Friday, July 9, 2010

A Certain Oil Refinery

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

In the anthology Writing New York , Phillip Lopate observes:
When Indiana-born Theodore Dreiser arrived in New York in 1894, he found “the city of my dreams” and explored it avidly, fascinated by its sharp contrasts. In his first masterpiece, Sister Carrie (1900), and his later Frank Cowperwood trilogy, he portrayed New York as a Social Darwinist winnowing machine, elevating some to the top while pushing others under.
In addition to his more famous works of fiction, Dreiser wrote a series of newspaper sketches about his adopted home, and he collected some of them in The Color of a Great City. One of the pieces, first published in 1919, takes his readers on a tour of the Standard Oil works, located in Bayonne, New Jersey, which on a clear day could be seen across New York Bay from the south side of Brooklyn. Dreiser’s Social Darwinism is on full display here, contrasting the mansions of Fifth Avenue with the “wretched” conditions of the industrial purgatory populated by men “of an order which you would call commonplace.” His article says little of the work itself (“You can find the how of it in any encyclopedia”) and instead focuses on the toxic filth and foul odor of the Bayonne refinery—reminding us that the societal and environmental costs of America’s hunger for oil are a century old.

There is a section of land very near New York, lying at the extreme southern point of the peninsula known as Bayonne, which is given up to a peculiar business. The peninsula is a long neck of land lying between those two large bays which extend a goodly distance on either hand, one toward the city of Newark, the other toward the vast and restless ocean beyond Brooklyn. Stormy winds sweep over it at many periods of the year. The seagull and the tern fly high over its darksome roof-tops. Tall stacks and bare, red buildings and scores of rounded tanks spread helter-skelter over its surface, give it a dreary, unkempt and yet not wholly inartistic appearance which appeals, much as a grotesque deformity appeals or a masque intended to represent pain.

This section is the seat of a most prosperous manufacturing establishment, a single limb of a many-branched tree, and its business is the manufacturing, or rather refining, of oil. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!


Bruce Joyner said...

Theodore Dreiser tells this story in a matter-of-fact way..which paints a bleek picture in a realistic fashion. Today a writer of aristocratic temperment would be much less inclined to address the question "Would any of these workers ever rise to another level above their present one.?"A timely story considering the crisis in our gulf waters concerning leakage into the ocean from this dirty enterprise...OIL.

Raphael said...

I agree very prescient and timely.

Tony D'Souza said...

Ugly. Both the scene and Dreiser's tone. Was he so patrician in all of his work?
Peter Hessler has been writing wonderfully about the factories and the laborers in contemporary China, his piece in Nat Geo a couple years back was incredible.
Thanks for running this wonderful series.