Oil!: On the Petro-Novel


On Books

Oil fields near San Ardo, California. Photograph by Eugene Zelenko, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In a letter dated June 1, 1925, Upton Sinclair announced a revolutionary experiment: the petro-novel, a new category of fiction inspired by modernity’s most vexing paradoxes of fossil-fueled life. “This oil novel,” Sinclair predicted, “will be the best thing I have ever done.” Over the next ten months, that story poured out as a “gusher of words” to become the great American novel of petroleum power. By turns ardent family saga, scintillating potboiler, and anti-capitalist tirade, Sinclair’s 1926–27 tale warrants its exclamation mark. Oil! is an energetic tour de force whose plot goes everywhere. From ivory towers and gated estates to bleak frontiers of slow death, the book shows how a thirst for crude created new democratic dreams of freedom and their opposite. Through it all, the novel anticipates how the wreckage unleashed by big oil might lead to a greener, more inclusive world yet to come. It remains one of the most important critiques of fossil energy ever printed.

Today the earth is on fire, and fossil fuel corporations keep raising the heat. Recent years have been the warmest on record, sparking waves of mass migration and accelerating die-offs, with no real cooldown in sight. In a way, we’re all to blame. Climate experts agree that the extreme weather of our time comes from human energy use. Northern countries like the U.S. have burned eons of accumulated hydrocarbons since the twentieth century’s dawn—too much and too fast for the planet to absorb them again, leading to a carbon cycle that’s perilously out of whack. But vowing to scale back and buy less, to burn less, won’t kill the flames. The truth is that twenty-five fossil fuel giants are responsible for more than half of all carbon emissions now, and a huge fraction of U.S. workers already live hand to mouth while energy earnings soar. Dismantling these institutions and their pyromaniacal profit-motives will require concerted action. It will require new intimacies across economic, racial, and gender lines. And it will require alternatives to very old habits of thinking that make it hard to conceive a world without oil. To avert a dead-end future for humans and our planetary kin, we must reimagine who we are, and in no time flat.

Oil! is the novel that best illuminates how we got here and that leaves the blueprint for a more equitable future out of its ashes. At its core is the story of a whole new kind of society being born through the early twentieth century, when elites learned how to control a petroleum-powered system of production; that system allowed a few white men to get rich quick by exploiting everyone else below them. It’s a system that has turned the world into the private landfill of oligarchs who have taken our land and labor and would now, in a final move, take a habitable future from us as well. But the novel shows that the story of oil isn’t a tale for all time. We can contest an unsustainable system of energy and work that took hold not long ago, when deep-pocketed corporations combined to let the world burn. A hundred years after fossil capitalism kicked into high gear, the question at the heart of Sinclair’s novel remains: How may we transition to a postcarbon democracy now? Oil! provides an outline for this urgent mission, the unmet demand on which all future life depends.


Sinclair’s novel is not called Oil; it’s Oil! Between June 2, 1926, and March 7, 1927, Sinclair published the novel unadorned—as just plain Oil—for readers of the Daily Worker, the national newspaper by the Communist Party USA. Only afterward did he learn that Walter Gilkyson had scooped him by publishing Oil in 1924, a novel prophesizing that “the wars that were fought in the past … will be fought for oil in the future.” Sinclair’s gimmick—the exclamation mark—let him skirt copyright protections for the text while also expressing his novel’s central narrative strategy. Instead of representing oil as a self-evident thing, Sinclair imbues it with a kaleidoscopic range of associations that reimagine it on visionary new terms: he suggests new language and material relations that readers might bring to life. The mark advertises oil’s potential for sparking extreme emotions: the freedom of the road, the euphoria of flight, the vertigo of sudden social transformation. As if bypassing language itself, the titular black column looks like a graphic insignia of a blowout or an oil gusher. Embossed on the first edition’s cover, Sinclair’s diacritical mark appears as a swollen line that echoes a derrick in the foreground. To read Oil!, it would seem, is to burn with the concentrated power of hydrocarbons themselves, as in chapter six’s “amazing spectacle” of overflowing oil. There, skyrocketing crude ignites into a “tower of flame,” the narrator writes: “the burning oil would hit the ground, and bounce up, and explode, and leap again and fall again.” A veritable exclamation mapped on to the world, the spectacle of gushing crude hints at how oil could convert into language and vice versa, how a lexical mark might become charged with the incandescent radiance of things.

As the action unfolds, Oil! slams on the brakes and develops a more counterintuitive approach—a poetics of the slow burn. Working to question the era’s subjective speed thrills, Sinclair teaches us bit by bit to see oil capitalism’s sheer scale and corruption, with attention to the gaping inequalities at its core. Early exuberance on the road shifts into uglier feelings of creeping dread, moral outrage, and anxious alarm as the novel follows oil’s tentacular spread. The hero’s gradual process of revelation is recapitulated by the reader as they go along and glean a more conscious understanding of oil—an understanding that, Sinclair hoped, might lead to more militant opposition to the fossil-fuel industry once the covers close.


The years surrounding Sinclair’s birth in 1878 represent one of the most decisive transitions in human history: it was the first decade fossil fuels provided more energy to societies than did traditional photosynthesis. Animating this transition was a shift from industrial economies of coal to the newly unlocked power of oil and natural gas. Countries like the U.S. were burning carbonized sunlight at an accelerating clip. In 1880, global oil production reached 4 megatons per year; by 1900, it had exploded to 22.5 megatons, and it quadrupled to nearly 100 megatons in 1920. This imbalance in the carbon cycle created the illusion that wealth could expand without limit—without needing larger factories or labor forces, stockpiled gold reserves, or overseas territories. Sinclair’s work brings attention to the toxic underside of these visions of prodigal growth: adulterated soil, smoldering skies, and dispossessive battles that erupted everywhere oil came to light.

Sinclair’s most influential bestsellers track a history of the planet’s escalating energy burn, now measurable as parts per million of atmospheric carbon (ppm) that linger in the air at this very moment. The Jungle (published in 1906, when the level of carbon in the atmosphere was 298 ppm), King Coal (1917, 302 ppm), and Oil! (1926–27, 309 ppm), constitute a loose trilogy of industrial energy novels, each examining an associated modern fuel system—respectively, cheap food, cheap coal, and cheap petroleum. Moving in an arc through the years of exponentially concentrated carbon inputs, together the three books trace modernity’s freedoms back to the violent capture of fuels, machines, and laboring bodies. The whole story of U.S. growth is recast as a tale of doubled exploitation: of caloric or mechanical fuel stocks, and of workforces battered in the era’s developmental storm. We see something, here, of the rationale behind the first energy systems studies in the nineteenth century, when physicists reduced all things to their potential for work. But against a scientific desire to foster more productive, and thus profitable, relations of labor, Sinclair lays bare the strange and bitter fruits of industrialized life.

In this suite of fictions, Sinclair gropes toward an account of how conflicts around energy created both civilization and its barbaric underbelly. Consider The Jungle, Sinclair’s first success. Below its immediate concern with the meat industry’s filth, The Jungle unfolds as a fable of energization. It reassembles the base material ties that bound cattle, chickens, and pigs with workers, who, like livestock defiled by food production, were degraded in the process of fueling modernity. On a surface level, The Jungle identifies the exploitation of human bodies with that of animals on the killing floor. Both feature within a coordinated energy system that benefits a capitalist class of profiteers. King Coal extended this approach by turning to America’s fossil economy. Unnerved by the violent suppression of a 1914 coal miners’ strike in Ludlow, Colorado, when a Rockefeller-owned coal company summoned state militia and paramilitary forces to their side, Sinclair represented miners’ attempts to contest elites by banding together, blocking extraction sites, and disrupting energy profit flows.

This radical imaginary of fuel was shaped by powerful exposés on corporate greed. Of particular influence was Ida M. Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904, 297.5 ppm), which showed how the Standard syndicate rose to dominance through the “ruthlessness and persistency” of its owner John D. Rockefeller. Tarbell’s book made Standard a bête noire of the political left, and it animated Sinclair’s thought. His energy fictions, however, are unique in two respects: their attention to the specific materiality of fuels like coal and oil, and how the production, consumption, and representation of those fuels shaped class conflicts around them. After a string of lukewarm successes in King Coal’s wake, Oil! marked a return to form. Namely, it revived King Coal’s coming-of-age script, which followed a privileged youth, Hal Warner, from juvenile irresolution to a more mature understanding of coal capitalism’s harms. Oil! traces the maturation of James Ross Jr., aka Bunny, aka “the young oil prince,” the sensitive heir to an energy fortune who grows to renounce his class commitments while meeting the era’s have-nots. Oil!’s opening in 1912 also identifies it as a creative child of another work: Tarbell’s History. In 1911, the U.S. government ruled Standard Oil in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and broke it into thirty-four regional companies—a liberal democratic victory that Tarbell’s bombshell spurred. But retrenchment followed. Out of Standard’s split was born a revenant era of collusion between a few oil oligopolies that swallowed or squeezed out the last independents. It was a stunning counterformation that, for Sinclair, raised a larger creative question: How might a work of fiction provide an alternative to oil capitalism that works like The History of Standard Oil could not?


To truly answer that question, it helps to understand how Sinclair recast conventions of fiction-making in general. Strictly speaking, all modern novels are oil novels. Choose your favorite story and you’ll find petroleum powering plots and shaping subjectivities. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925, 305 ppm) casts its hero’s gleaming car collection as a sign of nouveau riche aspirations, while Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1927, 306 ppm) turns the meandering movements of aircraft and automobile into twin allegories for personhood as Clarissa Dalloway’s stream of consciousness finds an echo in London’s incessant hum. Gasoline and diesel, desire and subjecthood: once you pay attention, it’s hard to miss how hydrocarbons beat beneath literature’s rising pulse, covertly animating its fictions of being and belonging, personal development and social transformation.

There are good reasons why oil poured into literature at this time. Between 1900 and 1930, global oil production surged some 300 percent amid a vogue for petroleum-powered motoring. Oil’s inroads on the streets were flanked by its expanding embrace over the seas and skies. And these mechanical marvels were supplemented by an avalanche of cheap petro-goods, including fertilizers and pesticides, vinyl records, and a thousand plastic products that saturated middle-class households in northern nations like the U.S.

Here’s the catch: novels rarely represent oil as actual oil. When writers refine petroleum into art, it floats off into the realm of what is generally known without being thought about much, if at all. As capitalism’s Ur-commodity, oil remains what Karl Marx called “a thing which transcends sensuousness”: something magically divorced from the sweat, grit, and blood that conjured it forth. Cooked over millennia from ancient algae, oil collects deep underground before faraway workers harvest it. The Anglo-American novel may be ill-suited to represent realities at this scale, as Amitav Ghosh suggested in an influential review of Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet (1984–89, 344–353 ppm). What’s clear is that the industry has worked to perfect its own disappearing act. Sites of petro-extraction are scrupulously screened from view, and recovered crude circulates without a trace through a grid of pipelines, terminals, refineries, and gas pumps. That grid reaches collective consciousness only in instances of specularized disruption; for every oil rig explosion or pipeline protest that makes the news, 101 million barrels go without saying each day.

That’s why Oil! is such an astonishing read. It’s one of few fictions to thematize oil culture and to lay bare what Marx called “the hidden abode of production,” where workers transform crude into a refined resource for capitalists. Published in the exact window when little oil became big, it dramatizes how oil flooded U.S. society only to fade from view. Moving beyond the terrible deeds of one corporation or another, à la Tarbell’s History, Sinclair uncovers a massive web of social, cultural, and economic conditions that typified the oil era: not only new class relations but desires, routines, assumptions, and affects that made the industry difficult to reform, and that Sinclair sought ultimately to reinvent.


Oil! is about the rise of the Los Angeles area where Sinclair lived from 1915 on. Edward L. Doheny (the model for Bunny’s father, James Ross Sr.) first discovered petroleum in LA in 1892. Thirty years after, the region exploded into a global petroleum center that gave the twenties their roar. In early 1920, oil operators opened a reservoir in Huntington Beach, and shortly after there was a world historical discovery in Long Beach, near Sinclair’s home, that spawned a forest of derricks. Soon Southern California would vie with Texas and Tulsa as the nation’s leading oil zone. The sorcery of petrodollars turned dry farmland into meccas for finance and banking, manufacture, real estate, and entertainment. In 1927, The New Republic observed that “this steady, speedy growth is the one most important thing to understand about L.A. … It creates an easy optimism, a lazy prosperity which dominates peoples’ lives. Anything seems possible; the future is yours and the past?—there isn’t any.” For many, oil marked a terminus to history—it was a forever era of unlimited growth.

But not for all. In The New Republic’s disavowal of the past, we see a negation of racial and economic populations that had historically enabled California’s development, including Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Hispanic communities left out in the rush. Many felt the region’s petro-development as a curse, as thousands of people found themselves displaced and penniless in speculative financial scrambles. While oil sparked collective hopes of transformed life, it deepened disparities between workers and owners on the ground. And while it inspired omnipotent fantasies of annihilating space and time on the road, it made everywhere look the same. Sinclair shows how the region’s neatly manicured suburbs, shopping centers, and picture palaces were enabled by wastescapes like nowhere on Earth—and how oil optimism often proved to be cruel.

Over the first half of Oil!, Ross Sr. (called Dad) acquires a slew of oil wells around LA (“Angel City”) and sells to opposed nations in World War I, thus catapulting his son into the good life. Bunny cavorts with the hoi polloi as big oil transforms the nation’s every aspect. The tide of petro-influence flows from oil’s hidden sacrifice zones to the loftiest civil institutions. Thus Bunny’s education at Southern Pacific University (a thinly disguised University of Southern California) unfolds as an exercise in oil refinement, as Dad’s fortune gets cleansed—refined—through Bunny’s schooling. Over the second half of the novel, Bunny encounters more and more workers trampled by petro-culture’s spread. Each fresh oil strike results in a more massive labor strike, just as petroleum “storage tanks” expand alongside the jail “tanks” for insurgent workers. It’s a brutally mounting class conflict, a dialectic of creative destruction that turns Bunny into a prodigal son. Though he’s forced to become an adult petro-subject—an individual defined by oil-based labor, leisure, and movement—he renounces life as a commercial oilman like his father, and works to advance another world beyond oil capitalism’s reach.

Oil! begins with petroleum’s signature thrill ride. “The ground went in long waves,” the narrator begins, “a slow ascent and then a sudden dip; you climbed, and went swiftly over—but you had no fear, for you knew the magic ribbon would be there, clear of obstructions, unmarred by bump or scar, waiting the passage of inflated rubber wheels revolving seven times a second.” In this tableau of freedom, the two Rosses barrel down the highway along as if transcending time, space, and social attachments. Note the invisible infrastructure of Sinclair’s prose: its syntactic cabling of semicolons, commas, and dashes mimics the feeling of the road itself. Sinclair is coyly inviting readers to join in petroleum’s pleasures, though the larger point seems clear: history and context seem to vanish in oil’s thrall. “The past is past,” Dad tells his son, “or shall we say that the passed are passed?”

Such speed won’t last forever. After stopping for gas, the Rosses move though a newly manufactured landscape of roadside motels, diners, and shopping centers before reaching a political boss’s back room. We come full circle here: when Dad greases the boss’s palm to get a public road built up to his oil field, it’s to show that sovereign petro-freedoms depend on crime and corruption. Oil kings make the law for others, not for themselves. It’s the first of many escalating transgressions that Dad is forced to make. Though he’s a benevolent man, he gets caught in the compulsory workings of an oil game that will seal his fate for the worse.

All roads lead back to the oil field: petro-modernity’s turbulent contact zone where human and nonhuman systems meet. Its most iconic image is the blowout, which Sinclair’s contemporaries represented as a free gift of nature: an orgasmic flood that rises without human hardship and that promises freedom from work and want to all in its radius. That fantasy inspired Sinclair’s working title, “Flowing Gold,” and it animates Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of the novel There Will Be Blood (2007, 383 ppm), when Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, Daniel Plainview, betrays a rare half smile when gushing crude comes into open sight. Yet the novel redescribes the blowout as a spectacle of ruin for the lower-class communities forced to sell their land and labor. Through a sequence of increasingly grim eruptions, it becomes clear that oil spells disaster for workers who “stagger … to stop the flow” in harm’s way. So the novel gets “greasy” as love of oil converts to creeping hate, and as Bunny’s feelings of freedom and filial devotion become tainted by crude actualities at modernity’s base.


But aversion remains an attachment, and mixed feelings get us nowhere. In our warming world today, there’s much to revile about the stuff: we know that burned carbon will soon slam the door on a habitable multispecies future. Yet the urgent need to transition from oil has been blocked not least because there remains much to love. Petroleum has supplied an aspirational middle-class dream of the good life that, however residual, lingers in the pursuit of spacious suburban homes, long summer road trips, and a towering mountain of plastic gadgets. Like a bad romance of catastrophic dimensions, it’s a dream that persists even as the tides swell at our feet. We may know this in our bones, just as surely as petrochemical remnants build up in our bodies. But we’ve yet to abandon the rituals and relations that oil has helped materialize.

This impasse suggests that oil is more than just a liquid compound or a set of commodity relations. It animates a broader cultural system: a grid of forms and feelings that makes oil seem desirable, indeed inevitable, even when we scorn its ills. This system has fostered a shared sense of helplessness as today’s climate emergency mounts. Many understand that the time horizon for averting the worst outcomes means making big, systemic changes to how society is produced. But amid petro-culture’s continued dominance, it’s hard to imagine any action except shrinking one’s own carbon footprint—and fine-tuned consumption choices, we may feel, aren’t enough to make corporations keep oil underground.

Consider Sinclair himself. On June 23, 1921, the Shell cartel struck a 114-foot gusher not far from his Pasadena home. That discovery launched the entire California oil rush (represented in Oil!’s “Prospect Hill” chapters). In the throes of oil mania, Sinclair’s wife, Mary Kimbrough, acquired two land lots and met with other landowners to fix a joint price. Yet these “communal meetings” disintegrated into heated arguments about who merited more of the takings. The episode sparked Sinclair’s idea for an “oil novel” about how petroleum corrodes democratic norms. But the irony remains: what inspired Sinclair’s critique of oil capitalism was also an occasion for personal profiteering. The windfall became complete in November 1926, when Sinclair typed “The End” just as Kimbrough cashed in her land.

In this anecdote we see the strange double binds at the petro-era’s core. Given its importance as modernity’s lifeblood, how could one not want what oil has enabled, even when lamenting its dire effects? As you read, watch for Oil!’s celebration of the open road and its delight at goods like “lovely tar,” which sometimes eclipse Sinclair’s critical aims. It’s a procedural problem that Oil! never resolves, but rather that converts into a source of ongoing fictional intrigue. How to more properly hate oil, in other words, becomes both an ideological impasse and a literary plot. The central chapters trace a hulking oil “machinery” that turns crude into a foundation for life as usual. Its gears go from the nation’s homes, offices, and universities to its citadels of governance and far-flung locations of culture.

The work of this machine can be distilled down to a word: refinement. Literally, refinement names crude’s conversion into a suite of fractionated goods, as illustrated when Bunny visits his father’s refinery to see how “black and greasy” crude transforms into innumerable colors and consistencies. The scene, Sinclair’s largest addition to Oil!’s single-volume edition, underscores the novel’s abiding fascination with refinement. From a single cache of hydrocarbons, the narrator explains, “you got gasoline of several qualities, and kerosene and benzene and naphtha.” But refinement begins only in the processing plant. It continues when oil becomes culture—a suite of fractionated feelings, desires, experiences, and attachments rooted in hydrocarbons. The relentless nature of this process extends the technique of continuous distillation, which eliminated time between refinement cycles and revved up petroleum production to new economies of scale.

Of special significance are emergent mass media forms that “manufacture culture wholesale”: nationally distributed newspapers, magazines, films, and radio broadcasts. It’s a biting critique of the petro-culture industry, and above all of the Hollywood studio system. Historically, Hollywood’s development coincided with the California oil trade. Beginning as a minor shooting location in 1910, Hollywood was synonymous with commercial filmmaking by 1930. Production crews came for the region’s ample sunshine and shooting locations and grew thanks to the virulently anti-union conditions fostered by the oil lobby. And vice versa: major motion picture studios were vital to petro-capitalism’s growth. As cinema became big business, narratives and newsreels about class conflict vanished, and representations of oil worker strikes declined in favor of big, splashy melodramas that celebrated the nation’s high-energy existence. In an era when many people went to the movies weekly, this transition represented a cultural sea change.

In the novel, Sinclair shows how film and oil came of age together. Just as a few studios start to dominate film development, publicity, and ticket sales, a few oil oligopolies push the last independents aside. Dad is forced to partner with the aptly named Vernon Roscoe (modeled on Harry F. Sinclair of Sinclair Oil) to create a consolidated chain of oil fields, refineries, and gas stations. The alliance is embodied by Roscoe’s affair with the starlet Annabelle Ames. But the ties that bound oil and cinema find fullest illustration in Bunny’s romance with Viola Tracy. As Bunny’s petro-fortune grows, Vee’s fame mounts through a wave of pro-oil films, the last of which features an autocrat who gives “one of the biggest of Roumanian [sic] oil fields … to an American syndicate.”

There’s a clear parable of power here: modern media emerged as a vital handmaiden to oil’s legitimation. When we go to the movies or pick up a magazine, we unconsciously consume oil—once a resource for film stock—as refined art and culture. Within this parable, however, the novel embeds another allegory of love—for Bunny cannot help but pine after Vee even long after he understands that she’s in cahoots with big oil. She remains a charismatic presence to the end—a object of ruinous devotion he’s learned to disclaim but can’t quite let go of. The attachment shadows his later feelings for Rachel Menzies and Ruth Watkins, and it uncannily connects him with Roscoe. It’s possible to love what hurts us long into adulthood, Sinclair shows, and abhorring oil’s harms doesn’t necessarily issue in new conditions of living.

Thus Oil!’s refinement plot moves beyond the initial commodity chain linking Dad’s oil fields to gas stations, factories, and homes. We cannot understand oil’s taken-for-granted nature, Sinclair suggests, without understanding how it gets further diffused into so much modern art, entertainment, and news. That’s why the novel never defines what oil is, much less depicts it as an inherently evil thing. Far from an essential substance, oil names something like a process: a web of material and cultural relations that unfold in time. There’s solace in this view. By writing a novel that assembles myriad genres bound up in oil’s construction, and by representing those constructions as constructions, Sinclair makes a claim for fiction as a master genre to contain them all. Oil! tells a more “wholesale” story of how culture gets manufactured from oil—and, in the process, it gets us outside the machine.


At times, Oil! is haunted by significant silences and distortions of its own. In conceiving a “great” and “American” petro-novel, Sinclair struggled to represent realities of race and empire that his subject forced him to confront. Explicitly, oil workers appear as “all white Americans,” while Sinclair ignores antiblack hiring practices that produced an exclusionary workforce. Throughout the novel, non-white people remain on the symbolic side of the road and outside the fold of U.S. petro-culture. The same goes for the wider world. While charting the global drama of petro-violence in World War I, when oil became a prime resource for fueling ships, airplanes, land craft, and munitions, the text leaves out a significant slice of the planet. Oil! details Romanian and Russian petro-conflicts while remaining mostly mute on of black and brown struggles in Mexico, Trinidad, and Venezuela. Mosul, in modern-day Iraq, appears as depopulated land. Sinclair’s myth of white oil blunts his attention to petro-modernity’s wellsprings throughout the Global South, and it blinds him to racial struggles at home.

What Oil! rightly intuits, in the end, is that oil capitalism is an unsustainable juggernaut: a system designed to feed on stolen labor, life, and land until everything burns. It’s a system in which new middle-class dreams of the good life go hand in hand with increased lower-class suffering and levels of ruling-class excess. It demands collective change. Sinclair never actively advocates a transition from oil per se. Yet the entire narrative bends in that direction. One way forward involves the path of reform. Having wandered across modernity’s mineral landscapes, Bunny commits to “overthrow capitalism by the ballot,” believing that democracy can be wrested from corporate oil owners and their shills. Only should this mission fail, Bunny says, will “direct action” follow. The pronouncement threads the needle between Sinclair’s socialism and the more revolutionary ideals of the Daily Worker. “Boring from within,” and delaying full-bore insurrection, becomes the novel’s theoretical creed.

In practice, however, everything leads to more radical conclusions. Take the Teapot Dome affair in which Dad gets snared. Between 1921 and 1923, Edward L. Doheny became embroiled in one of the nation’s most sensational scandals before the Watergate affair: he was charged with presenting a $100,000 bribe to President Warren G. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, in exchange for rights to Navy oil lands in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills and Buena Vista in California. Oil! hews closely to these details. Dad/Doheny’s reputation gets tarnished while the worst get off unscathed. For Sinclair, the episode illustrates the petro-era’s accelerating death spiral, as the criminally rich shove their last well-meaning associates aside to take what’s left from the rest. Like Joe Gundha, the roughneck who falls into one of Dad’s oil shafts, the nation seems poised to drown.

Or erupt into flames. While abroad in chapter twenty, Bunny learns of Paradise’s incineration in “the worst oil fire in California history.” The episode recalls the first blowout’s “masses of flame” in a catastrophic mode. “Enormous oceans of flame” pour out of Paradise, flowing “over the earth, turning night into day with the glare, turning day into night with thunder clouds of smoke; rivers of blazing oil rushing down the valleys.” In this scene of roiling oceans and earth, underground crude consumes the world that it’s spawned, converting into climate and weird weather. Sinclair alludes here to the 1926 California Union Oil fires, then the industry’s worst ecocatastrophe. In Oil!, that fire signals an eviction from Paradise and a portent of civilizational doom. Everything calls for more urgent action. Each detail serves as an indictment of Dad’s mantra that “the world has got to have oil.” Having oil might mark the end of all things, and a society conjured by gushing crude may leave a blown-out world in its wake.


Through the heat, Oil! offers hope for our troubled times. The final chapters trace the growth of visionary counter-publics from below. In the Oil Workers’ Union, the Young Peoples’ Socialist League, and the Industrial Workers of the World, we see Oil!’s outcast dreamers, drifters, and rebels coalesce into a more powerful whole. Their attempts at organization show that the workers most oppressed by big oil have an untapped power to block its survival. By virtue of their location at the industry’s front lines—manning oil wells, refineries, and transport nodes—they’re poised for strikes and disruptions that can thwart business as usual, thereby forcing owners and elected officials to accept democratic demands. This insight makes Sinclair into an aesthetic “organizer” like Bunny’s beloved friend, the political organizer Paul Watkins. It’s an undertaking that culminates in Bunny’s proposed labor college—an institution dedicated to teaching the lessons about oil that, in effect, the novel itself has provided for its Daily Worker readers. To be founded near “Mount Hope,” the college evokes a greener world beyond oil capitalism’s maw, a “valley of new dreams” where a revitalized labor movement might emerge after its defeats in the twenties. In it, we’re invited to glimpse a future where energy could be owned and controlled publicly, by all, and we’re asked to foster such a world after reaching the novel’s end.

The future is here. It’s not over the horizon, but imminent in the pulse of your blood and the words you’re using now. Entrenched systems of domination work by appearing permanent, unbending, but that is only oil capitalism’s illusion. Today’s extractive economy has left a few wealthy men at top of the heap, dictating life and law for everyone else while weakening the ground beneath our feet. At a time when intervening in the climate emergency tends to stop at adjusting one’s personal carbon footprint, Oil! teaches us to think bigger about collective change. It invites us to see who profits from our every act of combustion, and who loses. And it reminds us that the system set up to benefit the profiteering class doesn’t follow from the chemistry of the earth. A small subset of humans shaped it not long ago. We can reshape it now. The brief, surreal epoch of fossil-fueled civilization will surely end, but a just and timely transition can’t unfold from above, and private market work-arounds won’t get us free. A truly mass movement is needed, as Sinclair predicted. His Old Left commitments remind us that those who work to live aren’t just victims of oil but political subjects with vested interest in its defeat.

We can’t know how a post-petroleum world will look or feel, but we know that we must build it now. There’s time to avert the worst-case scenarios here and now, in an era that rivals the gilded-age disparities of Sinclair’s world of the twenties. We inhabitants of fossil modernity’s twilight are acting on a planetary scale by what we do—or fail to do—at this moment. Our decisions matter. Our dreams, stories, and actions matter to the world we’re imparting. Will we do better than those that lived through the dawn of the oil age? Can we embrace the possibilities for transformation that an earlier era left unfulfilled? The answers will determine how all future generations tell our story, and shape the outlines of a world for which we have no name.


Adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Oil! by Upton Sinclair, to be published in April by Penguin Classics. 

Michael Tondre is an associate professor at Stony Brook University and the author of The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender.