Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Looking Back At History

Isn't hindsight 20/20?

If all you know about Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! is the film There Will Be Blood, then you've missed out on a tremendous lesson in hindsight.

As an author, he was a preacher, to be sure. Sinclair's powerful story of the Chicago packinghouses brought in a flurry of regulations to improve the quality and safety of America's foods. It is a bit of a slog to get through The Jungle because of the sermons, but there's a good story underneath it all.

The same can be said of Oil!. The conflict between a father and son is brilliant, but it's Sinclair's belief in socialism that makes for a good laugh.

When he wrote his novel, of course, no one knew what would happen under a regime that promoted the collective and the workers owning the means of production. All these years later, we can look back to recent events and see how the system collapsed because it was nothing more than a dream with no basis in reality.

Writing from the time when the Bolshevik revolution was new, Mr. Sinclair could put all sorts of grand schemes into the mouths of his characters. By using the backdrop of the Teapot Dome Scandal, he had plenty of ammunition with which to attack capitalism. The overblown patriotism and over-reaching government propaganda machine of the First World War also found a place in his support of the Soviet Union.

We watched the Berlin Wall fall down, and the Soviet Union with it. The form of government that sounded so perfect in 1918 proved to be a nightmare because some people made themselves more equal than others.

In its own way, Upton Sinclair's novel is a slice of Americana, providing insight into the thinking of the time. History books will list names and dates, battles and events, but it takes an author of fiction to express the emotion of an era.

Funny to read, in the light shed by time. Odd to notice that the same arguments are being made in the present time, as if no one has read the history and are blindly repeating it.

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