Long before my choice for Best Picture - There Will Be Blood - was officially released, I was chock full of anticipation because I had used its source material - Upton Sinclair's Oil! - for my dissertation. Of course, in the book, there is little of the dark misanthropy that makes me love the adaptation, and in the film, there is little of the union struggle that provides the core of the book. While only the skeleton of Oil! is used to inspire There Will Be Blood, it's nice to see some attention paid to one of Sinclair's alternative religion texts. In honor of the tonight's Oscars, I am dusting off the ol' diss and posting the section that looks at how the character of Eli was based on my favorite evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson.
Upton Sinclair also uses Aimee Semple McPherson’s life history in creating the character of Eli Watkins in his 1927 novel Oil!, but unlike [Myron] Brinig [in The Flutter of an Eyelid], Sinclair doesn’t lampoon the evangelist. Eli Watkins is far from the most righteous of religious figures, but he does possess a humanity not found in Angela Flower. Of course, Sinclair makes the interesting authorial choice of transforming Sister Aimee into Brother Eli. This gender switch does not add anything to the narrative, except perhaps to distance Sinclair’s evangelist from McPherson, an unnecessary mask since it is apparent from biographical details that Watkins is a male version of Sister Aimee. Judging by the other female characters in the novel, who are either spoiled debutantes or nurturing socialists, it is quite possible that Sinclair was not up to the task of addressing the complexity of a character like McPherson. Making her a man granted a simplicity not found in the genuine article.
In his foreword to the 1997 edition of Oil!, Jules Tygiel relates that H.L. Mencken thought Sinclair suffered from a “credulity complex,” due to the number of causes, belief systems, and speculations in which Sinclair was interested throughout his lifetime. Tygiel claims Mencken said that “Sinclair had believed, at one time or another, in more things than any other man in the world” (vii). Oil! is not the only book by Sinclair that deals with religion in southern California. In his 1922 novel They Call Me Carpenter, Jesus pays a visit to Los Angeles. Oil! chronicles the business enterprise of J. Arnold Ross and the increasing Bolshevik sympathies aroused in his son, Bunny, as a result of the mining strikes he witnesses and his admiration for the strike leader, Paul Watkins. Bunny and his father meet the Watkins family when they buy the family’s land in the hopes of oil prospects. Bunny had previously made the acquaintance of Paul, the eldest son, who is on the run from his family in the beginning of the novel, trying to escape their religious influences. Bunny is fascinated by Paul’s description of his father’s fervor in the church of Aimee Semple McPherson.
“What does he believe?”When the Watkins patriarch tries to convert “Dad” (as J. Arnold Ross is called throughout the novel), Bunny’s father invents a religion of their own (The Church of the True Word) to avoid Watkins’s preaching. At first, Dad won’t explain it on doctrinal grounds, but he finds it useful later when he can employ it to convince Watkins to stop beating his family. When the Watkins land has been bought (and christened “Paradise”), Dad sets the terms of payment to ensure the family is protected from the Foursquare Gospel. Dad once again uses The Church of the True Word to manipulate the Watkinses into not giving money to missionaries.
“The Old Time Religion. It’s called the Four Square Gospel. It’s the Apostolic Church. They jump.”
“The Holy Spirit comes down to you, see, and makes you jump. Sometimes it makes you roll, and sometimes you talk in tongues.”
“What is that?”
“Why, you make noises, fast, like you was talkin’ in some foreign language; and maybe it is – Pap says it’s the language of the arch-angels, but I don’t know. I can’t understand it, and I hate it” (44).
In Paul’s absence, his brother Eli has been exploring his healing powers among his neighbors. Like Aimee Semple McPherson, Eli became known locally for his curative abilities before turning to evangelism. When southern California is hit by an earthquake, Eli blames the Holy Spirit “growing weary of fornications and drunkenness and lying in the world” (92). Bunny’s father also tries to use his imaginary religion to reconcile Paul with his family by claiming he has been chosen by The Church of the True Word. At this suggestion, Eli revolts:
...but here was Eli, transformed into a prophet of the Lord, and blazing after a fashion not unknown to prophets, with a white flame of jealousy!Almost immediately, Eli begins preaching at the “holy jumpers” church in Paradise, using the dogma of the fictional Church of the True Word. Eli calls his ministry the Third Revelation, and when the money starts to pour in, his family doesn’t see any of it. Sinclair uses Eli’s evangelism to comment on the vulnerability of the masses in the face of spiritual promises:
'I am him who the Holy Spirit has blessed! I am him who the Lord hath chosen to show the signs! Look at me, I say – look at me! Ain’t my hair fair and my eyes blue? Ain’t my face grave and my voice deep?’ – and sure enough, Eli’s voice had gone down again, and Eli was a grown man, a seer of visions and pronouncer of dooms (117).
Eli was a lunatic and a dangerous one, but a kind that you couldn’t put in an asylum because he used the phrases of religion. He hadn’t wits enough to make up anything for himself, he had jist [sic] enough to see what could be done with the phrases Dad had given him; so now there was a new religion turned loose to plague the poor and ignorant, and the Almighty himself couldn’t stop it (120).The next time we see Eli, he is dressed in finery and being chauffeured in a limo. During the war, Eli preaches against the Hun, “telling how the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that the enemy would be routed before the year was by, and promising eternal salvation to all who died in this cause of the Lord – provided, of course, that they had not rejected their chance to be saved by Eli” (215). Eli then gathers believers to pray for rain at the front and “the floodgates of heaven were opened” on the Huns but not the Allies (216). Dad gives Eli money for the Temple when Eli’s power has grown to the point that he might be helpful to the oil baron. Eli’s “Bible Marathon” gets press and financing for the Temple, which “opened amid such glory to the Lord as had never been witnessed in this part of the world” (421).
Eli’s ministry is based closely on many aspects of Aimee Semple McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel, including the “tarrying rooms” she offered to those seeking a more extended spiritual immersion. Sinclair incorporates McPherson’s nemesis, the Reverend Bob Shuler, in the character Tom Poober. Sinclair is also drawn to Sister Aimee’s drowning incident, and he plays on the lascivious rumors about the evangelist absconding with her engineer by having Eli sighted at a beachfront hotel with a “handsome woman” (439). Eli’s drowning is a replica of McPherson’s in many ways, including the green bathing suit, the loss of life incurred through her attempted rescue, and the names of the alleged kidnappers, although here they are transformed into angels. As much of a mockery as was made of McPherson’s explanation, Eli’s survival story is ten times more ludicrous.
The story he told was that, finding himself being carried out to sea, he had prayed to the Lord, and the Lord had heard his prayer, and had sent three angels to hold him up in the water. The name of one of these angels was Steve, and the second was a lady angel, whose name was Rosie, and the third was a Mexican angel, and his name was Felipe. These angels had taken turns holding onto the shoulder-straps of Eli’s green bathing suit; and when he grew faint, one of them would fly away and bring him food (458).After a protracted battle with the devil, Eli returns to the shore. He claims to have found a feather in his bathing suit and his story is bought wholesale by his adoring public. One of the last appearances of Eli in the novel is as a disembodied voice spreading his gospel over the radio, Sister Aimee’s transmission of choice.
Sinclair’s narrator connects Eli’s popularity to the specific locale of southern California. Because the area is populated by Midwestern farmers who come to California to die (evoking Nathanael West’s characterizations in The Day of the Locust), they want to die happy, “with the assurance of sunshine and flowers beyond” (421). Therefore, Los Angeles (called “Angel City” in Oil!) is the home of “more weird cults and doctrines” than one can imagine: “Wherever three or more were gathered together in the name of Jesus or Buddha or Zoroaster, or Truth or Light or Love, or New Thought or Spiritualism or Psychic Science – there was the beginning of a new revelation, with mystical, inner states of bliss and esoteric ways of salvation” (422). Aimee Semple McPherson’s crusade was one of the most popular and powerful of these revelations, and her presence in the contemporary literature of her time was as much a testament to her personality as it was to her proselytizing. When David Reid wrote his essay “The Possessed” for the 1992 collection Sex, Death, and God in L.A., the Angelus Temple had become what Reid describes as “the Norma Desmond of Los Angeles churches” (179). McPherson had died 50 years before, and while the Church of the Foursquare Gospel continues to exist under the direction of her son Rolf (with 17,000 churches in sixty countries in 1993), the heyday of the ministry was fueled by the evangelist’s charisma.