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  • The Californian Problem:Upton Sinclair’s Oil! and the Mexican Revolution
  • Jason Vredenburg

Upton Sinclair was not so much a novelist, George Bernard Shaw once suggested, as he was a social historian, and his novel Oil! (1927) is an excellent case in point. The novel takes as its central focus the booming California oil industry in the years before, during, and after World War I, as seen and experienced by independent oilman J. Arnold Ross and his idealistic yet indecisive son Bunny. But the novel’s scope extends far beyond the crowded derricks of Signal Hill: Sinclair explores regional, national, and international developments from the emergence of the Hollywood film industry to the corruption of the Harding administration to the Bolshevik Revolution, and sketches ideological debates about U.S. involvement in World War I and the conflict on the American Left between socialism and communism. He offers critiques of American institutions including the press, broadcast evangelism, and the university. It is, in the words of Lawrence Clark Powell, “the largest scale of all California novels.”1

Despite this capacious depth of field, however, Sinclair’s history of early-industrial California may initially seem rather quiet on the matter of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, shortly before Oil! opens; produced a new constitution in 1917 (only a few weeks before the February revolution in Russia); and then continued through regional and factional conflict into the early 1920s, when the novel comes to a close. This essay seeks to bring the novel’s relationship with contemporaneous events in Mexico into focus by demonstrating that Sinclair’s portrait of domestic oil production in California imports the rhetoric of early oil imperialism in revolutionary Mexico. I begin by addressing the attitude of the American Left toward the Mexican Revolution. Oil!’s lack of detailed attention to developments in Mexico is consistent [End Page 251] with a broader ambivalence and uncertainty on the American left regarding the Mexican Revolution, especially in the years of factional fighting that surrounded the adoption of the 1917 Constitution. This ambivalence helps account for Sinclair’s hesitance to address the specifics of the revolution in the novel. I then trace the similarities between, on the one hand, the abuses and justifications of the oil industry in Mexico’s Huasteca region and, on the other, Sinclair’s portrait of the same in southern California. Particularly useful in this regard are books such as Clarence W. Barron’s The Mexican Problem, an apologia for American oil industries which advocates American intervention in Mexico and celebrates Edward L. Doheny, the Los Angeles oil tycoon who was primarily responsible for developing Mexico’s oil fields. Sinclair’s novel (which draws heavily on Doheny’s life and career, particularly for the character of Vernon Roscoe) transports the arguments of Barron and other industry advocates from Mexico to southern California and transforms them from apologia to indictment. This transformation intensifies the novel’s critique of the oil industry specifically and of international capitalism in general, and underscores the relevance of that critique in a twenty-first century where oil remains central to foreign policy and where new techniques have facilitated a surge in domestic production almost unparalleled since the days of Oil!

The American Left and the Mexican Revolution

One of the most important characters in Oil! is Paul Watkins, a fiercely idealistic young man who introduces young Bunny Ross to socialism. Bunny idolizes Paul from the time of their first meeting outside Paul’s aunt’s house, where Bunny’s father is attempting to secure a community oil lease. Paul is drafted during World War I and serves in Vladivostok during the Allied Intervention in Russia at the end of the war. He returns to the United States radicalized. Having seen atrocities and injustices committed by American and Allied troops against Russian workers, he has become convinced of the rightness and viability of government of, by, and for the workers. The novel’s stake in the Bolshevik Revolution reflects the central debates and concerns of the American Left at the time. In spite of its proximity and longevity, the Mexican Revolution did not capture the imagination of the Left to the same degree...


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pp. 251-269
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