Sunday, March 21, 2010

Oil!: Upton Sinclair

Oil! is the 1927 novel by Pulitzer-Prize winning author and socialist politician, Upton Sinclair. Sinclair doesn't hesitate to reveal his pink blood in this work of semi-fiction, which claims to be full of truths which have been shuffled like the cards of a poker game. I suppose at the time of it's publication the public was much more aware of his political aspirations and even his failed attempt to create a utopian society in New Jersey, but I had only thought he was a socialist journalist and sympathizer until doing further research mid-story. The plot is not like There Will be Blood at all. At All. Sure, there are some of the same characters and the beginning's match up a bit, but the main character of the book is the son, J. Arnold Ross Jr. (Bunny), and the tale revolves much more heavily around Bunny's socialist struggles including the creation of a four-page paper, the attending of meetings world wide, and the borrowing of dad's money to bail out political prisoners of the party. Oil! also features a loose fictional expose of the early years of the Union Oil Company of California (Unocal), mixed and "shuffled" with what Sinclair claims as facts (at least some of which can be verified through U.S Senate reports and Historical texts) about Sinclair Oil and Edward L. Doheny's roles in the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding administration. Teapot Dome, for readers of my generation who don't remember from U.S. History, was the biggest government scandal before Watergate and involved oil tycoons bribing government officials to acquire private leases of U.S. Naval Oil Fields in Wyoming and in Elk Hills and Buena Vista of Southern California. In the novel, our hero's father and some of his powerful associates purchase the entire presidency and pay off cabinet officials through a company in Canada. One direct correlation to known fact in the novel is the $100,000 bribe made by "Dad" and Vernon Roscoe, which is the exact dollar amount paid by Harry Sinclair to Albert B. Fall, then Secretary of the Interior, who was eventually indicted on charges of conspiracy and accepting bribes and eventually served prison time.  All in all, this book was much longer and slower than The Jungle and in my opinion is much less of a must read. I did enjoy Oil!, as historical fiction, but honestly found myself becoming more and more attached to J. Arnold Ross Sr. despite his shady dealings. Sure, he was paying off government officials and making moves on some unsuspecting country bumpkins, but he was an extremely loving and understanding father. He built his own American dream by playing the game the way the people in power played and he always respected Bunny's ideals and even strove to be as fair and understanding of the worker's plight as he could until he was overpowered by the big boy's of the Oil Manufacturer's Legion. Bunny was a good kid and really wanted to do good in the world and figure things out for himself, but his lack of guts and street smarts just wore me out long before the slow and bitter descent to a sad ending spawned from Mr. Upton Sinclair and his party's failure to create change in our capitalist society and government. Boo Hoo. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Jungle: Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, was not what I expected going in. Upon reading some articles and doing a little research I discovered that my pre-reading expectations were not uncommon. They were in fact the result of the American reaction to the novel from all the way back to it's original publication. The Jungle is most commonly known-especially among those who have not read it- as an expose of the horrors of the Chicago meat-packing industry around the turn of the century and what types of despicable and disgusting things were being fed to the general public. Sinclair had hoped to strike a chord with the public and show the plight of the poor immigrants who were locked into horrible jobs and tricked at every turn into remaining poor, eating poor, and being worked into the ground as fast as possible so that other, newer, younger immigrants could come in and follow in the same path. He wanted to give detailed descriptions of how these scenarios forced families to send all of the women and young children to work to scrape just enough to get by between the entire family. He wanted to uncover the local government's corruption and the union's useless struggle to fight for the common workers. Well...the book does all of this and it really drags the reader into the gutter. These being hard times for the average American, currently, I found this book to be one of the ones that reminded me of how much worse it could be and was for many of my Irish ancestors. In the test of time, however, the plight of the immigrants is not the main enduring theme. Instead, the theme that made The Jungle an almost instant best-seller and has remained the novel's calling card for over a century now is the mistreatment of meat and meat products by the Chicago stock-yard conglomerates. The use of chemicals and food coloring to trick consumers into eating beef and pork infected with tuberculosis. The pay-offs and head turnings of so called health inspectors. The overlooking of workers falling to their death in the rendering tanks and being turned into "Durham's Pure Beef Lard." The truth about "head cheese." Oh, just typing this makes me sick. Why have these themes triumphed over Sinclair's portrayal of the follies of our capitalist society? Well, other than the fact that capitalism forged our rise to power and socialism is the work of the DEVIL, I mean Obama, I mean the DEVIL!!! (That message brought to you by Fox News)... the book helped bring about new legislation, which ultimately led to the Food and Drug Administration. Mr. Sinclair was still rightfully unpleased by even this development due to the fact that the inspections and cost lay on the hands of the government and therefore the American taxpayers and not the packers themselves. Large scale food industry mishaps also remain relevant today due to documentaries like "Super Size Me," and "Fast Food Nation," which show a lack of true development and progress in the by-product laced beef of the American diet. Still, the many students of my generation who didn't read this one are missing out on the harsh tale of the odds stacked against relatives and ancestors of ours who came to this great nation as recent as a hundred years ago. Our grandparents and their parents may have and most likely were subjected to some of the same circumstances as Jurgis Rudkis and his family. Along the way I pulled for Jurgis and felt all of his torment. The lies, the struggles, the deaths, the impossibilities. When he broke away on his own I thought he might finally make it. False hope welled up inside as he took to hobo-ing it. Alas, the roller coaster only continued to show him highs and lows and in the end Sinclair rode the brakes down a never ending hill until I damn near fell asleep reading a socialist speech spoken to a small crowd in a Chicago hotel. Still, The Jungle is a must read today just as it was back in '06 and I am very glad to have added it to this project. I was most surprised by the socialist manifesto at the end, which left me feeling a little baffled and the story open-ended, but it isn't the first time I've finished a novel and thought: "Oh, so I guess novels don't always have to have an ending. Sometimes they are just a cross section of random history and fiction that kind of reel out of the author until he or she decides to stop on a whim and call it a day."