How was Sinclair Lewis so forgotten

Summary of Oil!

Southern California between money rush and depression

The so-called Roaring Twenties were a time of economic boom and acceleration in all areas of life in the USA. Mechanization and electrification penetrated into small businesses and private households. The market for consumer goods such as refrigerators, radios and telephones grew steadily, fueled by rising wages and ubiquitous advertising. The auto industry in particular experienced a boom: while in other places people still moved forward in carriages, there were already multi-lane carriageways in Los Angeles. Driving was part of the norm here and soon developed into a symbol of the American awakening.

Due to industrialization and the triumph of the automobile, the demand for oil increased rapidly. In the 1920s, Southern California, especially the Los Angeles area, briefly became one of the world's largest centers of oil production. Oil rigs were springing up everywhere, even front yards and backyards were being drilled for oil, and the oil industry became the main economic sector of the California economy. The oil boom also encouraged speculation in real estate and kept attracting new immigrants. Land was bought at low prices in the hopes of getting rich overnight from oil discoveries.

Entrepreneurs like John D. Rockefeller, Jean PaulGetty or Edward L. Doheny earned millions through the oil business and established family dynasties. At the same time, they influenced local and national politics. Doheny, founder of the Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company, was involved in a corruption scandal, the so-called Teapot Dome scandal, from 1920 to 1923, which made waves in the United States and which improved the reputation of the government under the presidency Warren G. Harding badly damaged. A senior government official had secretly given drilling rights to private companies, including Doheny's, at low prices. He was charged with bribery and ended up in jail.

As a by-product of the rapid economic growth and immigration in Los Angeles, poverty and crime have also increased. Many of the newcomers, who came from rural areas and had more traditional values, found themselves disappointed in their dream of big money, which prepared the ground for religious zealots. The best known among these "new evangelists" was Aimee Semple McPherson. Thousands of people flocked to the huge International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which she founded, for services enriched with show elements. Because of her greed for profit and also because of racist remarks, the salvation preacher had a dubious reputation.


Since the success of his novel The jungle, who exposed the disastrous sanitary and working conditions in Chicago slaughterhouses and led to the passage of the first national law on food purity in the United States, Sinclair believed that books could change the world. After seeing his second wife Mary Craig Kimbrough After moving to California, Sinclair felt the consequences of the oil boom there in the 1920s. His wealthy wife owned property in Long Beach near their home in Signal Hill, where huge oil reserves were discovered in 1921. Sinclair accompanied them to local meetings where landowners discussed drilling rights. He watched how once peaceful neighbors, who now hoped for wealth, became greedy egoists and fought down to the last detail. This gave him the idea to study the oil industry intensively and to write a novel about it, which he began in 1925 and completed in the summer of 1926. The first chapters appeared from June to September 1925 as a serialized novel in Daily worker, a newspaper published by the US Communist Party. Was in book form Oil! first published in New York in 1927.

Impact history

Oil!, described by Sinclair himself as his best book, hit the nerve of the 1920s and was on the bestseller lists for several weeks in 1927. Because of allegedly obscene passages, the novel was banned in Boston that same year, whereupon Sinclair personally sold a so-called "fig leaf edition" with nine blackened pages on the street. Appeared in Germany Oil! 1927 - at that time under the title petroleum and with collages by John Heartfield on the dust jacket. Here, too, the book sold well until it fell victim to the book burning in 1933. Oil! served Paul Thomas Anderson as a template for his eight Academy Award-winning film There Will Be Blood from 2007, in which Daniel Day-Lewis played the main role. The director, however, deliberately ignored the socially critical parts of the novel.