November 25, 2012
I finished reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!: a Novel the other day. The novel’s about the US oil boom in the early 1920s, and it’s a fascinating read. Maybe better than The Jungle, and scary for the way Sinclair’s portrayal of the oil boom sounds like our very own natural gas boom. (A “boom” sounds healthy, doesn’t it?) As I did with Carson’s Silent Spring a while back, I thought I’d share a passage or three. By the way, if you’ve seen There Will Be Blood, you’ve seen a loose translation of the book. The movie is worth watching—more eerie echoes of today—but doesn’t some close to capturing the complexity of Sinclair’s story, which involves mule-driver-turned-oil-baron J. Arnold Ross (aka “Dad”), his Socialist-sympathizing playboy son Bunny, evangelical preacher Eli Watkins, bodice-ripping movie star Vee Tracy, and union-organizer Paul Watkins, to name a few. Their story unfolds primarily in California, but trips to Washington, Canada, and Europe make up part of the plot as well. Sinclair uses the novel to explore and expose the way labor, politics, energy, and social class interact. Things haven’t changed much.
Without further ado, here’s Sinclair:
Once more the valleys and gorges of Guadalupe Grade resounded to the flying echoes of honking horns. This time it was not one car, but a whole fleet of them, a dozen seven-ton trucks, broad and solid, with broad and solid double wheels, and trailers on behind, that carried even more tons. The first load towered high, a big stationary engine, held in place by heavy timbers bolted fast at the sides; that truck went carefully around the curves, you bet! Behind it came the ‘mud-hogs’ and the ‘draw-works’; and then the ‘string’ of drilling tools, hollow tubes of the best steel, that were screwed end to end and went down into the earth a mile or more, if need be. These tubes extended over the end of the trailers, where red flags waved in warning; on the short curves they swept the road, and if you met a car coming in the opposite direction, you had to stop while the other car crept carefully by; if there was not room enough, the other car would have to back to a place where the road was straighter. All this required a continuous clamor of horns; you would have thought some huge flock of prehistoric birds—did the pterodactyls make noises?—had descended upon Guadalupe Pass, and were hopping along, crying ‘Honk! Honk! Honk!’”
After the slow down this past summer, traffic is not this bad now, though it seems to be picking up again. But I remember similar experiences two summers ago when driving or pedaling up the two-mile hill west of Mansfield on Highway 6, cycling on Packard Road and out past Bungy, and in other parts of Tioga County. Sinclair again:
All this summer and fall, Dad and Mr. Roscoe [another oil baron] had been carrying a heavy burden—they were helping to make over the thinking of the American people. A presidential campaign was under way; and the oil men, having made so bold as to select the candidate, now had to finish the job by persuading the voters that he was a great and noble-minded statesman. Also, they had to pay part of the expense, which would come to fifty million dollars, so Bunny learned from the conversations at Paradise [Dad’s oil field] and at the Monastery [Mr. Roscoe’s mansion on the coast]. This was several times as much as would get recorded, since the money went through local and unofficial agencies. It came from the big protected interests, the corporations, the banks—everyone that had anything to get out of the government, or could be squeezed by politicians; the process was known as ‘frying out the fat.’ The oil men, having grabbed the big prize, were naturally a shining mark for all campaign committees, county, state, and national. Dad and Mr. Roscoe received visits from Jake Coffey, and from bosses of the state machine, and listened to hair-raising stories about the dangers of the situation.
It was necessary to persuade the American people that the Democratic administration for the past eight years had been wasteful and corrupt, ignorant and fatuous—and that was easy enough. But it was also necessary to persuade them that an administration by Senator Harding was likely to be better—and that was not so easy. Naturally, the chairmen of campaign committees wanted to make it appear as difficult as possible, for the more money that passed through their hands, the larger the amount that would stick. As the campaign drew to a close, Bunny had the satisfaction of hearing his father swearing outrageously, and wishing he had taken his son’s advice and left the destinies of his country to the soap manufacturer who had put up the millions for General Wood!
The senator from Ohio was a large and stately and solemn-faced person, and conducted what was called by the newspapers a ‘front-porch campaign.’ That is to say, he did not put himself out to travel on trains and meet people, but received deputations of the Hay and Feed Dealers of Duluth, or the Morticians of Ossawotomie. They would sit in camp-chairs upon his lawn, and the statesman would appear and read an imposing discourse, which had been written by a secretary of Vernon Roscoe’s selection, and given out to all the press associations the day before, so that it could be distributed over the wires and published simultaneously on fifty million front pages. That is a colossal propaganda machine, and the men who run it have to lose a lot of sleep. But the majestic candidate lost no sleep, he was always fresh and serene and impassive; he had been that way throughout his career, for the able businessmen who groomed him and paid his way had never failed to tell him what to do.
Bunny now dwelt upon an Olympian height, looking down as a god upon the affairs of pitiful mortals. Dad and Mr. Roscoe let him hear everything—being sure that common sense would win in the end, and he would accept their point of view. They had a philosophy which protected them like a suit of chain-mail against all hesitations and doubts. The affairs of the country had to be run by men who had the money and brains and experience; and since the mass of people had not sense enough to grant the power freely, the mass of people had to be bamboozled. ‘Slogans’ must be invented, and hammered into their heads, by millions, yes, billions of repetitions. It was an art, and experts knew how to do it, and you paid them—but by Jees, the price made you sweat blood!
Those four paragraphs sound so much like now I don’t know where to begin. So, onward! From the conclusion, called “The Honeymoon.”
It was the morning of election day: the culmination of a campaign that had been like a long nightmare to Bunny. Senator LaFollette had been running, with the backing of the Socialists, and the great issue had been the oil steals [based on the Teapot Dome scandal]; the indicted exposers of the crime against the criminals in power. At first the exposers had really made some headway, the people seemed to care. But the enemy was only waiting for the time to strike. In the last three weeks of the campaign he turned loose his reserves, and it was like a vast cloud of hornets, the sky black with a swarm of stinging, burning, poisoning lies!
It was the money of Vernon Roscoe and the oil men, of course: plus the money of the bankers and the power interests and the great protected manufacturers, all those who had something to gain by the purchase of government, or something to lose by failure to purchase. Another fifty million dollar campaign; and in every village and hamlet, in every precinct of every city and town, there was a committee for the distribution of terror. The great central factories where it was manufactured were in Washington and New York, and the product was shipped out wholesale, all over the land, and circulated by every agency—newspapers and leaflets, mass meetings, parades, bands, red fire and torchlights, the radio and the moving picture screen. If LaFollette, the red destroyer were elected, business would be smashed, the workers would be jobless; therefore vote for that strong silent statesman, that great, wise, noble-minded friend of the plain people known as ‘Cautious Cal.’ And now, while Paul Watkins lay gasping out his life, there was a snowstorm of ballots falling over the land, nearly a thousand every second. The will of the plain people was being known.
That’s just three of many passages that echo my experiences with and knowledge of petro-culture now. Though Sinclair was writing about the past (I’m quoting from the Boni edition of 1927), the book reads like he was predicting the future. I can’t decide if it’s depressing that we’re dealing with the same old shit or satisfying that I recognize what’s happening. Maybe both.
In case you were wondering, the first passage came from page 50; the second, pages 364-365; the third, 514.
Update: I’m not surprised (which bothers me) about the news that potential Secretary of State candidate Susan Rice holds investments in TransCanada, the Canadian oil company responsible for the Keystone XL Pipeline. But the timing of the reports–appearing not long after I posted this–echo Sinclair’s story in Oil! much more loudly than I’d like it to.