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  • Oil and World Literature
  • Graeme Macdonald (bio)

In a 1992 New Republic review of the first two novels in Abdelrahman Munif's renowned petro-quintet Cities of Salt (1984), Amitav Ghosh pondered the absence of the Great American Oil Novel (GAON). Why, he asked, in the nation where oil is virtually sacrosanct and where the industry remains a prodigious force, had literary responses to its significance for American life been so scant? For Ghosh, the silence of American cultural production reflected the production of oil itself. His answers invoked a combination of concealment, disrepute, and inconspicuousness that remains salient. The enduring volatility surrounding oil's entire infrastructure ensures a level of corporate and political hush, supplemented by peripheral extraction sites distant from most metropolitan population centers or deep in the world's seaways. This quietening extends, for Ghosh, to oil's cultural registration. He also holds average American geographical (and geopolitical) illiteracy to account. These, aligned with a general introspection and national inwardness in American letters, were all factors preventing the writing of the GAON.

Several of Ghosh's points remain salient, despite areas where the premise of such an argument is narrow and contentious. From a vantage point twenty years hence, as the study of petroculture and petrofiction develops, the question remains pressing: why is it that this mineral, utterly pervasive in the everyday lives of people in developed economies, remains mostly "offshore" in social and cultural consciousness, surfacing now and again in the wake of foreign wars, gas price hikes, or Gulf-of-Mexico-type disasters? As many of the reviews in this journal demonstrate, however, there is a prolific and accelerating amount of oil writing, published prior to and after Ghosh's intervention. The issue may not be of the absence of this type of material rather than with how to adequately house it. Many of these oil texts are "American," though this, like other national literary formations, is a category placed under some pressure by the extra-national perspective required by the purview of most petroliterature. Any suggestion that oil has not featured significantly in the history of U.S. writing throughout the twentieth century and into the present can be refuted from such a perspective. That some oil writing may not automatically register as "Great" testifies not only to the discreet nature of the oil industry's tentative registration in American literary culture but to the thin and canonically subservient framing of the question as Ghosh perceives it. For as oil is a world resource produced and impacting within and beyond the nation, so too is literature, as recent attempts to refurbish the outlooks of world literature insist. Like oil itself, oil literature has significant global transportation routes, value changes, and multiple and uniform forms.

From an American perspective, we must assume that Ghosh was either unfamiliar with Upton Sinclair's volatile 1927 novel Oil! (republished in 2007) or deemed it unworthy of the adjective "Great." The latter seems more likely, if unsatisfactory, for much of the content of Oil! is prescient to our age where domestic unrest and international conflict over the resource and its political ramifications continue to shape oil politics. Should we also give Ghosh the benefit of the doubt in not including what is without doubt a GAON—none other than Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), arguably among the first Oil novels? Vested in that notable nineteenth-century resource industry—whaling—Melville's novel narrates a megalomaniacal hunt and harvesting of a natural resource all over the world. It stands as prototype representation of a process endemic to the global history of oil extraction and petrochemical commerce.

Questions of oil's visibility and configuration in national literary histories, however, needs to be reconceptualized on at least two fronts: geographic and generic. What constitutes an American (or indeed a British, Nigerian, Iranian, Trinidadian, Russian, etc.) oil text in an age where the circuitry of literature grows increasingly international, and where many arguments have been made in academic circles to pressurize any national literary outlook as limited or, worse, solipsistic? Following this: what specifically constitutes oil literature? Must a work explicitly concern itself with features immediate to the oil industry? Given that...


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