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Oil For the Lamps of China: Alice Tisdale Hobart’s Dark Novel of American Capitalism and Chinese Revolution

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Among American works of fiction about China before World War II, Alice Tisdale Hobart’s Oil for the Lamps of China (1933) was second only to Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931) in influence and sales. Hobart’s novel, evidently set during the Northern Expedition of 1926-28, also inspired a Warner Brothers film by the same name in 1935. Unlike the film, Hobart’s novel did not give a boosterish picture of American capitalism. In portraying the leading character, Steven Chase, a field agent for an American oil firm in China, Hobart drew on the experience of her husband, a field agent for Standard Oil Company. Her husband, like Chase, was callously fired after loyally serving the company and adapting to Chinese culture and protecting company property from anti-imperialist mobs. The novel is memorable for its vivid characterizations of Americans and Chinese working for an American corporation in China and for its dark view of American capitalism and Chinese revolution.

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