The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power

Knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em also applies to pages in a book. After a 300+ page slog through this 900 page behemoth, I’m cutting my losses and moving on to explore for intellectual oil elsewhere.

History, I’d forgotten, is overwhelmingly the story of men, and that point came across in this Bechdel-test failing tome. There’s nary a woman in the pages, except as a whisper in the wind, a remembered comment attributed to her wit, or a nameless faceless member of a harem. Still, I persisted. I wanted to know more about this black gold that humans have pried from the earth with such desperation, the fuel that keeps my city clogged with roaring impatient engines, the insidious father of plastic.

The early story of oil was fairly interesting, which is why I gritted my teeth and kept diving once more unto the breach. From early days, people recognized the unique properties of the black goo seeping out of the earth, using it to seal roofs or boats, pave roads, keep fire going, or even as a health ointment. The earliest discovery in the U.S. was in Pennsylvania, which is where Rockefeller and Standard Oil come into the picture. As everyone got “oil fever”, Rockefeller actually got concerned when his favorite German baker traded his bakery for a low-quality oil refinery and bought him out so he would return to baking. Standard Oil brought about the new era of corporations, gobbling up competitors and becoming a vertically integrated entity (manufacture, refining, transportation, distribution, marketing). Amazingly, the U.S. was in a progressive moment that busted the trust and shattered Standard into smaller pieces. This was actually beneficial because several of the young guns were able to take over as head honchos and innovate faster.

In Russia, the Rothschilds loaned money to small producers who were competing with the Nobel family. European newspapers erroneously reported the death of Alfred Nobel and when he read his own obituary summing him up as a weapons maker and dynamite king, Nobel rewrote his will to establish the Nobel Peace Prize.

Oil was discovered in Texas around the turn of the 20th century, and scenes from the 1849 California gold rush were repeated again—shacks, saloons, gambling houses all springing up overnight. This reminded me of something I read about the gold rush where people paid for others to wait in line for their mail when the mail boat came in. In Texas: “At the barbershops, folks stood in line an hour to pay a quarter for the privilege of bathing in a filthy tub. People did not want to waste time when there was oil business to be done, so spaces near the head of the long line went for as much as one dollar. Some people made forty or fifty dollars a day, standing in line and selling their spaces to those who didn’t have time to wait.”

More similarities to today were in the description of the Czar of Russia, “the font of ineptitude… highly vulnerable to flattery, a dangerous characteristic in an autocrat… contemptuous of all the non-Russian minorities in his multinational empire and sanctioned the repression that, in turn, made them into rebels.” Ah history, how thou doth repeat thyself.

Here’s a lovely tidbit from Beaumont, Texas—prostitutes were arrested and displayed on the balcony of a hotel. “Each woman’s fine was announced and the man who paid it could keep her for twenty-four hours.”

More on the misogynist front, when King Ibn Saud’s Arabian land was secured for oil rights, the huge payment of gold came from London. “Care had been taken that all the coins bore the likeness of a male English monarch, not Queen Victoria, which, it was feared, would have devalued them in the male-dominated society of Saudi Arabia.”

The author settles into his armchair and eagerly goes into the tedious weeds of the world wars. I understand that this accelerated the importance of oil, but my god those sections were mind-numbingly dull. War is just not that interesting. At this point, I was looking down the barrel of another 500 pages and dodging his extraneous exclamation points at every turn. I gave up, I give up.

How did this win the Pulitzer?