Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Why do I always seem to get Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis confused? Similar names with an overlapping time period will do that.

In the Jungle, Upton Sinclair attempted to write a novel advocating for workers' rights. Instead, he ended up alarming everyone to the dangers of poor food safety. In Oil! he tries again. Again, his story manages to fail in its original goal, while succeeding in other levels.

I found myself sympathizing with the corrupt father. He saw business as a means unto itself. What was best for his business was best for everyone. Bribes were an important part of getting things properly done. They just a small expense that helped to extract maximum value. Bad things may happen, but you must keep going. On the surface the father seems horrid. However, you can't help but be attached to him. He really wanted the best for everyone. He would unite with the oil companies in keeping the wages down, but support the oil workers with housing. Maybe these corrupt businessmen really do have our interest at heart.

The workers and the communists are less desirable. These people seem to be in it for themselves. The communists, especially, seem to be proto-hippies, overly idealistic, but waffling and even being hypocritical in carrying things out. They try to be physically peaceful while at the same time riling everyone up. The main character wants to support the workers and thinks the communists and socialists have good ways of doing it. However, he also enjoys some of the trappings of the well-to-do lifestyle. They also can't decide what to do with traditional morals. Are they imposed or beneficial? Will it detract from the movement.

There is also an ultra hypocritical evangelical preacher, a gold digging wife and a stolen inheritance thrown in for good measure.

It is fascinating to read this from the time period in which it was written. You could place many of those discussions in the 1960s or the 2010s and they would come out the same. When this book was written, the cold war was far in the future. The Great Depression and World War II were also years away. Yet many of the conversations and activities could have easily taken place in 1969 or 2013. Do all generations go through the same phases?

Surprisingly, Oil plays very little role in the story. Sure, it is the background and the source of the family's money. (Which alas, doesn't make it past the death of the father.) We do get pits of how it influences some of the development patterns, especially in California, but it plays a minor role in this story of life in the roaring 20s.

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