The Octopus begins with a poet on a bicycle, but it is mostly about wheat framers fighting the railroad, fighting over freight rates and property. Weapons include bribery and firearms. The railroad through the Central Valley makes it profitable to plow up the ranchland for wheat – but profitable for whom?
The poet hopes to write an epic “Song of the West” in “hexameters,” Lord help us. The other character here is a farmer’s wife who loves Pater and Ruskin and Italy:
His “Song of the West,” which only once, incoherent and fierce, he had tried to explain to her, its swift, tumultuous life, its truth, its nobility and savagery, its heroism and obscenity, had revolted her.
“But, Presley,” she had murmured, “that is not literature.”
“No,” he had cried between his teeth, “no, thank God, it is not.” (I.2.)
At this point I feared Norris was describing his own novel, but Presley eventually has an epiphany leading him to drop his cornball Nietzsche act. He “flung aside his books of poems” for “Mill, Malthus, Young, Pushkin, Henry George, Schopenhauer,” finding “not one sane suggestion as to remedy or redress.” He becomes a proletarian poet, scoring big with something, not in hexameters, called “The Toilers.”
Norris at times regards his poet not as a stand-in but as a warning, something close to a con man. The visual arts are treated more brutally, though, with artists treated as courtiers, servants to railroad money. A railroad executive’s San Francisco mansion feature stained glass windows with Wagnerian themes and a series of painted panels representing “the personages in the Romaunt de la Rose, and was conceived in an atmosphere of the most delicate, most ephemeral allegory. The poet dines at this house near the end of the novel, in the extraordinary II.8., with the courses of the dinner alternating with scenes of another character, a widow of the fight with the railroad, literally starving to death on the San Francisco streets:
A grateful numbness had begun to creep over her, a pleasing semi-insensibility. She no longer felt the pain and cramps of her stomach, even the hunger was ceasing to bite.
“These stuffed artichokes are delicious, Mrs. Gerard,” murmured young Lambert, wiping his lips with a corner of his napkin”… [discussion of the “special train” that brings the fresh asparagus]
“Fancy eating ordinary market asparagus,” said Mrs. Gerard, “that has been fingered by Heaven knows how many hands.”
Then back to the dying woman. This is blunt, but as gripping as earlier scenes with gunplay. That Julian Lambert fellow, who appears only in this scene, is openly mocked by the narrator – he “posed as an epicure” – and I wonder if he is meant to parody someone. But otherwise, I wonder if Norris’s use of this incongruous poet character is meant to show a movement towards an authentic art, away from Romanticism and idea-driven works towards journalistic, Zolaesque fiction like The Octopus. Like the novel contains its own apology, for some reason.
There is another character, one of the farmers, an odd bird, who spends his leisure time reading David Copperfield and eating prunes, “methodically swallowing one prune every time he reached the bottom of the page” (I.5). That sounds almost allegorical, too. Literature as health food. This character begins as a fool and greatly improves, for all the good it does him. I don’t know. I’m just trying to puzzle out why this poet is even in this wheat and railroad novel.