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.