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
Continue reading “and now the New Testament is outgrowed and supercedened in the same way”
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
Continue reading Morality in Oil!—a mess
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
Continue reading Some day there would be an empire here