Part 2: Frank Norris’ The Octopus
Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
Frank Norris (1870-1902) was best known for MacTeague, a rough, unvarnished view of American life, although The Octopus (1900) demands attention as well. While Steinbeck wrote a memoir/paean to life in Salinas, The Octopus deals with ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley.
Norris’s work, unlike Steinbeck’s careful imitation of Tolstoy, is exciting and more immediate than ever, concerned as it is with land and power. Wheat is almost a central character in The Octopus, and its title, which was a late-nineteenth century depiction of capitalist interests intersecting to control pricing and profit, deals with a war over who controls wheat and will profit by it — usually at the expense of others.
A sprawling panoply of characters make up The Octopus. In Hamlet, Shakespeare has Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras coming to terms with the death of their fathers and how to settle the political and filial problems connected with that. Norris offers Presley, Annixter, and Vanamee. Presley is the main character, a cultivated, rootless aesthete who is from the Valley, but no longer part of it. He is at times passive, angry, determined, and reflective, but can never let go of the land. Vanamee, an almost holy man, is tied to the land primarily due to his loss of Angele, a woman whose death haunts him. Vanamee, while almost peripheral in many parts of the story, surfaces with the intensity of a great whale.
Annixter is a young rancher who is far more involved in the action, and is dynamic, angry, arrogant, forceful, and won’t be dictated to, but is devoted to the land and his crop. He reminds me of John Wayne, and I feel The Octopus is a John Wayne movie that should have been made.
The wheat — which is described by Norris in epic, glowing terms — must get to market, and here begins the war. The ranchers are being gouged by the railroad’s extortionate shipping rates. They originally bought the land, to lease it and in the future buy it, but the railroad raises the price of land, killing any profit the ranchers are making. The railroad reminds the ranchers that they leased the land, and don’t own it.
The novel begins as Presley visits Magus, a head rancher who is called the Governor, recalling his past unfulfilled political ambitions in North Carolina. Magus needs new ploughs to harvest the approaching harvest, and they are sitting idly at the depot, shiny and ready — but the railroad has to reroute them to distant San Francisco first, according to the freight and shipping rules. All for a hefty fee, of course Presley views a flock of Annixter’s sheep wander onto the railroad tracks only to be slaughtered by a speeding locomotive — a portent of struggle to come.
The railroad is a monster that engulfs and obsesses the ranchers. One of the most tragic figures in the novel is Sykes, an engineer who is fired for not complying with increased workloads for less pay. Never a reticent character, he betters himself by going into raising hops, sinking all his money into that — only to find that with increased rates per pound, he’ll make no profit. He is financially ruined and his property subject to confiscation.
Sykes is a little fish. The bigger fish is Annixter. Magus and the other ranchers are also on the shark list, especially when the state government rules against them in court, and the victorious railroad begins to squeeze them one by one. It’s a battle of good guys versus bad guys. Norris clearly sympathizes with the ranchers, yet the novel isn’t merely a polemic against trusts and unbridled corporate power. In an excellent essay, Kenneth Lyon argues that the ranchers exploit the land to the fullest, but have little identification with it apart from what profit it can turn for them. They are simply usurped by a larger and more organized exploiter.
Annixter is a complex, conflicted character. He is attracted to Hilma, who works on his ranch, and tries to take advantage of her, but she rebuffs him. Feeling uneasy about his desire to control and his contempt for “feemales,” Annixter finally realizes he can’t live without her — a revelation that comes as the wheat begins to sprout and grow, a double epiphany of human growth and the first stirrings of a rich harvest. Annixter marries Hilma, but their pleasure is short-lived. No sooner is their new furniture set in Annixter’s sparsely-furnished bachelor’s house than the railroad begins evicting the ranchers — and Hilma discovers a crate of rifles Annixter had ordered for his ranch hands. She had believed it was a wedding present.
Norris accurately depicts political squalor and the sleaziness of money in politics. The ranchers are unable to get a fair hearing before the legislature because the railroad buys influence. Ostermann, one of the more strident ranchers, insists that they play the same game and “buy” a politician, which returns to haunt him when the railroad uses the press — bought and paid for, sound familiar? — to excoriate the rancher’s “corruption.”
In a final showdown leading to disaster, Norris shows the wreckage that follows as the ranchers are dispersed by the railroad, which is eager to resell their lands. The ones who move to San Francisco don’t fit in; they’re crushed by urban coldness and inhumanity.
Presley protests. He never fit into the rancher’s world, yet is of it, and he had wanted to write a great epic of the West. Instead, he sees a painting titled The Toilers and writes a protest poem about it. He wins some fame, but it isn’t enough, and he then feels guilty about cashing in on human suffering.
The railroad is a mostly faceless entity, a natural force — much like the wheat. Behrman, the local banker and a fat, imperious man, is their main representative. Presley confronts Shelgrim, the head of the railroad, yet their meeting is anti-climactic. Shelgrim is pleasant and not without compassion — for his own kind. A drunken employee is given a raise and another chance to redeem himself. Shelgrim in fact critiques Presley’s poem. Shelgrim explains that men have no control over the railroad, nor the wheat; they are simply natural forces beyond human will. Shelgrim’s worldview is opposed to Presley’s earlier adoration of the West as a spiritual world of change. It is also a form of social Darwinism justifying the supplanting of the ranchers — or anyone too weak to survive the natural forces of selection, or the forces of big money and political corruption. Shelgrim’s force-of-nature philosophy is a typical worldview of the powerful, whether it involves foreclosing, gobbling up smaller competitors, or a relentless drive towards globalism.
It is one of Norris’ strengths that he conveys this force of nature in his book, with stirring passages about the wheat and the titanic forces of nature. But at the same time he vividly depicts the human suffering undergone by those too small to fight back or adapt.
Like East of Eden, The Octopus is long, and had some deserts in prose. I skimmed over the sections involving Vanamee’s mystical seeking of the absolute, although Norris captures the man’s identification with the San Joaquin Valley and a world that is above and beyond the ranchers’ struggle.
Norris describes the wheat as a titanic force, dictating life to all. There is a strength and urgency in The Octopus that I don’t see in East of Eden. Steinbeck’s characters always seem surrounded by lots of money; but in Norris’s novel, the ranchers know that if the railroad has its way, they will be left destitute — so they have to fight. In Steinbeck, we don’t see where money comes from. In Norris, you see wealth harvested, sweated, and fought for.
Prostitution in Norris is more venal than in Steinbeck. Hooven, a German farmer, dies in the struggle, and once his family is evicted, they move to San Francisco. His wife dies of hunger on the streets while his oldest daughter is forced into prostitution to survive.
Presley wanders around in high society. He sees the rich and the intellectuals enjoy themselves while the ranchers and the Hoovens suffer. Presley is interested in an upper-class woman, Honora, but is turned off by her adoration of a number of Bohemian types who are a collection of semi-intellectuals — foreign exotics promoting ethnic wonders while on the make for patronage. The scenes involving them are a cornucopia of self-indulgence worthy of Tom Wolfe’s recounting similar such cultural hangers-on in The Bonfire of the Vanities. They almost foretell California’s sixties hippie culture.
I found Norris’ social criticism and discontent very immediate and compelling. “Relevant” was the term that was used in the sixties, during my youth, and I was more involved in Presley and Annixter’s battle than the world depicted in East of Eden. Norris also describes action very well. The scene describing Sykes being chased by a posse is a page-turner, as is a huge hunt organized by the ranchers to kill vast numbers of jackrabbits. The latter is exciting and symbolic, given that the railroad’s evictions of the ranchers begins while those same ranchers are enjoying a barbecue after the slaughter.
Norris was influenced by Émile Zola and his novels of social realism. If the novel has any shortcomings, it is the character of Hooven, the German farmer. He speaks in a dialect which is treacly to read. “I chust wan’ der veet to be brung to der markt, ja?” Nein. I could barely understand what he was saying, and simply skimmed onwards — but the nineteenth century was the age of dialect in America, and it was seen as both realistic and democratic at the time.
Norris has been accused of anti-Semitism in his depiction of two Jewish characters, Behrman and Shelgrim. But banks and corporations indeed had a lot of Jews heading them, and Norris is never explicitly anti-Semitic. Shelgrim is a well-rounded character who you nod with as he explains his worldview. If Behrman meets an untimely end, it is nevertheless poetic and fits in with Norris’ cosmic view of wheat and the human energy needed to produce it — and thus feed a growing world. He had intended for this depiction of human struggle to be the first part of a trilogy, to be followed by The Pit and The Wolf. The Pit was published in 1903, although The Wolf was left uncompleted due to Norris’ sudden death from appendicitis.
Some call The Octopus The Great American Novel. I think it has a better claim to this title than East of Eden — but both novels are examples of California Discontent.
* * *
Like all journals of dissident ideas, Counter-Currents depends on the support of readers like you. Help us compete with the censors of the Left and the violent accelerationists of the Right with a donation today. (The easiest way to help is with an e-check donation. All you need is your checkbook.)
For other ways to donate, click here.
Paper Boy: The Life and Times of an Ink-Stained Wretch
Richard Hanania’s The Origins of Woke
The Matter with Concrete, Part 1
The Captivity Narrative of Fanny Kelly
Plastic Patriotism: Propaganda and the Establishment’s Crusade Against Germany and German-Americans During the First World War
Race and IQ Differences: An Interview with Arthur Jensen, Part 2
Bad to the Spone: Charles Krafft’s An Artist of the Right
The Unnecessary War