In 1899, Frank Norris told the reigning "dean" of American literature, William Dean Howells, that he had an idea for a novel so "big that it frightens me at times." At the time, Norris was a twenty-nine-year-old writer whose literary star was on the rise-and the novel he proposed would be a grand epic set in the wheat fields of the San Joaquin Valley. He would call the novel The Octopus
, a fit image for the railroad tracks crisscrossing California, squeezing the landscape, the wheat fields, and the wheat farmers with its steel tentacles. The central story of The Octopus
concerns the antagonism between a coterie of wheat farmers and the railroad trust whose ownership of the very land they farm threatens their economic survival. But it is also the story of deep personal tragedies, retribution, revenge, and the complexities of human relationships. It is a novel about political power and political corruption, about big business and the vicissitudes of American enterprise. The Octopus
is a sweeping portrait of life in the California wheat fields in the late nineteenth century, and an exploration of the natural forces that infuse the very landscape with life and give direction and shape to individual human lives. The Octopus
resonates with power, and as a literary achievement it stands, arguably, as Frank Norris' greatest work and one of the acknowledged masterpieces of American literary naturalism.
Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr., was born on March 5, 1870, in Chicago to Benjamin Franklin Norris, Sr., a trained jeweler and wholesale businessman, and Gertrude Doggett Norris, an accomplished Chicago actress. When Norris was fifteen, his family moved to San Francisco, where Norris, among the other preoccupations of adolescence, developed an interest in art, and in 1886, he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Association to study painting. The following year, Norris returned to Chicago with his father, with the intention of continuing his artistic training at the Kensington School of Art, but the death of his brother Lester and other family upheavals brought a change of plans, and by the fall of that year Norris was enrolled in the Julien Academy in Paris to pursue his studies in painting. By 1888, however, Norris's love of painting was being supplanted by his growing love of literature and medieval lore. He returned to the United States in 1889, having left formal pursuit of painting behind him in Paris, ready now to embark on university studies at the University of California. While enrolled at Berkeley, Norris began to contribute short stories to several local and regional periodicals, and he published, in time for the Christmas trade of 1891, a long narrative poem, Yvernelle: A Legend of Feudal France, that pays full homage to his fascination with medieval legends.
College life proceeded apace for Norris until 1894, when he failed to earn his degree from Berkeley because he simply couldn't pass the mathematics entrance exam. That same year his parents sued each other for divorce, and Norris abandoned San Francisco for Cambridge, where he enrolled in Harvard for a year of study. While a student at Harvard, Norris began drafting Vandover and the Brute and McTeague, both dark and grotesque studies in human degeneration and depravity. He returned to San Francisco in 1895 where his work with the San Francisco Chronicle resulted in a trip to Johannesburg where he witnessed the Jameson Raid (a failed attempt to help overthrow the Boer government in the Transvaal region of South Africa). After returning to San Francisco in early 1896, Norris joined the staff of the weekly literary and general interest magazine the San Francisco Wave and integrated himself into the local literary community. During 1897, as Norris continued his association with the Wave and continued to tinker with his manuscript for McTeague, he drafted a short adventure novel, Moran of the Lady Letty, which was published serially in the Wave in early 1898. Moran attracted the attention of the publisher S. S. McClure, and in February of 1898, Norris moved to New York to work as an editorial assistant at the publishing firm of Doubleday & McClure. In New York, Norris befriended several of the literary lights of the day, including William Dean Howells, and entered into his most productive phase. Moran was published in book form by Doubleday & McClure in September 1898. The dark naturalistic novel McTeague and the lighter love story Blix followed quickly in1899, and the less successful A Man's Woman appeared early in 1900. During this period, Norris offered Vandover and the Brute to Doubleday & McClure for publication, but they turned it down. It would ultimately be published posthumously in 1914.
By the time A Man's Woman was published, Norris was well into drafting The Octopus. As Norris conceived it, The Octopus would serve as the opening volume in a trilogy. He announced his plan for the trilogy in a March 1899 letter to William Dean Howells: "I think," Norris wrote, "there is a chance for somebody to do some great work with the West and California as a background, and which will be at the same time thoroughly American. My Idea is to write three novels around the one subject of Wheat. First, a story of California, (the producer), second, a story of Chicago (the distributor) third, a story of Europe (the Consumer) and in each to keep to the idea of this huge, Niagara of wheat rolling from West to East." During the late spring and summer of 1899, almost immediately after completing A Man's Woman, Norris took up the task of this trilogy with gusto, but this was nothing new for Norris-he wrote almost everything he set his mind to with gusto. Yet The Octopus did mark an evolution in Norris' approach. He took longer, planned more, organized more, researched more. Much of Norris' research was conducted on location in the San Joaquin Valley in California. Norris worked out an arrangement with Doubleday & McClure which allowed him to spend the late spring and summer in California conducting research while still retaining his connection to-as well as some salary from-the firm. This period of intense research was critical for Norris, for, as he noted in an April 1899 letter to a friend, his idea was "as big as all out-doors" and he wanted to get at that idea "from every point of view, the social, agricultural, & political."
Some of the research Norris did during that summer concerned the Mussel Slough affair, which would serve as a focal point for his sprawling novel. The Octopus did not mark the first time Norris had used a bloody moment in California history as the kernel around which he could build a novel. McTeague was, in part, fashioned around an incident that took place in San Francisco in October 1893: a woman, Sarah Collins, working as janitor in a local kindergarten, had been stabbed to death by her drunken husband, Pat Collins. But The Octopus would be another affair altogether, for the story that Norris constructed around the Mussel Slough affair was larger in scope and infused with multiple, intersecting plot lines. The incident Norris integrated into The Octopus occurred on May 11, 1880. On this date, seven men died in the San Joaquin Valley in California in a brief eruption of gunfire in a field by the home of a man named Henry Brewer. The story behind this massacre makes for an interesting, if tragic, chapter in the economic history of nineteenth-century America, and fitting material for Norris' novel. In the late 1860s, as an added incentive to railroad companies to spur the laying of track, Congress declared that the railroads would get to claim odd-numbered parcels of land on either side of the track that they laid down. Once the track was in place, the railroads issued pamphlets encouraging settlers to move into their holdings and begin farming the land, with vague promises to allow the settlers to purchase the land at an undetermined future date at a price near $2.50 per acre-the going rate for unimproved land. Years later, when that future date finally arrived, the railroads offered the land for sale to the farmers, but at the much higher rate of between $25-$30 per acre-the re-assessed value of the land as improved by the farmers. The farmers banded together-in a league at one time numbering over six hundred strong-and sought what they felt was just through a variety of means. But in the end, the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to lay claim to its land, and began to place several alleged buyers in possession of certain parcels. When a group of fifteen farmers confronted U.S. Marshall Alonzo Poole, a land appraiser named Walter Clark, and two of the alleged buyers, Walter Crow and Mills Hartt, outside of the Brewer homestead, it wasn't long before the retorts of shotguns filled the air, and when the guns fell silent seven men were dead or dying.
Twenty years later, the story of this gunfight was still alive in the minds of many Californians when Norris returned to New York in September 1899 and began to draft his novel. He wouldn't complete the draft until December 1900. During that time the success of McTeague and his other novels, coupled with a new job as a manuscript reader for the newly created firm of Doubleday, Page & Company, allowed him the opportunity to marry and settle down. In early 1901, while The Octopus was being prepared for publication by Doubleday, Page & Co. (it would appear in April 1901), Norris and his wife, Jeannette, traveled to Chicago so that Norris could begin research on the second volume of his trilogy, The Pit, which he completed in late spring 1902. In July 1902, Norris, Jeannette, and their infant daughter relocated to San Francisco and Norris began to make plans for an extensive trip to research the third and final volume of the trilogy, which he planned to title The Wolf. He would never get the opportunity to take that trip, and The Wolf would forever remain unwritten. In October 1902, Norris died of peritonitis following acute appendicitis. He was thirty-two years old.
The Octopus was the most successful work that Norris published during his lifetime. Its sequel, The Pit, published posthumously in 1903, would prove even more successful. Combined, these two volumes in the unfinished trilogy of the wheat would outsell all of Norris's other works combined during the first few years of the twentieth century. Early critical response to The Octopus was, on the whole, laudatory. Reviewers hailed it as Norris' strongest work and as his most ambitious effort. Reviewers who criticized the novel often did so because they thought that it lacked philosophical consistency, or that the philosophical message of the novel was too bleak. It is not surprising to note, therefore, that much of the scholarship on The Octopus during the past century has tended to focus on the very issue of the novel's philosophical leanings. What is consistent throughout the earliest reviews, however, is that The Octopus cannot be passed over lightly. The critics found it, and rightly so, to be a novel of serious intent and remarkable depth. Some of these reviewers would even go so far as to mention The Octopus in the same context as the much longed-for Great American Novel. Norris subtitled The Octopus a Story of California, but the narrative clearly held universal interest.
Writing The Octopus marked a return to an earlier mode of writing for Norris. In a letter to his friend Isaac Marcosson in November 1899, Norris revealed that with The Octopus he was "going back definitely now to the style of MacT. and stay with it right along. I've been sort of feeling my way ever since the 'Moran' days and getting a twist of myself. Now I think I know where I am at and what game I play the best. The Wheat series will be straight naturalism with all the guts I can get into it." Norris's instincts here were incisive, for McTeague and The Octopus stand out as Norris's greatest achievements in his brief career, and with these two works Norris staked his claim as one of the foremost practitioners-along with his contemporaries Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser-of literary naturalism in American letters. During the second half of the nineteenth century, new developments in science and philosophy had reshaped the intellectual landscape. The literary naturalists were those writers at the end of the century who explored these new ideas-theories of evolution, of determinism, of degeneration, of atavism, of the natural forces that directed and shaped human behavior-in their works.
For Norris, naturalism was both a thematic orientation and a methodology, and his essays on literary naturalism and the craft of writing make him the leading American theorist on American literary naturalism in the late nineteenth century. In his 1896 essay "Zola as a Romantic Writer," Norris argues that "terrible things must happen to the characters of the naturalistic tale. They must be twisted from the ordinary, wrenched out from the quiet, uneventful round of every-day life, and flung into the throes of a vast and terrible drama that works itself out in unleashed passions, in blood, and in sudden death." For Norris, it was in these moments of heightened drama that the forces that shape human lives lose their transparency and become evident. Literary realism, as Norris understood it to be practiced, was too caught up in the accurate presentation of the minutiae of everyday life to allow for deeper truths to emerge. But, as Norris speculated in a 1901 essay, if realism is the domain of accuracy, and romanticism the domain of truth, then naturalism may lie in the middle, taking the best of both and blending them together; it is a methodology for writing that pursues both truth and accuracy. Naturalism would take the careful observations of the realist and add to them a romantic element that would, as Norris wrote in his essay "A Plea for Romantic Fiction," allow the artist to "go straight through the clothes and tissues and wrappings of flesh down deep into the red, living heart of things."
The temptation to read Norris' novel as an exposé against trusts, against the laissez-faire economic principles that allowed sprawling corporations to take unfair advantage of individual workers, is strong. But the complexities of The Octopus make such a reading difficult to maintain. Although one's sympathies may lie with the farmers, separating good from evil in the narrative is no easy task, with moral ambiguities to be found in all corners of the large canvas upon which Norris paints his epic. There is tragedy in the novel, but there is also triumph, and often the two are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. The land in The Octopus is fecund, fertile, powerful, holding mysteries, and the loves, hates, tragedies, even deaths, of the toilers who work the land enact their dramas within the framework of the land. The wheat that grows up out of the rich soil stands as a symbol for this mysterious power, for the forces of nature that proceed inexorably onward, even in the face of individual human failure and defeat.