In opposition to energy historian Vaclav Smil, who argues that “timeless literature … show[s] no correlation with advances in energy consumption,” this essay makes the general claim that energy history is significantly entwined with cultural history. Energy history is in fact entwined with changing cultural conceptualizations and representations of psyche, body, society, and environment; it is correlated not just with changing material cultures, but with symbolic cultures as well. To see this, the essay argues, one must conceptualize energy history in terms of a succession of energy systems – systems that are constituted by sociocultural, economic, environmental, and technological relationships. The essay's specific argument then traces the effects on symbolic culture, especially literature, of the nineteenth – and twentieth-century shift from coal capitalism to oil–electric capitalism. It starts by looking at the features of early oil extraction culture, from Drake's 1859 oil strike in Titusville, Pennsylvania to Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!, and examines how oil–electric capitalism develops and defines itself culturally against the previous era of coal capitalism. Then the essay considers how the consolidation of the oil–electric capitalist system is significantly related to the emergence of modernist culture, affecting the production of both popular culture and high art. By the end of the twentieth century, a new phase in oil–electric capitalism emerges with the expansion of the postwar petrochemical industry, the dramatic expansion of environmental crisis discourse in the 1960s and 1970s, and the return of peak-oil discourse to the mainstream in the last decade. The essay examines how the material features of oil, as well as its dominant uses as luminant, motor fuel, lubricant, and eventually petrochemical feedstock, take on cultural importance. Exemplifying both the cultural innovations and reinventions of oil capitalism from the extraction era to the consolidation era and the post-World War II period, the essay focusses throughout on the two recurring motifs, exuberance and catastrophe, as they play out in a wide range of literary texts and popular enthusiasms.