Upton Sinclair’s Oil and John Sayles’s Yellow Earth

It took me a while to figure it out, but now that I’ve (finally) finished reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, my understanding of John Sayles’s novel Yellow Earth is much better. 

For folks who lack the Wikipedias, Oil! was published in 1926-1927 and today is perhaps more famous for controversy surrounding a rather chaste sex scene which got the book banned in some cities than its plot or its message. The book loosely follows the life of Bunny Arnold who is the son of an increasingly wealthy oilman in California. It is set against the backdrop of the early-20th century oil boom in Southern California and the  corruption, exploitation, radicalism, and glamour of early 20th century America.  Over the course of the book Bunny grows up and become more and more “woke” through his interaction with workers in the California oil fields, his university education, and his friendship with Paul Watkins, a labor organizer and eventual communist. Despite Bunny’s wealth, he becomes a radical social justice warrior who by the end of the book dedicates his life and what’s left of his father’s fortune to the founding of a socialist labor college.  

The charm of the book largely comes from the characters that conform to the rigid stereotypes. The corrupt businessmen are rabidly corrupt; the beautiful actresses are extraordinarily beautiful; the pious and idealistic communists, socialists, and labor union organizers are delightfully rigorous. Even when Sinclair draws on real characters he manages to preserve a sense of satire which is nowhere more visible as in his thinly veiled depiction of “Sister Amee” in the character of hypocritical evangelist Eli Watkins. A gently fictionalized reference to the Teapot Dome scandal offers another historical anchor for the novel.

Sinclair’s satirical novel leans upon these stereotypes as a way to critique both capitalists and radicals alike. Yellow Earth is its sequel. Like Oil!Yellow Earth similarly relies on a cast of stereotypical characters whose interactions are anchored loosing in a muder-for-hire scandal surrounding Tex Hall, one time chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil patch who encouraged oil development on reservation lands. In fact, on my first read, I was not a little offended by Sayles’s cartoonish depictions of Native Americans, Bakken oil workers, opportunistic grifters and the like.

A series of oblique references to Sinclair’s Oil! however makes Sayles intent clear. Bunny Skiles, for example, is the scheming con-man Brent Skiles’s wife. At the end of the novel she boards a train headed for Southern California to meet with a lawyer not only to arrange for a divorce from the steroid-raging Skiles, but also to secure her share of his is assets. Undoubtedly this lawyer is the same individual who represented the Arnold family after the death of the patriarch at the end of Oil! Other references abound. Brent Skiles, for example, is clearly a reference to the shadowy Ben Skutt who in Oil! who helped the oil companies break strikes by infiltrating unions, inciting violence, and, at one point, pretending to be a communist in order to have the unions declared illegal. Similarly the real estate agent J.C. Hardacre in Oil! Reappears as the petroleum geologist Randy Hardacre in Yellow Earth. In one of the more painful efforts to connect the two books, the exotic dancer with a good heart Jewelle alludes to the Jewish radical Rachel Menzies who Bunny marries toward the end of Oil! The characters do not map neatly onto one another, of course, but enough cross references exist to make clear that two books are in dialogue with one another.

Sayles replaces the loping, leisurely pace of Oil! with the frantic, compressed time of the Bakken oil boom. Yellow Earth takes place over just one year marked the pregnancy of Fawn over her senior year in high school. Sayles swaps out the painfully earnest radicalism of Paul Watkins for the Ayn Rand and steroid-fueled hyper capitalism of Brent Skiles. Some of the power of Yellow Earth comes not through the story and characters but as a commentary on how far the Bakken oil boom and our 21st century attitudes toward capital, profits, wealth, extractive industries, and speed have come from from the days of Sinclair’s Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s novel, where the lines between the radicals and the oil industry are drawn in blood and violence, Sayles blurs morality throughout Yellow Earth.  There are characters who appear to be good and characters who are undoubtedly evil, but they don’t align. There is no confrontation here and, as a result, no real resolution. As oil prices decline at the end of the boom, the profiteers get increasingly desperate and the characters who have come to make their money slowly disperse in search of the next opportunity.

It may be that by foregrounding this indeterminacy, driven as much by the complexities of the global oil market as the doings of any individual or the corruption of their business, Sayles’s work responds most clearly to Sinclair’s novel. Sinclair located his characters at the center of the oil industry and largely in control of their own fates. For Sayles, the characters in his novel wrestle as much with the oil itself and the vagaries of a global market as they did one another. There is a constant sense of the Bakken as periphery and no matter how much Ayn Rand Brent Skiles read and despite Harleigh Killdeer’s claims of “sovereignty by the barrel” the oil itself controlled the outcome of events. 

Leia Nilsson is a wildlife biologist in Yellow Earth, who has come to study a prairie dog coterie. She gives the critters classical names: Odysseus, Ajax, Niobe, Hera. A drilling platform ultimately displaces this little community of prairie dogs and Leia contracts Jett to suck the rodents from their burrows so she can relocate them across the road. Despite this displacement, the prairie dogs continue to play out their daily lives, struggle with one another for dominance, and mate. Even the most superficial reader will catch that the story of the prairie dogs is the story of Yellow Earth. The prairie dogs might, at best, be the Watkins family in Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s Watkins family, who find their own way and ultimately negotiate their own fate against the backdrop of capitalism, oil, and world events, Sayles’s prairie dogs and characters are simply actors on a stage for whom choice only appears to matter. 

Covering The Beast and the LA Review of Books

I dedicated most of this weekend to production stuff for the next two books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: The Beast and Protesting on Bended Knee: Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century AmericaWhile my work on Protesting involved adjusting margins and adding (and then revising) about 300 hyperlinks, my work on The Beast nudged us from a bunch of disassociated files to something that looks to all the world like a book!

For those of you who don’t know what The Beast is about, it’s a book length comic from Ad Astra Comix that tells the story of a couple who work to “make a living on a dying planet” against the backdrop of the Ft. McMurray tar sands, the various industries that present the oil industry to the general public, and the looming threat of “The Beast,” the massive wildfire that devastated the region on 2016. Without spoiling the story, the comic traces the lives of two media professionals as they intersect with each other and with the oil industry. Their stories – and the backdrop of overpriced hotels, bars, precarity, and the oil industry – will resonate with readers familiar with work in the Bakken or extractive industries around the world. The connection with oil, however, makes it part of The Digital Press’s Bakken Bookshelf.

Get the comic today from Ad Astra Comix

Then, download the Expanded Digital Edition next month from The Digital Press

Working on this book has been a tremendous privilege not only because of its content, but also because of the artists and writers who have helped make the Expanded Digital Version possible. Hugh Goldring, from Ad Astra has been exceptionally open to our collaboration. The designer and illustrator of The Beast, Nicole Burton, produced an tastefully updated cover for the Expanded Digital Version (presented below in draft).  

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And, finally, Patrick McCurdy has worked closely with me to bring together an exceptional group of contributions for the expanded edition. These not only locate The Beast in current debates in petroculture, media studies, and the history of serious comics, but also make clear that The Beast is meant to start a wider conversation about the impact of oil on society more broadly.

In fact, it’s beyond exciting to see that this conversation has already begun with this long interview by Daniel Worden in the Los Angeles Review of Books with Nicole, Hugh, and Patrick. Check out the interview, buy a copy of The Beast, and stay tuned for the Expanded Digital Edition later this month!

Final Draft: The Bakken Gaze

Last week, I posted a serialized (actually in process) version of my paper, “The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of an Industrial Landscape,” for the Northern Great Plains History Conference. On Friday, I tightened it up some and cut some words (although it’s probably still too long). 

The paper explains my interest in using tourism as lens to understand the Bakken oil patch and is written to support the release of a book that Bret Weber and I co-authored titled, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape and published by NDSU Press this month (!). You can preorder the book now.

Or, better still, you can read, download, or comment on the paper via the Hypothes.is plug in here. Or you can join us at the Northern Great Plains History conference on Thursday from 2-4 at the Ramada Inn in beautiful Grand Forks, North Dakota!

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The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape (Part 3)

Here’s the final installment of my paper for the Northern Great Plains History Conference next week here in Grand Forks. 

As I wrote about on Monday, I had hoped to make this paper paper more accessible and more breezy and personable, but by about word 1500, it had turned into the typical academic trudge. (I did manage to avoid using the word Foucauldian until 1600 words in!). Here are links to part 1 and part 2

That being said, I think it is probably the best thing I’ve managed to articulate on book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (2017). You can preorder the book now.  

I’ll post a more complete and ideally more polished version of the paper in a few days!

“The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape” (part 3)

To return to the Bakken. It is simple – and superficial – enough to note that the Bakken and tourism relied on the same fossil fuel revolution that powered westward expansion in the United States, the growth of the middle class (and a persistent cycle of capital deepening) and the rise of tourism as mode to recognize the totalizing discourse of industrial modernity. More importantly, I think, is that tourism embodies this tension between the convenient familiarity of the modern world and the quest for authenticity. The rutted routes of the oil patch are literally inscribed with the movements central to a historic Bakken taskscape that has all but eliminated the possibility of being local. The stunning night vistas offered by flaring natural gas from a hotel parking lot in Watford City are in some ways indistinguishable from the well-known satellite photo that shows the Bakken aglow with light from flares and electrical lights. 

The term “the Bakken” further demonstrates how modernity has coopted the very authenticity that its absence was though to produce. While I have used the Bakken as shorthand for a part of the 200,000 sq. mile oil patch in western North Dakota, eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan, the name derives from the North Dakota farmer Henry Bakken and, in fact, refers to a relatively thin layer of oil bearing rock some 3 miles below the surface of the ground. As another well-known image demonstrated, Bakken wells if extended above ground would produce a skyline that would put Manhattan to shame. Last year’s controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline further reveals how even the physically occluded Bakken taskscape stands prominent in our modern awareness of that place, perhaps, leaving only the Native American landscapes as a window into an authentic North Dakota past. 

In a sense, then, a tourist guide is not some kind of cypher that reveals hidden meaning to the educated visitor to the Bakken, but an effort to understand the complexities of the modern world. In this way, I think that the tourist guide offers “an archaeology” in a Foucauldian sense of describing the physical discourse of petroculture in the Bakken taskscape. The man camps, convenience stores, small-town mainstreets, rail yards, tank farms, drill and workover rigs, roadside memorials, boot cleaners, pallets fences, frank tanks, bobbing sucker rod pumps, and salt water wells are not foreign to our modern world, but part of its fabric. Oil production and the habits formed by its consumption is the modern world, and ss my editor noted when our book was still in draft, there are no locals in the modern world, only tourists.