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  • "Oil Was Trumps":John Dos Passos' U.S.A., World War I, and the Growth of the Petromodern State
  • Mark Whalan (bio)


Lloyd George,

Woodrow Wilson.

Three old men shuffling the pack,

dealing out the cards:

the Rhineland, Danzig, the Polish corridor, the Ruhr, self determination of small nations, the Saar, League of Nations, mandates, the Mespot, Freedom of the Seas, Transjordania, Shantung, Fiume and the Island of Yap:

machine gun fire and arson

starvation, lice, cholera, typhus;

oil was trumps.

John Dos Passos, 1919

John Dos Passos' U.S.A. (1938) is a particularly oily trilogy. Its first book, The 42nd Parallel (1930), finishes with several major characters connected to the oil industry congregating in Mexico around the time of the US military invasion of 1914, an invasion prosecuted in part to protect US oil interests.1 The second novel, 1919 (1932), takes the negotiations over how the victorious Allies would divide the world's oil resources at the Paris peace conference in 1919 as one of the main geopolitical forces shaping world history. [End Page 474] One of U.S.A.'s major characters, Joe Williams, works as a sailor on a Standard Oil tanker; another, J. Ward Moorehouse, does PR first for Southwestern Oil and then for Standard Oil. Many of the Texan family members of another major character, Anne Trent, have extensive investments in the oil industry. Minor characters work in oil fields, work as lobbyists for Standard Oil to the federal government, or are unsuccessful oil speculators. And petroleum is everywhere in the trilogy as characters drive, fly, and motor-propel themselves through the Roaring Twenties. In his recent monograph on the eco-poetics of US modernism, Joshua Schuster posed the question "Where is the oil in modernism?" (162), noting the gap between petroleum's ubiquity in the modern era and its relative absence in modernist writing. Dos Passos' trilogy presents itself as a compelling answer: indeed, one of its newsreel sections even has a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential moment about the sheer ubiquity of oil in the trilogy, presenting the ad copy "IMPROVED LUBRICATING SYSTEM THAT INSURES POSITIVE AND CONSTANT OILING OVER THE ENTIRE BEARING SURFACES" (The Big Money 844). We could see the trilogy itself as subject to "constant oiling," as oil seems to everywhere lubricate the contact between differential parts of the social machine—particularly contact between individuals, states, and corporations—as well as fuel multiple kinds of mobility and trajectories.

Counterintuitively, it is perhaps oil's prominent place in Dos Passos' trilogy that has evacuated it from sustained critical notice; oil is usually itemized as just one of many features of twentieth-century US material culture and economy that Dos Passos so compulsively collates over his 1,300-page epic.2 This curious omission overlaps with the implications of what has become a truism of recent scholarship on oil and petroleum culture—if oil is ubiquitous and unavoidable, implicated in every facet of modern materiality and lived experience (from plastics to asphalt, agricultural fertilizer to clothing fabrics, and even printing ink), there is an extraordinary difficulty in finding "a point of view from which to frame the everything of oil," in the words of Stephanie LeMenager (11). Indeed, if every novel could now be read as an oil novel because every modern experience and representation is inevitably saturated and structured by the products and processes of oil, perhaps no novel is worth reading in these terms, so unavoidable is oil's sustaining presence.3 Yet U.S.A.'s treatment of oil, I contend, shows deep interconnections between energy history and cultural history, especially what happens culturally at the moments of transition between historically dominant energy regimes. The 30-year timespan of U.S.A. broadly corresponds to a major shift from an energy system of "coal capitalism" to "oil-electric-coal capitalism," to deploy Frederick Buell's terms [End Page 475]

(277–80). Timothy Mitchell's account of the political dimensions of that shift—which foreclosed the kind of possibilities for workers' assertiveness and successful labor activism found in an earlier, more singular dependence on coal—clearly maps on to Dos Passos' despairing vision of the fate...


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