I recently finished the audiobook of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!
Readers may know the novel as the basis for Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film There Will Be Blood (a movie which I admired but did not like, exactly). But having now sampled both, I think the book differs from the film enough for them to be treated as quite separate entities. While sharing numerous superficial traits, they really tell different stories.
Oil! tells of a young boy, James Arnold Ross (called Bunny by his family and friends), whose father is a California oil developer. Bunny's youth and early manhood are spent next to his father as "Dad" negotiates deals and drills and develops oil fields. Bunny is a sensitive and intelligent child who is increasingly troubled by the disparity between his own lavish lifestyle and the much more meager (and hazardous) existences of the working men on the oil fields. Dad looms large in Bunny's eyes (as fathers always do for sons), representing expertise and competence and accomplishment to the young boy; unquestionably talented and hardworking and knowledgeable, Dad is a mover and shaker in the world. But Bunny begins to see that other people not nearly as materially comfortable or accomplished as Dad are also intelligent and meritorious. And some of Dad's fellow movers and shakers--many of them, it seems--are nasty, soulless pieces of work. This divide is kept continually in front of Bunny as he grows up, dividing his time between the oil fields and high-toned schools and colleges where he is surrounded by other wealthy, privileged people. The folks in Bunny's social world are steeped in money; they accept their easy lives without question and feel entitled to anything and everything--yet none of them have ever worked or actually accomplished anything useful in life.
It's a story that places very basic questions before us about inequality and the value of labor and management, about justice and the transmission of information, about friendship and business ethics.
Sinclair was an unapologetic socialist, and the book accordingly paints a sympathetic picture of the oil field workers, and indeed of workers generally. But though there are archetypes on both sides, Sinclair engages us by making all the main characters as nuanced and multi-faceted and flawed as, well, as real human beings are. The foibles of humanity are on display on all sides. Neither Bunny with his socialist leanings and Bolshevik friends (whom Bunny often funds and otherwise assists with Dad's oil money), nor his very big business father is given a free ride. Sinclair depicts uneducated and badly-behaved working men alongside the rapacious and astoundingly entitled oil executives; and he shows Bunny's father (J. Arnold Ross) as a principled and caring employer, someone sharply contrasted with many of the other oil executives (a fact which makes Bunny's deliberations much harder). The Bolshevik revolution in Russia is depicted in rather glowing terms, and the opposition to it as irrational and even as spiral-eyed fanaticism. Whatever truth may lay in these characteristics, the novel is not a work of journalism: the glowing praises of the Russian revolution are countered only with scandalous and unsupported accusations and wild, exaggerated stories. If we would make up our minds about these historical events, we'll need a better source of solid intelligence.
My attempts to survey my own political views over the years typically place me in the socialist camp, and so this worker-friendly tone is congenial to me. But I believe that I am utilitarian at base: whatever the theory, I'm interested in what can be shown to WORK. (Maybe everybody thinks this about themselves.) This of course presupposes that we can agree on what an outcome should be, which is itself a pretty tall order. (A law making abortion illegal may in fact reduce the numbers of abortions, but I'm unlikely to agree with the men passing such laws about the desirability of that outcome divorced from any other consideration; and I certainly will disagree with them about claims of any positive increase in "moral behavior" that results from such a law.) I can see as readily as the next person the pitfalls that await us in a society that simply provides everything for everybody while demanding nothing in return, a society that does not differentially reward those willing to work harder, willing to take bigger risks, willing to dream bigger. So my socialist utopia would require significant modifications from "pure" socialism. (Interestingly, these basic ideas are still bandied about today with talk of "takers" and "job creators" and the appropriateness of a social safety net and the justice or injustice of taxation. Lest we think Sinclair's thinking belongs to a bygone era.)
But Oil!, which story is based on the Teapot Dome scandal of the early 1920s, reminds us of the troubles of unchecked capitalism, a lesson which in the last decade or two I think we've largely lost sight of.
For as long as I've chewed on these basic issues--the proper place of workers and management in society, the proper role of government in civilization--I'm always a little surprised at how they resist reflecting a single hue. There are two or more sides to any complex issue, and while I feel reasonably settled about where I fall on political matters I am still often intrigued by the arguments arrayed against my convictions. (This is partly why I am so continually disgusted by Fox News, since there surely are cogent arguments to be made in support of conservatism, and yet instead of informing people and making a case for their positions, they are happy to gin up a silly world of spook stories and straw men that keep red meat before an unquestioning audience.) Upton Sinclair's Oil! is not telling a balanced story, and yet it's a story that has useful observations. And it's an entertaining read.