There Will Be Grades: Oilman’s Son Goes to College

I’ve been reading Oil! by Upton Sinclair, the book upon which the movie There Will Be Blood is based. So far, it’s not much like the film. It’s told in a deceptively folksy manner by a narrator who sometimes speaks directly to the reader. The main character is not John Ross, the father (in the book he’s called “Dad” and in the movie he was Daniel Day Lewis), but Bunny, his son (who is John Ross, Jr.). “Dad” is an industrious oil man who ensures his success with some casual swindling and genteel bribery, while looking out for his men and his son. Unlike in The Jungle, there’s nothing horrific here yet, although one man falls in an oil well and can’t be pulled out in one piece. The focus isn’t on the horrors of the oil field but the subtler machinations of accumulating wealth.

I’m only halfway through so I’m guessing things are going to get ugly, but I’ve just begun Chapter 10, “The University,” and I was struck by the opening paragraphs. They seem to encapsulate very efficiently the relationship among money, power, ideology, education, and ambition that can often be seen in American higher education culture. Sinclair’s voice here is very sly and indirect, but the implications are unmistakable; he describes a prominent university built on questionable foundations and seems to delight in telling us how Ross enters the picture. Here is the description of the  university and its founding around the time of World War I:

Southern Pacific University had been launched by a California land baron as a Methodist Sunday school; its professors were all required to be Methodists, and it features scores of religious courses. It had grown enormous upon the money of an oil king who had bribed half a dozen successive governments in Mexico and the United States, and being therefore in doubt as to the safety of his soul gave large sums to professional soul-savers. Apparently uncertain which group had the right “dope,” he gave equally to both Catholics and Protestants, and they used the money to denounce and undermine each other.

When Ross visits campus to see Bunny, he also meets the university’s president:

Still more reassuring was his meeting with President Alonzo T. Cowper, D.D., Ph.D., LL.D. For Doctor Cowper was in the business of interviewing dads; he had been selected by his millionaire trustees because of his skill in interviewing trustees. Dr. Cowper knew how a scholar could be at the same time dignified and deferential. Our Dad, being thoroughly money-conscious, read the doctor’s mind as completely as if he had been inside it: if this founder of Ross Consolidated is pleased with the education his son receives, he may someday donate a building for teaching oil chemistry, or at least endow a chair of research in oil geology. And that seemed to Dad exactly the proper attitude for a clergyman-educator to take; everybody in the world was in the business of getting money, and this was a very high-toned way.

The transformation of ill-gotten wealth to “high-toned” educational pursuits seems perfectly sensible to Dad and Bunny, the idea being that the ends justify the means:

Both Dad and Bunny took the university with the seriousness it expected. Neither of them doubted that money which had been gained by subsidizing political parties, and bribing legislators and executive officials and judges and juries—that such money could be turned at once into the highest type of culture, wholesale, by executive order.

Some time into his first year at SPU, however, Bunny realizes that his English course

was cruelly dull, and that the young man who taught it was bored to tears by what he was doing; that the ‘Spanish’ had a French accent, and that the professor was secretly patronizing bootleggers to console himself for having to live in what he considered a land of barbarians; that the ‘Sociology’ was an elaborate structure of classification, wholly artificial, devised by learned gentlemen in search of something to be learned about; and that the Modern History was taught from text-books which had undergone the scrutiny of thousands of sharp eyes, in order to spare the sensibilities of Mr. Pete O’Reilly [a rival oil baron], and avoid giving any student the slightest hint concerning the forces which control the modern world.

Sinclair presents university education as a veneer as well as a money-laundering scheme. But Bunny is also exposed to a professor who insists that students “think for themselves” and talks to Bunny in secret about the various aspects of the Bolshevik Revolution (on peril of losing his job). Bunny, already a character who tries to see beyond the surface, is highly influenced by these conversations, which disturbs Dad and also results in a file being kept on him by mysterious agents and informers.

In the book, nothing is pure, nothing untainted by corruption of some kind. What interesting about Dad is that he wants and respects money but doesn’t seem interested in it as an end; it’s great to have but his pleasure seems to be the wheeling and dealing as well as the hard work that are needed to get it. We’ll see what happens as Bunny makes his way through college and brings his moral compass (already compromised) to bear on his father’s life and business.