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Edward Linenthal
Editor, Journal of American History

Last modified: Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Journal of American History special issue: the pervasiveness of oil

June 6, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- American society is "saturated with oil," says Tyler Priest, clinical professor of business at the University of Houston. From the cars we drive to the clothes we wear to the food we eat, everyday items, many of which we take for granted, depend on or derive from petroleum.

A special June 2012 issue of the Journal of American History examines the omnipresent role that oil has played and continues to play in the nation's history. Available for free online, the issue covers topics including environmental issues, images of oil in film, art and television, and the politics of oil in the Middle East, Nigeria, Mexico and Canada.

Journal of American History

Two children pose with a miniature oil derrick near a Texas oil field, circa 1928, in the Journal of American History cover photo.

Print-Quality Photo

"The so-called 'American Century' has been coterminous with the 'Century of Oil,'" said Priest, one of three consulting editors for the issue. "Indeed, modern American history cannot be considered apart from the history of oil. So a special issue of the JAH with essays analyzing how Americans have come to be so highly dependent on and made powerful by this substance is appropriate and overdue."

The quarterly Journal of American History is published by the Organization of American Historians, based at Indiana University Bloomington. Edward Linenthal, editor of the journal and professor of history in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, proposed the special issue. Priest, Karen R. Merrill, professor of history at Williams College, and Brian C. Black, professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona, served as consulting editors.

The issue's two dozen essays offer new analyses of traditional oil subjects, such as business, technology and foreign policy, but they also explore novel themes, such as the environmental politics and impacts of oil, oil and urbanization, government taxation of oil, and the imaging of oil in print, television and film.

  • In "Blessed by Oil, Cursed With Crude: God and Black Gold in the American Southwest," Darren Dochuk examines the relationship between evangelical Christianity and the development of oil.
  • In "Oil for Living: Petroleum and American Conspicuous Consumption," Black looks at the social and cultural aspects of oil consumption in post-World War II America.
  • In "Bucking the Odds: Organized Labor in Gulf Coast Oil Refining," Priest and Michael Botson chart the rise and fall of industrial unions against the backdrop of racial conflict in the South.

The issue appears at a time when oil has become consistent front-page news in America for the first time since the 1970s, thanks to spikes in crude prices, the 2010 drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and concern about fossil-fuel-driven climate change.

"Informed discussions about oil must draw on Americans' historical relationship to petroleum," Priest said. "This issue contributes in a big way to advancing our understanding of how this relationship has evolved."

Accompanying the online version of the issue are the June 2012 JAH Podcast, a conversation among editor Linenthal and consulting editors Black, Merrill and Priest; and a gallery of maps and archival images related to oil and its development.

Previous special issues of the Journal of American History have included "Through the Eye of Katrina" in 2007 and "Abraham Lincoln at 200" in 2009.