Wednesday, March 1, 2017

But the WHEAT remained - Frank Norris's wheat epic, The Octopus

There it was, the Wheat, the Wheat!  (Book II, Ch. 2)

The Octopus (1901) is a novel based on a questionable idea.  It is the first volume in the “Trilogy of the Epic of the Wheat,” three novels that while “forming a series, will be in no way connected with each other save only in their relation to (1) the production, (2) the distribution, (3) the consumption of American wheat.”  That is from Frank Norris’s note that heads the novel, itself another questionable idea, numbered lists about theoretical novels.  Unless that is what the novel is about.  But this novel is about wheat.

But the WHEAT remained.  Untouched, unassailable, undefiled, that mighty world-force, that nourisher of nations, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, indifferent to the human swarm, gigantic, resistless, moved onward in its appointed grooves.  (last page)

Imagine a novel mostly written like that!  It’s not this book, which is a mix of functional best-seller writing of the kind I associate with much later writers of big epics (James Michener, say) punctuated by passages of California lyricism that are inspired by Zola but at this point do not really sound like him, with a number of chapters, long scenes – a big barn-warming party, the pursuit of a dangerous fugitive, a jackrabbit hunt – that are terrific, fast-moving, meaningful, exciting, etc., etc.

Unfortunately, I have not read the two most relevant Zola novels, La Terre (1887), about farming, and La Bête humaine (1890), about railroads – the “octopus” of the title is the railroad – so I do not know to what extent Norris has pilfered them for metaphorical material.  His plot seems unrelated.

This sounds kinda like Zola:

One could not take a dozen steps upon the ranches without the brusque sensation that underfoot the land was alive; roused at last from its sleep, palpitating with the desire for reproduction.  Deep down there in the recesses of the soil, the great heart throbbed once more, thrilling with passion, vibrating with desire, offering itself to the caress of the plow, insistent, eager, imperious.  (I.4.)

Plenty more like that.

The Octopus is one of many novels about the Mussel Slough Tragedy, a property dispute between pioneer wheat farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and railroad representatives that turned violent.  The novel is resolutely on the side of the farmers, who are themselves quite wealthy.  The conflict is mostly between the rich and the super-rich, which dampened the stakes, although there are some side plots that allow a little more ordinary sympathy.

Norris is well aware of the issue.  The railroad is the more or less distant villain, but the novel spends time critiquing the farmers.  This is their leader, “Governor” Magnus:

It was the new era.  He had lived to see the death of the old and the birth of the new; first the mine, now the ranch; first gold, now wheat.  Once again he became the pioneer, hardy, brilliant, taking colossal chances, blazing the way, grasping a fortune – a million in a single day.  All the bigness of his nature leaped up again within him.

He is less a farmer than a hands-on commodity speculator, a gambler.

Lots of other things in this novel.  A day or two more.


  1. I loved the author's McTeague so I'll have to get to this. Thanks for the nudge.

  2. Good - The Octopus is not as tightly written as McTeague, but easily worth reading. It is like a genre difference - McTeague is almost a noir, while The Octopus is almost a Western. A crowded city versus a big landscape.

  3. Thank you for highlighting a novel I've heard about but haven't read; I once lived in the SJV, so I have a special interest in reading this one.
    BTW: I'm back to blogging at new address.
    I hope you will drop by every now and then.

  4. The San Joaquin Valley setting is used well. A reason to read the book.