“Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” – Josephine Hart
Upton Sinclair’s Oil! Is a masterful account of one boy’s journey into manhood. James “Bunny” Ross Jr. faces epic challenges to his identity and aspiring integrity as he parses out the meaning of justice and freedom. His father James Arnold Ross Sr., is a well established oil man, albeit from humble beginnings. The former mule driver came into his wealth through shrewd deals and hard work. Ross Sr. is an emblem of what it means to be of the salt of the earth. He is a man who earned his riches and his reputation, and who “went about with a supply of silver dollars and half dollars jingling in his pocket, so that all with whom he had dealings might share that spiritual warmth. ‘Poor devils,’ he would say, ‘they don’t get much.’ He knew, because he had been one of them” (12). This desire to connect and stay rooted to the workers is a value which Bunny internalizes as he joins his father in the oil fields, always enthusiastic to get his hands dirty and “pitch in and help the men at anything there was to do” (302).
The affinity for the honest working class inspires reverence in Bunny, much more so than do the socialites of his own strata. By the sweat of his brow, Ross Sr. determines that Bunny should not toil as he did, but rather, enjoy the rich fruit. Yet, as he matures, Bunny understands “now he was of age, and supposed to be dignified. The company was of age too, a huge machine in which every cog had its place, and must not be interfered with…It was a world in which some people worked all the time, and others played all the time. To work all the time was a bore, and no one would do it unless he had to; but to play all the time was equally a bore, and the people who did it never had anything to talk about that Bunny wanted to listen to” (302). Indeed, the young renegade, cognizant of the dissonance, begins a fight for social justice. Relying on his deep boyhood bond with Paul Watkins – who becomes a hero in Bunny’s eyes, and his budding, yet tentative relationship with Rachel Menzies – a socialist Jewess from the university, Bunny slowly uncovers that “the whole world was one elaborate system, opposed to justice and kindness, and set to making cruelty and pain. And he and his father were part of the system, and must help maintain it in spite of themselves!” (180). In this way, Bunny assumes the burden, carrying the world on his shoulders and using his father’s money to post bail for Paul and the workers who strike for fair wages, decent contracts, and humane conditions.
Although Ross Sr., having been a laborer himself, agrees with the sentiments and spirit of the workers, he finds himself trapped. With his growing success, he becomes entrenched in the cycle of the corporate system. It is his belief that “there [is] no safety for you unless you [stand] with the group that [has] power. If you [step] out of the reservation, the wolves would tear you to pieces in short order” (176). Unfortunately, the people with the power are those with the money, who abandon their scruples in order to maintain the status quo.
As Vernon Roscoe, Ross Sr.’s business partner explains, “money ain’t power till it’s used, and the reason I can buy power is because men know I can use it” (384). Frustratingly, unlike the laborers who use their scant wage increases to improve their quality of life through education and family, Verne Roscoe (and the other Oil Men), buy politicians and police, estate agents and judges all in an effort to make millions by pulling more oil out of the ground, while squeezing the working men until they despair.
This, however, is not the first time Bunny faces the “frailty of human nature [which] was subjected to a strain greater than it was made for…[until it was] fanned to a white heat that melted every principle and every law” (33). Bunny encounters this exact dogma every time his father does business for, “Dad would lie, whenever he considered it necessary; he would argue that the other person could not use the truth, or had no right to it in the particular circumstances. And yet, this was also plain, Dad didn’t want Bunny to follow that same code” (92). It is this profound contradiction that stirs Bunny’s heart, that torments him throughout the novel as he questions, “[Does] any one man have the right to replace all the rest of humanity?” (398).
This philosophical approach can be applied to today’s rapidly changing world. As COVID-19 spreads, as businesses close, as people lose hope, we must ask, “Does one paradigm have the right to replace all the rest?” Disregard for the environment, the mistreatment of animals, animosity fueled by intersectionality doctrines, unbridled growth for no reason other than growth…to what end? Where is the dignity in leadership if you deny rights to honest workers? Where is the pride of accomplishment if it is wrought through bailouts not afforded to individual citizens? Society would do well to consider the repercussions of our future actions, for once we leave quarantine, we have an opportunity to begin anew.
Sinclair, Upton. Oil! Penguin Books, 1926.