On May 11, 1880, at a San Joaquin Valley ranch, a shootout between tenant farmers and a sheriff’s posse left seven dead. The dispute was over land rights. The law was acting in the service of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
This tragedy marked the beginning of the end for the American frontier, and it became the inspiration for Frank Norris’s epic tale of wheat croppers struggling against the tightening grip of the railroad industry.
With a cast of characters ranging from poor hired hands to wealthy landowners and railroad barons, Norris’s novel goes beyond its central conflict to chronicle the myriad political and social issues that rippled out from it. The first work in Norris’s planned Epic of the Wheat Trilogy, The Octopus was an important exposé of railroad greed that drew comparisons to Émile Zola for its incredible breadth. It is a great read for fans of gritty, historically inspired western series such as Deadwood or Hell on Wheels.
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A Story of California
By Frank Norris
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Just after passing Caraher's saloon, on the County Road that ran south from Bonneville, and that divided the Broderson ranch from that of Los Muertos, Presley was suddenly aware of the faint and prolonged blowing of a steam whistle that he knew must come from the railroad shops near the depot at Bonneville. In starting out from the ranch house that morning, he had forgotten his watch, and was now perplexed to know whether the whistle was blowing for twelve or for one o'clock. He hoped the former. Early that morning he had decided to make a long excursion through the neighbouring country, partly on foot and partly on his bicycle, and now noon was come already, and as yet he had hardly started. As he was leaving the house after breakfast, Mrs. Derrick had asked him to go for the mail at Bonneville, and he had not been able to refuse.
He took a firmer hold of the cork grips of his handlebars — the road being in a wretched condition after the recent hauling of the crop — and quickened his pace. He told himself that, no matter what the time was, he would not stop for luncheon at the ranch house, but would push on to Guadalajara and have a Spanish dinner at Solotari's, as he had originally planned.
There had not been much of a crop to haul that year. Half of the wheat on the Broderson ranch had failed entirely, and Derrick himself had hardly raised more than enough to supply seed for the winter's sowing. But such little hauling as there had been had reduced the roads thereabouts to a lamentable condition, and, during the dry season of the past few months, the layer of dust had deepened and thickened to such an extent that more than once Presley was obliged to dismount and trudge along on foot, pushing his bicycle in front of him.
It was the last half of September, the very end of the dry season, and all Tulare County, all the vast reaches of the San Joaquin Valley — in fact all South Central California, was bone dry, parched, and baked and crisped after four months of cloudless weather, when the day seemed always at noon, and the sun blazed white hot over the valley from the Coast Range in the west to the foothills of the Sierras in the east.
As Presley drew near to the point where what was known as the Lower Road struck off through the Rancho de Los Muertos, leading on to Guadalajara, he came upon one of the county watering-tanks, a great, iron-hooped tower of wood, straddling clumsily on its four uprights by the roadside. Since the day of its completion, the storekeepers and retailers of Bonneville had painted their advertisements upon it. It was a landmark. In that reach of level fields, the white letters upon it could be read for miles. A watering-trough stood near by, and, as he was very thirsty, Presley resolved to stop for a moment to get a drink.
He drew abreast of the tank and halted there, leaning his bicycle against the fence. A couple of men in white overalls were repainting the surface of the tank, seated on swinging platforms that hung by hooks from the roof. They were painting a sign — an advertisement. It was all but finished and read, "S. Behrman, Real Estate, Mortgages, Main Street, Bonneville, Opposite the Post Office." On the horse-trough that stood in the shadow of the tank was another freshly painted inscription: "S. Behrman Has Something To Say To You."
As Presley straightened up after drinking from the faucet at one end of the horse-trough, the watering-cart itself laboured into view around the turn of the Lower Road. Two mules and two horses, white with dust, strained leisurely in the traces, moving at a snail's pace, their limp ears marking the time; while perched high upon the seat, under a yellow cotton wagon umbrella, Presley recognised Hooven, one of Derrick's tenants, a German, whom every one called "Bismarck," an excitable little man with a perpetual grievance and an endless flow of broken English.
"Hello, Bismarck," said Presley, as Hooven brought his team to a standstill by the tank, preparatory to refilling.
"Yoost der men I look for, Mist'r Praicely," cried the other, twisting the reins around the brake. "Yoost one minute, you wait, hey? I wanta talk mit you."
Presley was impatient to be on his way again. A little more time wasted, and the day would be lost. He had nothing to do with the management of the ranch, and if Hooven wanted any advice from him, it was so much breath wasted. These uncouth brutes of farmhands and petty ranchers, grimed with the soil they worked upon, were odious to him beyond words. Never could he feel in sympathy with them, nor with their lives, their ways, their marriages, deaths, bickerings, and all the monotonous round of their sordid existence.
"Well, you must be quick about it, Bismarck," he answered sharply. "I'm late for dinner, as it is."
"Soh, now. Two minuten, und I be mit you." He drew down the overhanging spout of the tank to the vent in the circumference of the cart and pulled the chain that let out the water. Then he climbed down from the seat, jumping from the tire of the wheel, and taking Presley by the arm led him a few steps down the road.
"Say," he began. "Say, I want to hef some converzations mit you. Yoost der men I want to see. Say, Caraher, he tole me dis morgen — say, he tole me Mist'r Derrick gowun to farm der whole demn rench hisseluf der next yahr. No more tenants. Say, Caraher, he tole me all der tenants get der sach; Mist'r Derrick gowun to work der whole demn rench hisseluf, hey? ME, I get der sach alzoh, hey? You hef hear about dose ting? Say, me, I hef on der ranch been sieben yahr — seven yahr. Do I alzoh —"
"You'll have to see Derrick himself or Harran about that, Bismarck," interrupted Presley, trying to draw away. "That's something outside of me entirely."
But Hooven was not to be put off. No doubt he had been meditating his speech all the morning, formulating his words, preparing his phrases.
"Say, no, no," he continued. "Me, I wanta stay bei der place; seven yahr I hef stay. Mist'r Derrick, he doand want dot I should be ge-sacked. Who, den, will der ditch ge-tend? Say, you tell 'um Bismarck hef gotta sure stay bei der place. Say, you hef der pull mit der Governor. You speak der gut word for me."
"Harran is the man that has the pull with his father, Bismarck," answered Presley. "You get Harran to speak for you, and you're all right."
"Sieben yahr I hef stay," protested Hooven, "and who will der ditch ge-tend, und alle dem cettles drive?"
"Well, Harran's your man," answered Presley, preparing to mount his bicycle.
"Say, you hef hear about dose ting?"
"I don't hear about anything, Bismarck. I don't know the first thing about how the ranch is run."
"UND DER PIPE-LINE GE-MEND," Hooven burst out, suddenly remembering a forgotten argument. He waved an arm. "Ach, der pipeline bei der Mission Greek, und der waater-hole for dose cettles. Say, he doand doo utHIMSELLUF, berhaps, I doand tink."
"Well, talk to Harran about it."
"Say, he doand farm der whole demn rench bei hisseluf. Me, I gotta stay."
But on a sudden the water in the cart gushed over the sides from the vent in the top with a smart sound of splashing. Hooven was forced to turn his attention to it. Presley got his wheel under way.
"I hef some converzations mit Herran," Hooven called after him. "He doand doo ut bei hisseluf, den, Mist'r Derrick; ach, no. I stay bei der rench to drive dose cettles."
He climbed back to his seat under the wagon umbrella, and, as he started his team again with great cracks of his long whip, turned to the painters still at work upon the sign and declared with some defiance:
"Sieben yahr; yais, sir, seiben yahr I hef been on dis rench. Git oop, you mule you, hoop!"
Meanwhile Presley had turned into the Lower Road. He was now on Derrick's land, division No. I, or, as it was called, the Home ranch, of the great Los Muertos Rancho. The road was better here, the dust laid after the passage of Hooven's watering-cart, and, in a few minutes, he had come to the ranch house itself, with its white picket fence, its few flower beds, and grove of eucalyptus trees. On the lawn at the side of the house, he saw Harran in the act of setting out the automatic sprinkler. In the shade of the house, by the porch, were two or three of the greyhounds, part of the pack that were used to hunt down jack-rabbits, and Godfrey, Harran's prize deerhound.
Presley wheeled up the driveway and met Harran by the horse-block. Harran was Magnus Derrick's youngest son, a very well-looking young fellow of twenty-three or twenty-five. He had the fine carriage that marked his father, and still further resembled him in that he had the Derrick nose — hawk-like and prominent, such as one sees in the later portraits of the Duke of Wellington. He was blond, and incessant exposure to the sun had, instead of tanning him brown, merely heightened the colour of his cheeks. His yellow hair had a tendency to curl in a forward direction, just in front of the ears.
Beside him, Presley made the sharpest of contrasts. Presley seemed to have come of a mixed origin; appeared to have a nature more composite, a temperament more complex. Unlike Harran Derrick, he seemed more of a character than a type. The sun had browned his face till it was almost swarthy. His eyes were a dark brown, and his forehead was the forehead of the intellectual, wide and high, with a certain unmistakable lift about it that argued education, not only of himself, but of his people before him. The impression conveyed by his mouth and chin was that of a delicate and highly sensitive nature, the lips thin and loosely shut together, the chin small and rather receding. One guessed that Presley's refinement had been gained only by a certain loss of strength. One expected to find him nervous, introspective, to discover that his mental life was not at all the result of impressions and sensations that came to him from without, but rather of thoughts and reflections germinating from within. Though morbidly sensitive to changes in his physical surroundings, he would be slow to act upon such sensations, would not prove impulsive, not because he was sluggish, but because he was merely irresolute. It could be foreseen that morally he was of that sort who avoid evil through good taste, lack of decision, and want of opportunity. His temperament was that of the poet; when he told himself he had been thinking, he deceived himself. He had, on such occasions, been only brooding.
Some eighteen months before this time, he had been threatened with consumption, and, taking advantage of a standing invitation on the part of Magnus Derrick, had come to stay in the dry, even climate of the San Joaquin for an indefinite length of time. He was thirty years old, and had graduated and post-graduated with high honours from an Eastern college, where he had devoted himself to a passionate study of literature, and, more especially, of poetry.
It was his insatiable ambition to write verse. But up to this time, his work had been fugitive, ephemeral, a note here and there, heard, appreciated, and forgotten. He was in search of a subject; something magnificent, he did not know exactly what; some vast, tremendous theme, heroic, terrible, to be unrolled in all the thundering progression of hexameters.
But whatever he wrote, and in whatever fashion, Presley was determined that his poem should be of the West, that world's frontier of Romance, where a new race, a new people — hardy, brave, and passionate — were building an empire; where the tumultuous life ran like fire from dawn to dark, and from dark to dawn again, primitive, brutal, honest, and without fear. Something (to his idea not much) had been done to catch at that life in passing, but its poet had not yet arisen. The few sporadic attempts, thus he told himself, had only touched the keynote. He strove for the diapason, the great song that should embrace in itself a whole epoch, a complete era, the voice of an entire people, wherein all people should be included — they and their legends, their folk lore, their fightings, their loves and their lusts, their blunt, grim humour, their stoicism under stress, their adventures, their treasures found in a day and gambled in a night, their direct, crude speech, their generosity and cruelty, their heroism and bestiality, their religion and profanity, their self-sacrifice and obscenity — a true and fearless setting forth of a passing phase of history, un-compromising, sincere; each group in its proper environment; the valley, the plain, and the mountain; the ranch, the range, and the mine — all this, all the traits and types of every community from the Dakotas to the Mexicos, from Winnipeg to Guadalupe, gathered together, swept together, welded and riven together in one single, mighty song, the Song of the West. That was what he dreamed, while things without names — thoughts for which no man had yet invented words, terrible formless shapes, vague figures, colossal, monstrous, distorted — whirled at a gallop through his imagination.
As Harran came up, Presley reached down into the pouches of the sun-bleached shooting coat he wore and drew out and handed him the packet of letters and papers.
"Here's the mail. I think I shall go on."
"But dinner is ready," said Harran; "we are just sitting down."
Presley shook his head. "No, I'm in a hurry. Perhaps I shall have something to eat at Guadalajara. I shall be gone all day."
He delayed a few moments longer, tightening a loose nut on his forward wheel, while Harran, recognising his father's handwriting on one of the envelopes, slit it open and cast his eye rapidly over its pages.
"The Governor is coming home," he exclaimed, "to-morrow morning on the early train; wants me to meet him with the team at Guadalajara; AND," he cried between his clenched teeth, as he continued to read, "we've lost the case."
"What case? Oh, in the matter of rates?"
Harran nodded, his eyes flashing, his face growing suddenly scarlet.
"Ulsteen gave his decision yesterday," he continued, reading from his father's letter. "He holds, Ulsteen does, that 'grain rates as low as the new figure would amount to confiscation of property, and that, on such a basis, the railroad could not be operated at a legitimate profit. As he is powerless to legislate in the matter, he can only put the rates back at what they originally were before the commissioners made the cut, and it is so ordered.' That's our friend S. Behrman again," added Harran, grinding his teeth. "He was up in the city the whole of the time the new schedule was being drawn, and he and Ulsteen and the Railroad Commission were as thick as thieves. He has been up there all this last week, too, doing the railroad's dirty work, and backing Ulsteen up. 'Legitimate profit, legitimate profit,'" he broke out. "Can we raise wheat at a legitimate profit with a tariff of four dollars a ton for moving it two hundred miles to tide-water, with wheat at eighty-seven cents? Why not hold us up with a gun in our faces, and say, 'hands up,' and be done with it?"
He dug his boot-heel into the ground and turned away to the house abruptly, cursing beneath his breath.
"By the way," Presley called after him, "Hooven wants to see you. He asked me about this idea of the Governor's of getting along without the tenants this year. Hooven wants to stay to tend the ditch and look after the stock. I told him to see you."
Excerpted from The Octopus by Frank Norris. Copyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
While more than a great read, I cannot pretend to agree with the dire determinism of the author, Frank Norris. This novel of California wheat farmers versus the Railroad (the 'Octopus' of the title) is in the naturalistic tradition of Zola. In fact I was reminded of my reading of Germinal at times while rereading this classic, yet flawed, novel. Norris tends toward hyperbole at times and the prose can be somewhat melodramatic, yet it is a lucidly written novel with fascinating characters. The poet, Presley, is one character who particularly fascinated me. Presumably a stand-in for Norris himself, Presley is able to comment on the action and almost persuade the people to rise up against the Railroad; however, he is ultimately unsuccessful in changing their fate determined by Nature. Norris planned a trilogy based on his story of 'Wheat' but only finished one more volume, The Pit, before his untimely death.
News stories about Occupy Wall Street and the 99% have dominated the headlines for the past year. These same themes also dominate this century-old book, which was a bestseller in 1901. Here, the Octopus is the Railroad, its tentacles suffocating and destroying the lives of hardworking ranchers and their families.This book is also personal for me. It's based on real events that happened around 1880 in central California, only miles away from where I grew up a century later. The Southern Pacific leased land to ranchers, and then after the land was developed and the lease time was at end, the railroad increased the price tenfold and then acted to force the farmers off the land. The end result was the Mussel Slough Tragedy, a shoot-out that killed several men and made the surviving ranchers into local folk heroes.Norris used those elements to create his drama of the West. He changed many of the facts; in his book, the incident takes place right before 1900, and the real places of Hanford and Grangeville have been altered to Bonneville and Guadalajara, respectively. The latter also has a mission in this telling. The geography is also strangely different with nearby hills and canyons that provide handy places for his characters to look down upon the valley of promise; in reality, the hills are some 40 miles away.There are some classics that age better than others. The Octopus is very slow to get going. It has a wide cast of characters and changes points of view on a whim. The women are stock characters, either simpering or overly noble; the real protagonists are the men. In Victorian fashion, the descriptions wax eloquent and can go on for pages. Very little happens in the first 2/3 of this 650 page novel. Much of it is building up the tension, slowly, and has a great deal of angst. However, when the end comes it actually moves along at a steady clip. It's a tragedy in a Rocks Fall Everyone Dies sort of way. Most of the main cast is annihilated: the men dead, the women suffering through miscarriage or poverty or prostitution. All of this is the fault of the railroad or their own moral failings.Those moral failings are heavy-handed in the style of the time, but also are not clear black and white. The most upstanding of the characters suffer because of their poor choices. A character I disliked immensely at the beginning was Annixter; he was creepy and anti-woman, with an angry fixation on his dairymaid. However, by the end of the book he had transformed and became a redemptive figure because of the love of that very dairymaid.The book is also steeped in the biased attitudes of the time. The head of the railroad is Jewish. The cast of good guys is very Anglo-Saxon. The lesser farmhands, such as the Portuguese, are regarded with disdain (which is amazing to me since the valley's Portuguese population is now so large and integral). The most blatantly racist line of the book is near the end, after a jack rabbit round-up: "The Anglo-Saxon spectators round drew back in disgust, but the hot, degenerated blood of the Portuguese, Mexican, and mixed Spaniard boiled up in excitement at this wholesale slaughter." It makes me wince, but the statement is also a reflection of the time period and must be seen in that context. Also, most of those wincing Anglo-Saxons ended up dead, but the so-called degenerates lived on. Perhaps there's a sort of Darwinism in that.It's not a fun read, but I found it fascinating to read a dramatization of events that happened a few miles away from my home, and I'm glad I finally trudged through the tome. Sometimes it's good to read a classic just to be able to say, "I read that."
The first book or section is extremely slow, and you're not quite sure where Norris is heading; however, stick with it! The next 500 pages are enthralling, read very quickly, and are scattered with moments of pure genius. A relatively unknown gem of American Literature.
This was a great novel. Really interesting details of the times.
This book seem like a one sided tale of how terrible big business can be. But late in the book our principal charitar has a meeting with the percieved evil person that is the President of the railroad. During this encounter the RR President confesses that at any time the farmers could have refused to do business with the railroad and pressured the railroad into more agreeable business arangments.
Frank Norris uses the English language like a fine artist uses paint. This is a brilliant, timeless novel that explores an interesting era of American history. I was leary to read the book due to the fear of getting a 'Sinclair-ian' socialist lecture, but this novel simply tells a human story with the objectivity of a good journalist. One of the true 'American' classics.
This century-old novel is as timely today as when it was first published. In an archetypal tale of struggle between farmers and Railroad, People and Trust, Norris explores the brutality, injustice and evil of the capitalist system. A brilliant, gut-wrenching cry of social protest.
Teddy ridiculed the writers and photographers wh exposed the darker side of prosperous turn of the century America. Norris does all of that and more buy exposing greed, corruption, hate, and family troubles in The Octopus. With memorable characters like Buck Anexter, Vanamee, and Hilma Tree this is a book for all time and all people.