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.