Book Review: “Oil” by Upton Sinclair (1927)
--Upon which the film “There Will Be Blood” is based.
This book is the basis of the present film, “There Will Be Blood,” nominated for an Oscar this evening. The lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, is also nominated for best actor. My prediction? At least Day-Lewis will win.
The film is only loosely based on the book. The film is an anti-capitalist Brechtian horror-show about oil capitalism, riveting and obsessive. Day-Lewis plays the oil baron, Daniel Plainview, as a larger-than-life monster interested in only one thing – oil wealth. In the process, Plainview raises a baby, left by a dead oil worker, to charm investors, and perhaps give him one human thing to love. Even this fake son is rejected by Plainview at the end of the film. The film ends in a Grand Guginol murder in a private bowling alley, where rapacious capitalism and crooked religion come to terms.
Upton Sinclair has enjoyed something of a revival in these times. Eric Schlosser was inspired by Sinclair's “The Jungle” when he wrote “Fast Food Nation”, an exposure of the state of corporate food in the U.S., especially the meat industry. The recent secret Humane Society tapes of downed and sick cows being forced into the slaughterhouses only shows the problem of animal cruelty and enforcement has not changed since Sinclair wrote about it. It may even have gotten worse.
Now Sinclair’s take on oil has gotten a revival. What bourgeois writer has ever talked about oil, except perhaps as a backdrop to a human interest story, as in “Five Easy Pieces?” Try going on a website and advocate the nationalization of the oil industry – especially at this critical time. The sheep will “Baa” and “Baa” and say you cannot do that. Oil still holds the ultimate power as a product in late imperialist capitalism. Our government, our president, our economy and our wars are based on it.
The book and film both display the concrete nitty-gritty of real oil work and oil workers’ lives. People who have worked in the oil industry in East Texas say the film is quite accurate, and the film is based on Sinclair’s images. Detailed descriptions of how to drill for oil, all the equipment necessary to drill a well, and the problems encountered while doing so, run through the book. In the book, Plainview is not described as a monster. He is a quite skilled, hard-working and kind man, who has a real son, Bunny, not a fake son. Bunny accompanies him everywhere he goes and even helps discover oil, as he accidentally steps in some pooling on the ground around Paradise, California while they are quail hunting. The boy Paul, who tells them there might be oil on the family farm, is not a thieving informer as in the film, but a tough, bright boy who grows into being a Communist, and is beaten to death by fascist American thugs at the end of the book.
In the book, Plainview loves Bunny, and Bunny loves his old man. But Bunny, who is actually the central character of the book, is appalled at what the old man has to do to lease, drill and defend ‘his’ oil. Plainview buys off politicians to get roads built, gives ‘premiums’ to vendors to get equipment in place quickly, deceives land owners about what is under their property, is close friends with the police, newspapermen and heads of schools, and eventually has to join the Employers Association. The Federal Government orders an oil workers’ union contract while World War I is going on, to ensure labor peace. When the war ends, things change. The Association hires gun thugs to break the eventual strike in the oil fields that develops against de-certification. They bring in scabs, deport anyone they can, jail everyone they can, blacklist pro-union workers, and coordinate propaganda campaigns against “communism” with the local newspapers. The old man tells Bunny he can’t quit the Association or they would destroy him too, even if he is a capitalist. This subtley shows that even 'kind' people have to do 'awful' things if the 'system' requires it.
Paul’s brother becomes the religious leader and Prophet Eli, of the ‘Third Revelation.” In the book, Eli becomes wealthy performing fake healings and making endless bombastic radio sermons. He tells the oil workers that they don’t need a union, they only need God to take them to heaven. Even Plainview makes donations to him, in case Eli’s help is needed in some “oil” matter. When Paul is assassinated at the end, Eli lies and claims Paul had told him he was no longer an atheist, and so gives Paul a religious funeral.
The larger political environment of the book is around the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution. Bunny’s dilemma, as he is repulsed by raw capitalism, is whether he will become a ‘socialist’ or a ‘communist.’ This dialog between the two left sides goes on through most of the book. Bunny helps arrested union strikers get out of jail, rescues an old Jewish socialist from being deported, and gets Paul out of jail too. This is all due to the money his father gives him, and also due to his father’s weight in the community, Angel City, which is probably a thinly disguised version of Los Angeles. They call Bunny a ‘parlour pink’ in the yellow newspaper, the Daily Howler, but he does his best to help the working class.
Bunny is swayed to the left by Paul, who is drafted into the U.S. army and sent to Vladivostok to help the Whites during the Russian ‘civil war.” There Paul sees how the business men are using the U.S. army to gain a foothold in Russia and Siberia. He becomes a Bolshevik, along with many other American soldiers, and returns home to the oil fields. Sinclair, who ran for Congress as a Socialist in California, is quite positive about the Bolshevik Revolution throughout the book. He quite rightly shows how it was the ordinary people that had finally seized the reins of power.
Bunny lives his personal life going through college, having romances with rich women, driving his motorcars, taking foreign trips and eventually hooking up with a movie star. It is clear Sinclair, evern the materialist, sees that no matter what Bunny thinks, he is swayed by his money and class condition to live life in a certain way. Bunny is kind of able to have his ‘radical’ cake and eat his “bourgeois” cake too. He is still an honest boy at that, and starts a left-wing sheet for students and young people with one of the members of the youth arm of the Socialist Party, Rachel. He eventually weds Rachel and starts a school for leftists on a farm, with money from his now dead father’s depleted and looted oil fortune.
Sinclair clearly sees oil as not just an American issue. Sinclair show Plainview becoming part of a syndicate getting an oil lease in Mosul, now Iraq. Some things never change. No blood for oil ... otherwise “there will be blood.”
Order it from MayDay Books!
--Red Frog, 2/24/2008