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Title: Oil!  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Upton Sinclair, There Will Be Blood, Edward L. Doheny, Books about petroleum, Teapot Dome scandal
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


This article is about the Upton Sinclair novel. For the substance, see oil.
First edition
Author Upton Sinclair
Country United States
Language English
Genre Political Novel
Publisher Albert & Charles Boni
Publication date
Media type Hardback (print)
Pages 528
OCLC 463840244

Oil! is a novel by Upton Sinclair published in 1927 told as a third person narrative, with only the opening pages written in the second person. The book was written in the context of the Harding administration's Teapot Dome Scandal and takes place in Southern California. It is a social and political satire skewering the human foibles of all its characters.

The main character is James Arnold Ross Jr., nicknamed Bunny, son of an oil tycoon. Bunny's sympathetic feelings toward oilfield workers and socialists provoke arguments with his father throughout the story.

The novel served as a loose inspiration for the 2007 film There Will Be Blood.


  • Characters 1
  • Plot 2
  • Basis 3
  • Fig-leaf edition 4
  • Adaptations 5
  • References 6


  • James Arnold Ross (aka Dad): is a self-made oil millionaire.
  • James Arnold "Bunny" Ross, Jr.: the protagonist, is the only son of a self-made oil millionaire.
  • Paul Watkins: a farmer's son who runs away from home, is tutored by a free thinker, and becomes an advocate for the rights of laborers. After spending time in Siberia after World War I, he sympathizes with Bolshevism and becomes a Communist.
  • Vernon Roscoe: Dad's business partner, and arguably the novel's antagonist. He is a greedy business man who helps bribe the government to acquire the land in Teapot Dome to drill oil. He also works to crush the unions that oppose him by bribing the authorities to throw its members into jail.
  • Alberta "Bertie" Ross: Bunny's older sister. An aspiring socialite.
  • Aunt Emma: Bunny's aunt, widow of J. Arnold Ross' brother. She lives with the family.
  • Ruth Watkins: Paul's younger sister, who is Bunny's age.
  • Eli Watkins: Paul's brother, who becomes an evangelical preacher.


The book is divided into twenty-one chapters with titles, which are further subdivided into numbered sections.

  • "The Ride" – Bunny and Dad are introduced to the reader as they drive by car through southern California to a meeting with the owners of some oil property.
  • "The Lease" – Dad meets with the owners of the residential lots to discuss an oil lease; the owners are hopelessly deadlocked about how the properties and proceeds should be divided; the character of Paul Watkins is introduced.
  • "The Drilling" – Details of the oil drilling business and of the Ross family.
  • "The Ranch" – Dad and Bunny go quail hunting on the Paradise goat ranch, property of the Watkins family, and find oil.
  • "The Revelation" – At Bunny's urging, Dad tries to prevent Old Man Watkins from beating his oldest daughter Ruth; Dad tries to convince them that he has received the "third revelation", which prohibits parents from beating their children (among other things), but the plan backfires when Eli Watkins, Paul's younger brother, interjects himself into the discussion and claims that HE has received the revelation.
  • "The Wild-Cat" – Drilling begins at the Paradise oil field; Bunny begins to realize his father's business methods are not entirely ethical; an oil worker is killed in an accident, and the oil well explodes and burns.
  • "The Strike" – The oil workers go on strike, and Bunny is torn between loyalty to Dad and his friendship to Paul and Ruth Watkins.
  • "The War" – Bunny begins a high-school love affair with Eunice Hoyt, daughter of a wealthy family; WWI breaks out, Paul is drafted, and the Ross and Watkins families are divided.
  • "The Victory" – WWI is over, but Paul remains in Siberia with the Allied intervention forces opposing the Soviets; Bunny decides to go to college after high school.
  • "The University" – Bunny enrolls in Southern Pacific University, where his ideas of social justice evolve further as he meets free-thinking professors such as Dan Irving.
  • "The Rebel" – Bunny becomes increasingly involved with various socialist and radical students, including Rachel Menzies, against the background of the Red Scare. Also Paul comes home and tells of his travels.
  • "The Siren" – An aging socialite attempts to seduce Bunny aboard her yacht.
  • "The Monastery" – Bunny accompanies Dad to the Monastery, the seaside mansion of his business associate Vernon Roscoe.
  • "The Star" – Bunny begins an affair with Viola ("Vee") Tracy, a silent film star; she loves him deeply, but does not share his political views.
  • "The Vacation" – Bunny goes back east with Vee and Dad, ostensibly to take care of some business matters, but in reality so that Roscoe can have a free hand to crush the oil workers' movement.
  • "The Killing" – Dad makes a killing by joining with the big oil companies, but loses his independence; Bertie, Bunny's spoiled socialite sister, has an abortion.
  • "The Exposure" – The bribery involved in the naval oil reserve transactions during the Harding administration becomes exposed by radical journalists, including Dan Irving; Bunny broaches his idea of going away and earning his own way in the world to Dad, who is confused and hurt, but not unsupportive.
  • "The Flight" – Roscoe and Dad are forced to flee to Canada and then to Europe (accompanied by Bunny), to avoid being subpoenaed by Congress in connection with the naval oil reserve scandal.
  • "The Penalty" – Dad meets and marries Mrs. Olivier, a widower and Spiritualist, but he soon passes away from pneumonia.
  • "The Dedication" – Bunny decides to dedicate his life and his inheritance to social justice; Roscoe moves to get control of the bulk of Dad's estate.
  • "The Honeymoon" – Bunny and Bertie are swindled out of most of their inheritance by Roscoe and Dad's widow; Bunny marries Rachel Menzies and they dedicate themselves to establishing a socialist institution of learning; Eli Watkins, by now a successful (and completely hypocritical) evangelist, adds insult to injury by falsely claiming that his communist brother Paul underwent a deathbed conversion to Christianity; the final, sad end of Paul and Ruth Watkins.


The book is loosely based on the life of Edward L. Doheny (and the company he co-founded, Pan American Petroleum & Transport Company, the California assets of which became Pan American Western Petroleum Company), and also the strategic alliance Union-Independent Producers Agency, a consortium created in 1910 to bring oil via pipeline from Kern County to the Pacific Coast facilities of Union Oil Company at Port Harford (now called Port San Luis just west of Avila Beach).

Numerous parallels exist between the opening setting of the novel, Beach City, and the city of Huntington Beach. Huntington Beach was originally called "Pacific City", for which Beach City is a play off of both names. The novel states that the area had street names like "Telegraph" and "Beach City Blvd". Telegraph Road would be the last street crossed before getting off the highway onto Beach Blvd in the town of Buena Park to travel south to Huntington Beach. James Arnold Ross and Bunny stay in a hotel at the intersection of Beach City Blvd and Coast Drive, similar to Beach Blvd and what would later develop into Pacific Coast Highway, where a hotel and water resort once resided in the early 1900s. In the novel, Beach City is covered in beet and cabbage fields. Huntington Beach historically was covered in beet and celery fields. In the novel, the primary oil field found is on "Prospect Hill". The first confirmed oil wells in Huntington Beach were located on a series of bluffs.

The character of Eli Watkins is loosely based on the famous evangelist Aimee McPherson.[1]

Fig-leaf edition

Upton Sinclair selling the "Fig Leaf Edition" of Oil! in Boston

Oil! was banned in Boston[2] for its motel sex scene. Sinclair's publisher printed 150 copies of a "fig-leaf edition" with the offending nine pages blacked out. Sinclair protested the banning and hoped to bring an obscenity case to trial. He did not do so, but the controversy helped make the book a bestseller.[3]


The 2007 feature film There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is inspired by the novel, but the story is too different to be considered an adaptation. Unlike the novel, There Will Be Blood focused on the father, with his son being a supporting character. Paul Thomas Anderson said that he only incorporated the first 150 pages of the book into his film, so the rest of the film and novel are nearly entirely different.

Anderson based his composite lead character Daniel Plainview on Edward L. Doheny and several men. He was inspired by the oil museums in Kern County, California and the libraries and museums in the area around Silver City, New Mexico, as well as the period photography, which played a large part in shaping his screenplay and the film.[4][5][6]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Boston Globe: Jack Curtis, "Blood from oil," February 17, 2008, accessed September 23, 2010
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
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