I knew the Oscar-nominated film There Will Be Blood was inspired by the novel Oil!. What somehow slipped through my awareness was that Upton Sinclair was the novel’s author. This would be the same Upton Sinclair who wrote The Jungle, the seminal novel about the Chicago stockyards in the 19th Century. I ran across the recent printing of the novel browsing the bookstore last week. I picked it up.
Contemporary society’s need for oil continues to dominate the social, economic and political landscape. I believe it is to this end that this edition’s back cover reads:
As he did so masterfully in The Jungle, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair interweaves social criticism with human tragedy in this glorious 1927 novel to create an unforgettable portrait of Southern California’s early oil industry. Enraged by the oil scandals of the Harding administration in the 1920s, Sinclair tells a gripping tale of avarice, corruption and class warfare, feature a cavalcade of characters, including senators, oil magnates, Hollywood film starlets, and a crusading evangelist. Sinclair’s epic drama endures as one of our most powerful American novels of social injustice.
Today’s oil fields may no longer be in America’s back yards of Texas and California but I do not think that makes them any less important or relevant. On the contrary, I believe that makes them all the more relevant, their impact all the stronger. While I do not live in The Jungle back of the yards, that particular Chicago that novel portrays continues to haunt me. Also, while I do not own an automobile– and thus avoid a more visceral connection to oil through the ritual of the gas pump– I suspect Oil! will likely have a similar effect.