Oil!: How to Buy the Presidency of the United States

Oil! by Upton Sinclair is a classic example of how oil corrupts businessmen and government alike. Sinclair was inspired to write the novel following the Teapot Dome Scandal, which was when the Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, accepted bribes to lease petroleum reserved for the navy to two private oil companies during the 1920s. The novel follows the life of James Arnold Ross Jr., or Bunny, who is the son of one of an upcoming oil tycoon. I wish that I could go into more detail in describing each of the key scenes in this novel, but I would end up with a post five times as long, thus I will only discuss the following two scenes: beginning of Ross Sr.’s corporate ruthlessness on a local level in Paradise, California, and Ross’s and Roscoe’s corporate ruthlessness on a national scale when they attempt (and eventually succeed) in buying the president of the United States.

Part 1

Ross discovers an “ocean of oil” underneath the property of the Watkins family in Paradise, a small town in Southern California. Ross then buys the Watkins’s property at only the land price rather than also paying them for the oil he found on their property. This is first of many immoralities committed by members of the oil industry throughout this novel. The Rosses integrate themselves into Paradise life and become good friends with the Watkinses and other members of the town. Bunny becomes good friends with Paul and Ruth Watkins, while Ross squares off with Old Man Watkins and his religious son Eli. As Bunny gets older he begins to realize that his father is not as much of a hero has he reveres him to be. Ross tends to cut corners and invest the money he makes in expansion rather than in making safer working conditions. As a result, one of Ross’s workers, Joe Gundha, has a fatal accident at the well, but as the narrator puts it: “the less you thought about a thing like that, the better for your enjoyment of the oil-game!” (153). Shortly thereafter the well in Paradise, catches fire and explodes, causing major damage to the environment around it:

They were never to know what did it; perhaps an electric spark, or the fire in the boiler, or a spark made by falling wreckage, or rocks blown out of the hole, striking on steel; anyhow, there was a tower of flame, and the most amazing spectacle— the burning oil would hit the ground, and bounce up, and explode, and leap again and fall again, and great red masses of flame would unfold, and burst, and yield black masses of smoke, and these in turn red. Mountains of smoke rose to the sky, and mountains of flame came seething down to the earth; every jet that struck the ground turned into a volcano, and rose again, higher than before; the whole mass, boiling and bursting, became a river of fire, a lava flood that went streaming down the valley, turning everything it touched into flame, then swallowing it up and hiding the flames in a cloud of smoke. The force of gravity took it down the valley, and the force of the wind swept it over the hill-side; it touched the bunk-house, and swallowed it in one gulp; it took the tool-house, everything that was wood; and when there came a puff of wind, driving the stream of oil and gas to one side, you saw the skeleton of the derrick, draped with fire! (160-161).

In order to put the fire out, Ross orders that the well be blown up, an extremely risky job for his workers: “the man who worked in that hole was risking his life— suppose the wind were to shift, even for a few seconds, and blow that mass of boiling oil over him! But the wind held strong and steady…they would go as close as they dared, before they set the dynamite” (162). What is worse, is that Ross does not even seem dazed by the well’s explosion, as if environmental disasters like these and dangerous labor practices are all happenstance:

[Ross:] “Why, boy, we got an ocean of oil down underneath here; and it’s all ours— not a soul can get near it but us! Are you a-frettin’ about this measly little well?”

[Bunny:] “But Dad, we worked so hard over it!”

Dad laughed again.

[Ross:] “Forget it, son! We’ll open it up again, or drill a new one in a jiffy. This was jist a little Christmas bonfire, to celebrate our bustin’ in among the big fellers!” (163- 164).

Part 2:

Many years later, Ross partners with the corrupt Vernon Roscoe, who convinces him that they should buy politicians to protect their oil prospects. At one point in the novel, Roscoe and Ross conspire to win the Republican nomination for president for Senator Harding. Roscoe and Ross believe that Harding is more likely to keep the government out of the oil industry and leave it to the private sector:

“Dad, you’re proposing to buy the presidency of the United States!”

“Well, that’s one way to say it. Another is that we’re protecting ourselves against rivals that want to put us out of business. If we don’t take care of politics, we’ll wake up after election and find we’re done for…”

“It’s such a dirty game, Dad!”

“I know, but it’s the only game there is. Of course, I can quit, and have enough to live on, but I don’t feel like being laid on the shelf, son.”

“Couldn’t we just run our own business, Dad?”

“There’s no such thing, son— they’re jist crowding you all the time. They block you at the refineries, they block you at the markets, they block you in the banks— I don’t tell you much about it, because it’s troubles, but there’s jist no place in the business world for the little feller any more. You think I’m a big feller because I got twenty million, and I think Verne is a big feller because he’s got fifty; but there’s Excelsior Pete— thirty or forty companies, all working as one— that’s close to a billion dollars you’re up against. And there’s Victor, three or four hundred million more, and all the banks and insurance company resources behind them— what chance have we independents got? Look at this slump in the price of gas right now— the newspapers tell you there’s a glut, but that’s all rot— what makes the glut, but the Big Five dumping onto the market to break the little fellers? Why, they’re jist wiping ’em off the slate!”

“But how can public officials prevent that?”

“There’s a thousand things that come up, son— we got to land the first wallop— right at the sound of the bell! How do we get pipe line right-o’-ways? How do we get terminal facilities? You saw how it was when we came into Paradise; would we ever ’a got this development if I hadn’t ’a paid Jake Coffey? Where would Verne and me be right now, if we didn’t sit down with him and go over the slate, and make sure the fellers he puts on it are right? And now— what’s the difference? Jist this, we got bigger, we’re playin’ the game on a national scale— that’s all. If Verne and me and Pete O’Reilly and Fred Orpan can get the tracts we got our eyes on, well, there’ll be the Big Six or Big Seven or Big Eight in the oil-game, that’s all— and you set this down for sure, son, we’ll be doin’ what the other fellers done, from the day that petroleum came into use, fifty years ago.”

“It’s all very well for a feller to go off in his study and figure out how the world ought to be; but that don’t make it that way, son. There has got to be oil, and we fellers that know how to get it out of the ground are the ones that are doing it. You listen to these Socialists and Bolshevikis, but my God, imagine if the government was to start buying oil-lands and developing them— there’d be more graft than all the wealth of America could pay for. I’m on the inside, where I can watch it, and I know that when you turn over anything to the government, you might jist as good bury it ten thousand miles deep in the earth. You talk about laws, but there’s economic laws, too, and government can’t stand against them, no more than anybody else. When government does fool things, then people find a way to get round it, and business men that do it are no more to blame than any other kind of men. This is an oil age, and when you try to shut oil off from production, it’s jist like you tried to dam Niagara falls.” (p. 299-300).

They are successful and sure enough Senator Harding becomes President Warren G. Harding. Roscoe and Ross become more successful than ever, and are able to continue to expand despite several strikes from their workforce, at least for a while. As I mentioned earlier, there are many more scenes in Oil! that make it one of the most important energy narratives to read. There are strikes, labor abuses, dirty politics, and dog-eat-dog business dealings, not to mention a manipulation of the masses through religion. In fact, Oil! is the only one of the narratives that I have written about so far that has all of my twelve energy narrative characteristics. If you have the time, I definitely recommend reading this novel, as it is both enlightening and an interesting read.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.


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