Anyone who has seen “There Will Be Blood” and not read Oil! will be hard-pressed to remember Paul Watkins, Bunny’s hero (that’s H.W.’s hero, for all you movie-watchers)—but they most certainly will remember Eli Watkins, Paul’s younger brother and child preacher.
The Eli of the film is a huge, imposing character. He’s got a personality to go along with his booming voice, and he is cunning and powerful. The Eli of the book, though, is rather ridiculous.
He is a successful preacher, and he does end up with an enormous congregation, wealthy for a time and later begging J. Arnold Ross for money. But he only gets one over one Ross once, just after they first meet, and he is later made more ridiculous in consequence. It turns out the Third Revelation in Eli’s Church of the Third Revelation was actually an idea lifted from Ross. And he wraps that idea in the ridiculous language Sinclair belittles him with.
“‘I say, can he show the signs? Has he healen the sick? Has he casted out devils? Do the lame rise up and walk? Do the dying take up their beds? Tell me that! Tell me!'” Like a child, he shouts, his voice cracks, he is “shrill and piercing,” whining to Dad about how he is the bearer of the Third Revelation, not his brother. “‘I am him who the Holy Spirit has blessed! I am him who the Lord hath chosen to show the signs! Look at me, I say—look at me! Ain’t my hair fair and my eyes blue? Ain’t my face grave and my voice deep?’—and sure enough, Eli’s voice had gone down again, and Eli was a grown man, a seer of visions and pronouncer of doom.”
That’s when he really starts preaching.
This is at the dinner table at his parents’ ranch, with his family, Bunny, and Mr. Ross. Paul is absent—and he doesn’t have much patience for Eli’s shtick. The following morning Bunny and Mr. Ross overhear Eli at the tabernacle, preaching the exact same words. Bunny: “‘Gee whiz, Dad!…Eli was saying every word that you taught him! Do you suppose he really believes it all?'” Dad wisely explains:
…that only the Holy Spirit could tell that. Eli was a lunatic, and a dangerous one, but a kind that you couldn’t put in an asylum, because he used the phrases of religion. He hadn’t wits enough to make up anything for himself, he had jist enough to see what could be done with the phrases Dad had given him; so now there was a new religion turned loose to plague the poor and ignorant, and the Almighty himself couldn’t stop it.
Eli really doesn’t turn out to be so bad though. Not good, but mostly ineffectual. He does get a tabernacle the size of a city block built in Angel City and a popular radio program, but we see him sneaking around pathetically with young women in hotels, and possibly even selling out by coordinating revivals convenient for Ross’s oil business (keeps the newsmen away from the strikers). Not such a worthy opponent for the oilman at all, here.
The moral education of Bunny Ross is a central focus of Oil!, but its thrust is weakened by the structure of his Bildung. You see, Bunny’s most salient feature is his softness, his willingness to absorb any idea and admire its originator. He doesn’t just get involved with fads, or go along with the crowd; rather he chooses particular figures to idolize and forces himself to favor conflicting parties at once.
The two main figures here are Bunny’s father, J. Arnold Ross, and Paul Watkins, a country boy who runs away from home at 16 and makes his own way in the world. Bunny meets him at Mrs. Groarty’s house—he’s her nephew—and spends years looking up to him and romanticizing his family without knowing them at all. He thinks Paul is so moral and wise that he convinces his father to buy out the Watkins ranch and all the surrounding land for a “wild-cat”* and eventually to practically support the family. Paul will grow up to become a labor organizer and eventually a Communist.
Bunny’s admiration of Paul for his self-sufficiency and workingman ethic ends up turning him against the interests of his father—sort of. J. Arnold Ross is a highly moral capitalist: he pays his men more than other drilling concerns do, builds them better places to live, gets involved personally with each new well, and most importantly he really knows his business, earning him respect among the workers. He seems to be the most clearly moral character in the novel—more so than Paul because we don’t actually know Paul—right up until we find out he’s joined a federation of other oil employers. He’s no longer allowed to pay new men more money; the oil workers want to strike and he sympathizes with their demands but can’t do anything his confederates don’t want to do. Bunny argues that Ross should let his men unionize because he was allowed to unionize himself—and Ross wants to let them—but of course Ross’s union is eating away at his righteousness at every turn.
Once this happens the tide swings more and more toward Paul, but there are confounding figures—women, mostly, but also other capitalists and workingmen—and Bunny is tossed back and forth really too many times. Did Sinclair think the novel would be better if he kept his mind from being made up for 400 pages rather than 300 or 200? It’s not the length, really; but it’s episode after episode of Bunny being influenced by some more commanding figure and thinking, “Hmm, he certainly has a point…but so did that last guy…”
And while Bunny dallies, the reader remains a little confused as to who will win in the end. Bunny loans thousands and thousands of dollars to Paul over the course of the novel, most on the assumption that he would never use violent means in his cause, but as he continues to radicalize he does become a Communist and espouse violent revolution. Bunny is never comfortable with this and crowns another winner in the contest when he marries a peaceful socialist. That was at least a bit of a surprise, but it’s also by far the least interesting of any of Bunny’s relationships and makes the end of the novel seem partly failed.
Throughout, Bunny is in a difficult position: a Communist sympathizer oil prince. But that never gets him down, the only thing that really does is when Paul calls him “soft”—because he is soft, and he knows it. But nothing he ever does makes him less so, certainly not forsaking Communism for good. The most telling scene, I think, is when Bunny arranges for Paul and his (as yet unknown) future wife to meet. He always wants his friends to get along, and he wants the two of them to argue everything out with each other and come to an agreement, so Bunny will know what to believe.
The fact that Paul and the other workingmen in the novel sing the praises of the workers’ paradise in Russia doesn’t clear up the muddle here either. They are admirable in their disbelief in American propaganda, and of course in 1927 Sinclair couldn’t have known about Stalin, but it still makes him seem very naïve.
*”Wild-catting” is the practice of drilling for oil when you don’t have more than a hunch it will really be there. In fact, the Rosses do know pretty well that there will be oil on this land, but pick it up on the cheap claiming the whim of a small boy. The question of whether Ross has thus cheated the Watkinses troubles Paul for ages, though it is really not as difficult as all that. More softness from Bunny.
In 1927, 21 years after The Jungle, Upton Sinclair published Oil!, a Bildungsroman about Bunny Ross, heir to an oil fortune. Bunny’s father is a self-made man, so the boy grows up pulled between worlds: that of the well-to-do, the fancy social circles that his sister aspires to; that of his father, a no-nonsense, hard-nosed businessman; and that of his truest friends in the world, Paul and Ruth Watkins, country working-people.
Unfortunately, the best parts of the book are really before the Bildung begins. At the opening of the novel, Bunny is 13 years old, and he accompanies his father on all his business trips. They are driving together to a new town, to make a deal on an oil lease and begin a new well. Sinclair is not a great prose stylist, but the drive up and down a mountain pass in the fog, the stop to put chains on the tires, the avoidance of the speed cop, are all vividly told. A clear picture of this opening journey is still in my mind as one of the most memorable parts of the book. Bunny’s relationship with his father, and his father’s whole character, are laid out perfectly here. Not a word Dad says when he gets to the meeting with the property-holders comes as a surprise, we know him so well.
Not a word the property-holders have said to each other does, either, if we are honest. The episode in Mrs. Groarty’s house is excellent too, and an integral part of the move from motor journey to oil well. The scene: there’s a gusher on a nearby property. The members of a whole subdivision have come together to make a community agreement that they will only contract as a group with a drilling concern, thus as a larger lease to get better concessions.
This document had been duly recorded in the county archives; and now day by day they were realizing what they had done to themselves. They had agreed to agree; and from that time on, they had never been able to agree to anything!
The community is cut-throat, of course. Everyone is suspected of taking kickbacks from the oil companies, and the division of royalties is an issue. Should we blame these simple people?
Their frail human nature was subjected to a strain greater than it was made for; the fires of greed had been lighted in their hearts, and fanned to a white heat that melted every principle and every law.
Oh, but we should blame them. They are fools. J. Arnold Ross—Bunny’s Dad, that is—comes to negotiate with them and they still can’t settle the details. They are petty and sniping and Ross doesn’t mess around. He’s offering them a better deal than anyone else would, but when they come to blows he leaves, saying “They’re a bunch of boobs, and you can’t do anything with them. I wouldn’t take their lease if they offered it as a gift.”
Here, as elsewhere, it’s hard to get a handle on just what Sinclair thinks. The whole thing has a didactic feel, but still seems ambivalent. The narrator decries the greed that is tearing the community apart, but there was no community until oil came along. The owners of the lots are members of different classes, different ethnicities; some live there, some live in town; some are tradesmen, some farmers; some are investors who would turn up their noses at the rest in any other situation. They wouldn’t trust each other even if thousands of dollars weren’t in the balance.
Mrs. Groarty and her friends get their comeuppance. Ross makes a killing on the other side of the hill, where a single owner controlled enough land for him to drill on. The landowner, who took a good deal when he saw one, ended up set for life too. The “community” turned its lease over to speculators who never drilled but a few hundred barrels.
The oscillation between sympathy for the little guy and portrayal of all his most unflattering qualities—in contrast with the still-unstained morality of Dad—is a continuing feature of the Bildung. Only problem is, Bunny doesn’t seem to learn anything. At least not for a very, very long time. And that whole time, the reader is left drifting too.