The novel revolves around the heroine's illusions about the world and herself like, and her struggles to survive when her illusions are shattered again and again. Thurman has written a novel equivalent to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice where our heroine struggles with her own prejudices. Black the Berry is a brilliant novel both offering piercing psychological insight and illuminating a fascinating historical time.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Villaraigosa Wins as L.A's New Mayor!

Last Tuesday Antonio Villaraigoisa won as mayor of Los Angeles by 18 points. That was terrific. Two weeks earlier I had volunteered for Villaraigoisa in his westside office on Venice Boulevard. Two older men in their sixties were on the phones in the office where I sat, calling voters asking them who they were voting for and trying to convince them to vote for Villaraigosa. At the same time I input the results that other phone callers had gotten into the computer. After about an hour my wrists were beginning to hurt, and I was afraid of wrist injury as I’m prone to that sort of thing. A young woman reported in who was walking her neighborhood in Westchester for our candidate. There had been a huge grass-roots mobilization for weeks for Villaraigoisa. A couple times a week volunteers would call me.

Mine was just a tiny contribution but I wanted to make it as I think Los Angeles desperately needs a new mayor with a new voice and a new vision: for working people, civil liberties, and the environment. This city has been governed too long by men of little vision who make backroom deals like Hahn's appointees in the "pay-for-play" scandal where people got city contracts after giving Hahn appointees "contributions." I wanted to go to Villaraigosa victory celebration Tuesday nightbut I had to work, but I heard thousands were downtown, listening to gospel, mariachi, and rock ‘n roll in a tremendous party. What’s great is Villaraigoisa got support from voters from every part of the city—an amazing feat.

Actually, the grass-roots mobilization is the culmination of ten years of grass-roots work by trade unions and progressives to change Los Angeles. Over ten years ago progresssives in the LA County AFL-CIO elected Miguel Contreras the first Mexican-American president of the L.A. County AFL-CIO. Contreras made a huge difference, getting union members involved in working to elect progressive pro-trade union candidates for over 9 years. In 1996 I helped woman the phones at the Burbank headquarters of the steelworkers in a drive by L.A. County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO to elect progressives to state legislatures and L. A. City Council and we were successful! Slowly the labor electoral workers elected more progressives to the city council and the state legislators until the LA County AFL-CIO alongside fellow progressives had turned themselves into a political power. Year after year Contreras, the AFL-CIO, and fellow progressives did this electoral work.

We’ve elected state legislators, city councilpeople (we have a progressive majority) and now mayor! Hurrah!

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Adrian Louis: Native American Odysseus

Adrian Louis’s book of poetry Among the Dog Eaters published by West End Press in 1992 is one of the best, most moving books of poetry I’ve read in years. I was asked to write an essay about working class poets of the western United States. Since most of the self-defined working class poets I knew lived in California, I searched for poets from other western states and stumbled on Louis who a member of the Lovelock Paiute tribe born and raised in Nevada. I’d read a couple of his poems in the anthology Modern American Poetry and was very impressed. The University of Nevada Reno press in 1999 has included him in Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.

Reading Dog Eaters I was more than impressed: I felt had had just read a major American poet. But I wouldn’t say he’s working class. After working as a journalist for Native American papers, he taught English for a decade at the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. He writes many poems in Among the Dog Eaters about Lakota at Pine Ridge but I wouldn’t define Lakota as working class either, but I’ll get to that later.

Louis begins his first poem “Notes from Indian Country” with a quote from Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus boasts of his wiles, his fame, and his home. Louis in this poem is also boasting of his wiles in teaching; his pot gut; his can of Bud; his suffering of the “wannabees, squamen and white liberals/who pretend to save Indians by daylight;” and his home on Pine Ridge with its K-mart folding chairs. In this poem he is rewriting The Odyssey. Louis is very funny with dark humor , honesty, and audacity that make these poems a great read. Think Bukowski’s honesty combined with Whitman’s audacity.

Louis has given Nevada fine poetry. Actually, Louis is the first Nevada writer I’ve ever read. I don’t know much about Nevada, and my strongest Nevada memory is that afternoon I was o horrified by Circus Circus casino in Las Vegas praying for an escape. But Louis’s Nevada is very different, evoking that time in Northern Nevada a hundred years ago the Paiute prophet Wovoka started the Ghost Dance religion. In Louis’ poem “A Visit to My Mother’s Grave” he sees his skeletons the Ghost Dancers “dance/in the burnished morning.” and in this amazing, lyric poem he ends it with his singing and praying for “this soil of Nevada/this soil of Wovoka/this song of love/for my people.” He does look to the dance for heroes and moments of redemption and hope in the past of his home.

This book doesn't only look backward but is a book drenched in love and honesty about the present. The honesty sears in the next poem “At the Knight’s Inn in Reno,” an Indian bar, where he and the other Indians seems imprisoned wanting to go home to their mother earth which has murdered but “we helped the white man/do the dirty deed.” Louis is unsparingly honest both about himself and his struggles with alcoholism as well as self-destructiveness of some of his people he loves so dearly. In the Afterword Lakota journalist Tim Giago says, “the poetry of Adrian Louis is a must for all serious students of Indian literature because it grabs the liberal dreamers by the nape of the neck and forces them to look at reality.”

In ar brilliant moving poem “Breakfast at Conoco Convenience Store in Pine Ridge” Louis describes Pine Ridge as a town mixing up desire and defeat: “It is the town I grew up in/and left only to return, forever tethered./I will not scorn it as a world governed by grandmothers, welfare, and wine./It has been my sanctuary. It has been my home.” For Louis Northern Nevada Indian country is the same as Pine Ridge, so in a way these are all Nevada poems because Louis is writing about his “home, his sanctuary” where he constantly struggles with his demons. He can't live there sober but he can't leave Pine Ridge either. Like the Odyssey this book is dominated by the idea of "home."

The poet does talk about leaving home. In the poem “At a Grave in an Eastern City” he’s visiting Kerouac’s grave but one stanza etches out a impoverished childhood in Northern Nevada with a outhouse, a shack with no water, the oldest of twelve kids and then hitchhiking America six times in the cities searching for Kerouac’s catharsis and open roads but those roads always lead back to the Indian territory--home. The poems careen between “Unholy Redemptions" about striving for those moments of redemptions and then “Tombstones” sad funny elegies for friends who ha died. Redemption, tombstones, love, home, drunkenness—Among the Dog Eaters includes it all.

Years ago leaders of the American Indian movement told an audience of white leftists that Marx was another European whose ideas are oppressive to the Indians. Marx like most 19 century European thinkers adopted the idea that humanity has progressed, but for Marx progress was from primitive tribes like the Iroquois to feudalism to capitalism and eventually to communism.

Canadian Peter Kulchyski in his article “Socialism and Native Americans” says that Marx did have some positive insights about Native Americans. Kulchyskis argues that Marx describes ”forcefully in Capital that the dissolution of the bonds between working people and their land was a central moment in the history of capitalism. However, such dissolutions did not take place in a vacuum: they were hotly contested in the old world as in the new.”

Futher, Kulchyski says that many Native Americans, forced into the cities, are exploited as workers and fought back with strikes and unions. But Native Americans are not, particularly those in rural reservations, working class. Many tribes still have the land, which provides subsistence. Native Americans provide another track of resistance to capitalism in their centuries long battles to retain and protect their land, their cultural identity, and their nationhood. Louis is a tremendous voice of this other track of resistance heading straight back to Paiute, Wovoka, the Lakota and Wounded Knee.

In Louis's poems he describes his work as a college teacher/writer alienated by the “white UFOs” who dominate his college. He writes very little about the work done by the Lakota since his focus isn't work. Instead he's a moralist, wanting himself as well as the people around him to improve. He puts himself on the same level as those around him: engaged in the same struggle as the people around him to survive, to resist, and to hope. He tells his stories of his long battles to make his home a better place.

If one reason we look at working class poetry is to see those who the economic system has exploited and how they survived, resisted, and hope--the majority of the North American population-- then it makes to me perfect sense to include those, like Louis and other Native American writers, while not working class, are a parallel resistance tradition. For Louis' story--how he tries to survive, resist, and hope is all our stories.