Oil! by Upton Sinclair

Behind every glitzy Oscars ceremony, there are always books. Putting aside the red carpet, the fancy frocks and the long-winded speeches, Hollywood draws much of its inspiration from literature and this year’s event was no different. It’s a fact that often seems forgotten.

The most interesting book behind this year’s Oscars was Oil! by Upton Sinclair. There Will Be Blood, a runner-up in the best film category, is loosely based on this initially self-published book from 1927 by one of America’s pioneering socialists and champion of the downtrodden working classes.

First Edition of Oil! in Russian by Sinclair Upton

Oil! tells the story of ‘Bunny’ Arnold Ross Jr, the son of an oil magnate who clashes with his father over the exploitation of employees in the California oilfields. Oil! is quite different to the movie that stars Daniel Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar for best actor. The highly political book was even published in Russian at the height of the communist era.

Very few early editions of Oil! exist. The book, which is overtly political, was banned in Boston because of a sex scene in a roadside motel considered too racy for Massachusetts in the 1920s.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Sinclair’s publisher printed 150 copies of a ‘Fig Leaf Edition’ where a black leaf silhouette covered the offending text. Sinclair protested against the ban on Boston Common wearing a fig leaf sandwich board, and hoped to fight the ban in an obscenity trial. In the end, all the publicity from Boston ban and his public protests shot the book to the top of the bestseller lists and Sinclair was smiling all the way to the bank.

However, Oil! is not the bestselling Upton Sinclair book on AbeBooks – his 1906 novel, The Jungle, remains hugely popular. Even with the massive exposure that comes with a Daniel Day-Lewis movie, Oil! has been outsold 20 to one by The Jungle on AbeBooks during 2008.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

The Jungle revealed the terrible conditions in the American meatpacking industry. It is a book about poverty and the lack of help available to America’s poverty-stricken. The Jungle had a massive effect on its readers and the political scene at the time. Published in newspaper serial form at first, the novel was rejected by five publishers before Doubleday saw the book’s potential. It has never been out-of-print – first editions are highly collectible and don’t come cheap.

Sinclair, who founded a socialist colony that was eventually burnt down by arsonists, wrote more than 90 books. In 1962, he published The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair and several biographies have been released including Upton Sinclair: American Rebel by Leon Harris, Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century by Kevin Mattson, and This is Upton Sinclair by James Lambert Harte.

Elsewhere, No Country for Old Men picked up the best film award. The movie is based on a book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. Although this book was only published in 2005, the deluxe edition is highly collectible with current prices stretching up to $7,500.