It was the year 1900, the dawn of a new century, a century of iron, steel and raw industrial power that some would later call the “American Century.”

     Almost a decade earlier, Frederick Jackson Turner, a Wisconsin professor, had noted in a celebrated lecture the end of the frontier since no more free government land was available. The notion of America as an agrarian society would soon be over.

     Already the myth makers were at work, the dime novelists and penny arcade shows that romanticized the old frontier, a land of vast spaces and rugged individual freedom.

     In Greenwich Village, a thirty year old writer named Frank Norris had taken it upon himself to write a saga of the West, a proposed trilogy about wheat, California wheat, the crop that fed the nation and was shipped around the world.

     “I think,” Norris had written his mentor, the distinguished critic, William Dean Howells (1837-1920), “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.” The first novel which Norris would call The Octopus dealt with the struggle between the wheat farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, in Central California, and the Southern Pacific Railroad, the mechanized monster, which crushed the farmers and ruined them in its grab for profits.


     The “idea” for the story–his “epic” novel–was “so big that it frightens me at times,” the young novelist had informed his mentor. Nevertheless, Norris was determined to press forward, and he did, writing away in his Washington Square apartment throughout 1900 in what historian Kevin Starr called “almost a single act of spontaneous composition.” (Kevin Starr, Introduction to The Octopus, Penguin Books, 1986)

     Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. was the ideal candidate to tackle the task. Brash, handsome, he was born in Chicago in 1870, the son of a wealthy wholesale jeweler. When Frank was fourteen, the family moved to Oakland, then a year later settled in San Francisco. They lived in an Italian style Victorian with a great bay window, near Van Ness and Polk, bustling streets filled with pawnshops and small tradesmen. This was the neighborhood that Norris would depict in McTeague, the 1899 novel that the young author hoped would capture life in San Francisco as Emile Zola’s novels had done for Paris.

      In the 1880s, San Francisco was at once rough and glittering, like the gold nuggets that the ‘49ers had pried from the earth and which built their mansions on the steep hills overlooking the bay. For an aspiring writer, the young city teemed with possibilities. The Gold Rush had drawn adventurers of all kinds and left behind other monuments besides mansions, including saloons and bordellos, whose denizens had come from as far away as Chile and Peru.

     In a rising metropolis, as in a young nation, history can move at pell-mell speed. By the 1860s when the piston engine gave birth to the locomotive, the old ‘49ers were squeamish about putting their capital into the railroads that were expanding across the country.

     In California, this vacuum was filled by a small group of newly rich Sacramento merchants. Their numbers included Charles Crocker, an ex-blacksmith from New York, and Collis Huntington who had worked as a laborer upon his arrival in California and who later rose to be president of the mighty Southern Pacific.

     Familiar with the wiles of the state capitol, they would become adept at bribing the legislature and packing the Railroad Commission to get their way. In The Octopus, Norris would depict Huntington as the pitiless railroad boss, Shelgrim, a man to whom the laws of supply and demand were a force of nature that swept aside everything in their path.

     Frank Norris’s mother had been a stage actress before her marriage, and she encouraged her son’s artistic aspirations. After a year in a public high school, Norris, his mother, and young brother went to Paris so Frank could study painting.

     In the City of Light, Norris sketched medieval armor in museums and learned enough Old French to read The Song of Roland in the original. This romantic view of history would later carry over to his writing in The Octopus.

     Norris attended art classes in the morning and began sketches for a painting of the Battle of Crecy, the 1346 encounter in which English archers defeated French knights and ended the Age of Chivalry. Although the painting was never completed, when Norris turned from art to writing a few years later, his creative approach remained visual. In filming Greed, the 1923 movie based upon McTeague, director Erich Von Stroheim is reported to have followed the book’s plot “page by page, never missing a paragraph.” (Kenneth Rexroth, Afterward to McTeague, New American Library, 1964) . The ten hour production was cut by producer Irving Thalberg to a more manageable two.

     Although The Octopus was composed before the first cameras rolled in Hollywood, there are parts that are almost cinematic. These include a shootout at a barn dance and one scene in which the narrative cuts back and forth between a farmer’s widow starving in the streets of San Francisco and a dinner party at the home of a railroad prince at which guests enjoy pheasant and sumptuous desserts.

     In 1890 Norris returned from France and entered the University of California at Berkeley. The young university had an exciting faculty, some of whom influenced the future novelist’s thinking. Foremost was zoologist Joseph LeConte whose lectures on evolution attempted to reconcile man’s brutal animal nature with the teachings of Christianity. It was the lectures of LeConte, and the writings of Cesare Lombrosco, a nineteenth century Italian sociologist, that led Norris to conclude that man was at war with himself, torn by heredity and a quest for spirituality.

     LeConte was a Southerner who had procured ordnance for the Confederacy during the Civil War. According to Donald Pizer, a noted Norris scholar, the professor’s lectures and writing influenced Norris’s view on the supposed supremacy of the Anglo Saxon race. To Norris, Latins are people of “untamed passions,” the Chinese “treacherous,” compared to the “robust Anglo Saxon strain.”

     Norris also may have been caught up in the Populist sentiment that swept the West in the 1890s and unfairly characterized Jews as agents of Eastern and international bankers that saddled farmers with harsh mortgages. Indeed, in one popular cartoon of the period, the House of Rothschild is shown as an octopus whose tentacles reach around the world. In Norris’s book, a hated Central Valley railroad agent is depicted as Jewish, though there is no historical evidence that such a person played a part in the actual events on which the story was based.

     As Professor Pizer points out in American Naturalism and the Jews, Norris’s anti-Semitism “...has long been an embarrassment to admirers of the vigor and intensity of his best fiction and has also contributed to the decline of his reputation during the past several generations.” ( University of Illinois Press, 2008).

     If LeConte and other professors provided Norris with a viewpoint, it was the novels of Emile Zola (1840-1902) that were to give him a framework for his narrative themes. “The world of Mr. Zola is a world of big things,” Norris would write of the Frenchman whose books he carried around the Berkeley campus. “The terrible is what counts; no teacup tragedies here.” Among the French naturalist’s works that Norris admired was Le Voreux, a tale about a miner’s strike that Norris described as “almost war.”

     In an 1896 essay in The Wave, Norris would explain Zola’s theory of fiction which also was to be his own: “Terrible things must happen to the characters of the naturalist tale. They must be twisted from the ordinary...and flung into the throes of a vast and terrible drama that works itself out in unleashed passions, in blood and in sudden death.” (Frank Norris, “Zola as a Romantic Writer,” collected in McTeague, edited by Donald Pizer, Norton Critical Edition, 1977)

     As a young man, Norris sometimes signed himself “the Boy Zola,” but at Berkeley he found time for other pursuits besides literature. He joined a fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, and drew illustrations for the school yearbook. Along with his fraternity brothers, Frank made the rounds of Kearny Street saloons and theaters where chorus girls kicked up their heels in the magical ‘Frisco night.

      At college, Frank left behind a legacy of good cheer. For years, after his untimely death at 32, a humorous dinner ritual Norris had concocted was held annually at Phi Gamma Delta chapters around the country as a tribute to him.

     A blind spot for mathematics prevented Norris from taking his degree. After four years, Frank left the university to enroll as a special student at Harvard. Norris’s parents had been divorced a few years earlier, and his mother moved to Cambridge to be near him. 

    At Harvard, Norris studied French literature and took a composition course taught by Professor Lewis F. Gates. Although the professor’s graduate assistant found the young Californian’s stories “gruesome”–even “repulsive”–Norris used the class to explore themes he later refined in his novels. A year before Frank entered Harvard, the San Francisco papers had been filled with a sensational story about a laborer who brutally murdered his wife. As Norris scholar James D. Hart noted in a 1970 book, the author worked on variations of this story which he later reshaped into McTeague.

     Richard Harding Davis had popularized the image of the dashing foreign correspondent, and in 1895, after a year at Harvard, Norris sailed for South Africa with dreams of overnight making his reputation in the Dark Continent. He was in Johannesburg when a coup backed by Cecil Rhodes, the English mining baron, seized that city from the South African Dutch.

     Norris was immediately caught up in the martial spirit and joined an English company to hold the city. “Fighting,” he would later write in a magazine article, “wakes...that fine, reckless spirit that is the Anglo-Saxon birthright.”     

     The rebellion fizzled, however, when Boer commandos forced a relief column to surrender. According to Kevin Starr, the future author was handed his passport by a police official “and given twenty-four hours to get out of the Transvaal.”

       Back in San Francisco, Frank Norris settled into the serious business of becoming a writer. He joined the staff of The Wave, a weekly magazine that had been founded by the railroad to promote a large hotel that it owned.

        There were “great opportunities for fiction writers in San Francisco,” Norris quickly recognized, and he explored every crevice of the city, from Nob Hill, the bastion of the rich, to the dark crooked alleys of Chinatown. “The people who frequent them,” he wrote of the neighborhoods of San Francisco, “could walk right into a novel.”

       After two years on The Wave, Frank had become tired of being a young man about town–one of those “fops” who attended elegant Pacific Heights dinner parties that he later mocked in his fiction. He took a leave of absence and headed for a mining camp in the Sierras where he finished McTeague, his tale of gold and greed. The camp superintendent was a fraternity brother who later was one of the models for Annixter, the intellectual turned farmer in The Octopus who is cut down in the prime of life by crooked railroad agents.

      At first, Norris had difficulty selling his book, but a Viking tale he had written caught the eye of S.S. McClure, a muckraking editor, who offered the struggling novelist a job as a reader at Doubleday, and finally agreed to publish McTeague after some revisions.

      Norris was in New York only a few weeks before he was off to Cuba to cover the war with Spain in which the sun was to set on one empire and rise on another. In the brief frenzy of that war, Frank was shot at, dashed off dispatches, and contracted malaria which may have helped to shorten his life.

      Some six years after Norris began it, McTeague was finally published. As Kevin Starr noted in a later paperback edition, “From the vantage point of 1899,” McTeague was “a shocking story.” (Kevin Starr, Introduction to McTeague, Penguin Books, 1982) With a few notable exceptions, like William Dean Howells, critics pummeled the book, offended by its graphic depiction of fighting and murder. Howells, however, praised the book’s Zolaesque boldness and welcomed it as a clear departure “from the old-fashioned American novel.”

      Frank Norris took the book’s reception in stride. “What pleased me most about your review...”he wrote a critic, “was the ‘disdaining all pretensions to style.’ It is precisely what I try to avoid...Who cares for fine style! Tell your yarn and let your style go to the devil. We don’t want literature, we want life.”

      Norris already had his next “yarn” in mind. It was a theme worthy of “the preaching novel,” he somewhat wryly told Howells–a trilogy based on the growth, distribution, and consumption of wheat. “The Wheat Series,” as he called it.

      The author decided to base the first volume–The Octopus–on an incident known as the Mussel Slough affair that had occurred in the San Joaquin Valley in 1880. A group of farmers had taken up arms against the railroad that was trying to evict them after reneging on an apparent promise to sell them land cheaply. Both sides refused to budge, leading to a bloody showdown alongside an irrigation ditch the farmers had dug in the sandy soil.

      The origin of the tragedy reached back to 1862 when a wartime Congress gave private promoters, including Collis Huntington, millions of dollars to link California with the Union Pacific Railroad in the East. As an added incentive, the railroads were granted alternate sections of land on each side of the tracks–over 12,000 acres for each mile developed.

      Even before the line was extended to the Central Valley, the railroad lured settlers west with circulars promising that after the land was improved, “most” would be sold at “$2.50 to 5.00" an acre, the going rate for public lands.

      Mussel Slough is in the county of Tulare–Spanish for marshland–and for twenty years, the farmers worked the soil, raising golden crops of wheat, “as far as the eye could reach,” as Norris would write.

      Early on, the farmers doubted the railroad’s promise to sell them land at a fair price. To avoid taxes, the Southern Pacific delayed extending its line to the Central Valley. When the route was built, the railroad charged exorbitant rates that were set by its handpicked commission. The farmers brought a test case in federal court to invalidate the railroad’s land patents, but a pro-business judge named Sawyer ruled against them.

      The circulars that drew the settlers to California had loopholes drafted by railroad lawyers. When the Southern Pacific valued the Mussel Slough parcels at forty dollars–well above the quoted rates–the farmers, some of whom were former Confederate soldiers, balked.

      Suits were successfully brought to evict the squatters; the new tenants were driven away by a masked mob. To protect their land, the farmers bought rifles, and began training as a militia, as Professor Oscar Cargill later wrote. (Oscar Cargill, Afterward to The Octopus, New American Library, 1964)

      The railroad struck back. It found dummy buyers, named Hart and Crowe, to purchase the land of disposed farmers. Crowe–was a skilled gunman. When the new owners showed up in Hanford to take possession of their land, they were accompanied by a U.S. marshal. Before he could serve his papers, an armed group demanded that he turn back.

      The marshal was about to retreat when Crowe pulled out a shotgun and blasted a league member in the face. The gun battle was on. Someone took a clear shot at Crowe, but the gun misfired. The mishap proved costly, for Crowe’s aim was deadly; three farmers died in the field. Two others and Hart expired from their wounds later.

      The marshal was unscathed. Crowe escaped into the wheat fields where he was found, shot dead in the back by an unknown avenger. In California, feelings ran high against the Southern Pacific; the San Francisco Chronicle described railroad owners as “transportation robbers.”

      Brought to trial, the league’s ringleaders were convicted only of obstructing a federal officer in performance of his duty, and served eight months in a San Jose prison. Upon release, they were saluted by a brass band and treated as returning heroes back home in Hanford.

      This was the drama that had captured Frank Norris’s imagination, and finally in the spring of 1899 drew him back to California “to study the whole thing on the ground.”

      Armed with a small advance from Doubleday, Frank began his research in San Francisco, where he poured over back issues of the Chronicle at the Mechanics’ Institute Library on Post Street. The facts about wheat farming were “piling up B I G,” he wrote in a letter quoted by critic Carvel Collins. (Carvel Collins, Introduction to McTeague, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965 ) Soon Norris was sure his book would be “straight naturalism with all the guts I can get into it.”

      The author briefly visited Hanford, then headed to the San Benito Ranch, some one hundred miles away for an extended stay. Located near the coast, the 5,000 acre ranch was owned by a college chum named Gaston Ashe, and his wife Dolce, who was descended from one of the Spanish land grant families.

      On the ranch, Norris took his place in the field during wheat harvest and studied the operations of the huge threshing machines, which he used as background for his novel. He also met a pretty Spanish nurse on whom he modeled Angele Varian, the ethereal beauty whose death in childbirth forms one of the book’s subplots.

      In constructing his novel, Norris took considerable literary license by moving an old Spanish mission inland and by making his fictitious ranches far larger than those in Tulare County where the farmers who worked the dry soil were known as “sandlappers.”

      The Octopus did not depict a class struggle; for that literary vogue was still thirty years away. Rather, Norris pitted prosperous farmers against the even richer railroad to give the story what Jack London later called “Titanic results.”

      Frank returned to New York in October 1899, filled with ideas for his story. It was an extremely happy time for him. He had fallen in love with Jeanette Black, a San Francisco debutante whom he had met at a dance some four years earlier. Their romance blossomed when Norris visited the city to research his novel, and Jeanette then joined him in New York.

      Jeanette was nine years the author’s junior. She was very fashionable, in a turn of the century style, with, as Kevin Starr notes, “brown eyes and Gibson girl hair piled high on her head.” Frank’s mother objected to the alliance, partly on the grounds that Jeanette’s father had been born in Ireland, but the couple were married in St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City in January 1900.

      The newlyweds settled in a two room apartment where Norris threw himself into his work. In October, they moved to a cottage in New Jersey. There Frank was able to complete his manuscript free from the distractions of the city.

      Sam McClure had left Doubleday, and Norris lost a courageous supporter; a few years later, McClure’s Magazine was to publish Ida Tarbell’s sweeping attack on Standard Oil. According to Oscar Cargill, Frank’s new editor was “nervous” about Southern Pacific’s reaction to a novel about the Mussel Slough affair.

      A meeting was arranged between Collis Huntington and the young author so that he might hear the railroad’s side of the story. The meeting took place in Huntington’s New York office. Norris fictionalized the scene in The Octopus in which Presley, the young poet, tangles with Shelgrim, the mighty railroad boss.

      Huntington was an imposing man with his white beard and stern manner. In the novel, Shelgrim is a "powerful" figure who brusquely dismisses the deadly conflict between the railroad and farmers as "a force born out of certain conditions"--the naked law of supply and demand. "I--no man--can stop or control it," he proclaims, before sending Presley away "stupefied--his brain in a whirl," as Huntington had probably done to Norris.

      More importantly, Huntington revealed that the wheat farmers had tried to bribe the Railroad Commission. This disclosure shook Norris’s idealism and put the farmers on the same moral plane as the Southern Pacific. Norris used the incident which blunted the book’s harsh criticism of the railroad and added to the raw naturalist landscape, filled with shady lawyers, a blackmailing newspaper editor, and a local railroad agent called Behrman who wanted to charge “whatever the traffic will bear.”

      The Octopus was published in April 1901, a month after its author turned 31. “Few major American novels have been as simultaneously dismissed and respected,” Starr has concluded. The contemporary reviews set “a pattern of response that has characterized more than eighty years of critical commentary.” A typical judgment was that of The Athenaeum, a Boston journal, whose reviewer criticized Norris’s verbosity and repetition, but conceded that The Octopus remained “a powerful and tragic piece of fiction.”

      Ever restless, Frank visited Chicago to research The Pit, his next novel, about the distribution of wheat. The book was written hurriedly, and when posthumously published in 1903, the critics agreed it suffered from prolixity, like The Octopus, but lacked that story’s Homeric breath.

      For several years, Norris had planned to move back to San Francisco. Howells had urged him to wait until he had established his reputation among the New York literati. With the first gush of royalties from The Octopus Frank, Jeanette, and their infant daughter relocated to the city Norris regarded as home.

      “Happiness in this world,” Frank had written his young brother, Charles, “is being able to devote all your time to work you love; nothing else matters.” Later, Charles became a popular novelist and spent decades as the guardian of his brother’s literary reputation.

      Frank was planning a trip to the Orient with Jeanette on a tramp steamer to study the consumption of wheat and was thinking ahead to another trilogy on the battle of Gettysburg. According to Kevin Starr, who is now a professor at the University of Southern California, Norris considered that battle “the supreme moment in American history.”

      On October 20, 1902, Norris suffered what he thought was indigestion. He delayed going to the hospital, and when he got there, his condition was misdiagnosed; the author’s appendix ruptured, peritonitis set in. A few days later, Frank Norris was dead, his constitution having been weakened by the fevers he had contracted in South Africa and Cuba. Following an Episcopal service, Norris was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

      Although Frank Norris’s work was highly praised by Jack London, and later Willa Cather and others, the Californian never made it into the ranks of great novelists, like Theodore Dreiser, whose early book, Sister Carrie, Norris had championed as a reader for Doubleday. Norris’s overwriting was fatal to a claim of greatness, as was his depiction of Jews and minorities as one dimensional characters, which is never a strong attribute in a writer.

      Both The Octopus and McTeague, however, are still considered important works of American naturalism and are taught in college classes. As for the Southern Pacific, its power was waning when the novel appeared. Huntington died before its publication; his generation of railroad owners was already being overtaken by modern corsairs, like J. Pierpont Morgan and E.H. Harriman, who used the tools of corporate and bankruptcy law to loot, then reorganize railroads for colossal financial gain.

       Only “the WHEAT remained” one of the characters, a strange seer, suggests at the end of The Octopus. Yet, even this was not so. After the small farmers of the San Joaquin Valley came to terms with their masters, and stayed on as tenants, they turned to new crops, perhaps exhausted by the struggle wheat had brought to the land.

       In place of wheat, were planted grapes which were also harvested as raisins and walnuts, whose groves soon stretched across the valley where they remain the standard crops around Hanford and Tulare today.

       Here, in an exclusive interview with American Legends, Donald Pizer, Professor of Literature Emeritus at Tulane University, discusses via e-mail Frank Norris and The Octopus.

San Joaquin Valley today

AL: How much Frank Norris material is available to researchers?


DP: There really isn’t much Norris manuscript material anywhere. Not one of his novels is available in full manuscript. There are scattered pages of McTeague in various libraries and private hands. Most of Norris’s letters didn’t survive the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The largest collection is at the Bancroft Library of the University of California (Berkeley), and it is sparse.



How did Norris’s own wealthy background affect his viewpoint?



It is sometimes forgotten that Norris’s parents broke up while he was in his early twenties and that money was not that plentiful after that. I would say that it is more useful to view him as having a middle class orientation rather than one derived from inherited wealth.


AL: Frank Norris has been criticized as a stylist. Some critics feel that he overwrote and was repetitious. Why didn’t his editor at Doubleday cut The Octopus or trim some of his prose?

DP: Turn-of-the century editors seldom revised style unless they believed it entirely unacceptable, as was sometimes true of Theodore Dreiser’s prose. Norris admired the prose of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, but there is a good case to be made that his own style owes much to that of Charles Dickens in its playful richness.



Has Norris’s style harmed his literary reputation?



To a degree. One well-known remark is that his prose resembled a wet puppy. A defense of his prose is that the novel by Norris's time had incorporated most other modes into its form and style, and that Norris was therefore writing a species of the poetic novel.



What was the American literary scene like in the 1890s?



Most of the periodical criticism of the day was conservative in the sense that it held that literature should amuse and instruct and that fiction which dealt with the everyday or with the tragic existence of the poor did neither. Thomas Hardy’s late novels, for example, were roundly condemned. William Dean Howells, however, despite the tameness of his own novels, was quick to recognize the worth and promise of the new generation of writers, including Norris and Stephen Crane, an endorsement that Norris greatly appreciated.   


AL: Some critics have seen in Jack London and Frank Norris elements of fascism.


I don’t see much profit in attaching twentieth century political labels to nineteenth century writers. For Norris to have shared a few ideas with fascism–notably, his racism–is a long way from the ideological core of fascism.


AL: Was Norris accused of anti-Semitism during his life because of McTeague and The Octopus?



I discuss Norris’s anti-Semitism at some length in my recent book, American Naturalism and the Jews. But to answer the question: I don’t recall any comments on Norris’s anti-Semitism during his own lifetime. His ideas in this regard were widely shared and there was little in the way of an informed Jewish press to respond to them.



In The Octopus, the character S. Behrman is generally considered Jewish, yet that fact is not explicitly stated.



Norris probably thought that Behrman’s characterization–the grossly fat conscienceless money grubber–was plain enough. It resembled common unfair caricatures during the period of the Jew.


AL: What American writers influenced Frank Norris?



Norris knew Stephen Crane’s work–he wrote an excellent parody of The Red Badge of Courage-and may have derived some of his depiction of lower class San Francisco from Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. But in general the principal influences on Norris were British and French writers of the period, especially Kipling and Zola.


AL: Was Frank Norris acquainted with Jack London since they both lived in San Francisco around the same period?


DP: I believe that Norris and London never met though they were both raised largely in San Francisco and were only six years apart in age. They were from very different backgrounds, however, and Norris left the city for New York at about the time London began to write for the magazines. Although the two writers resemble each other in a number of ways–their shared belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, for example, and their contempt for the “arty” in any form, there seems to be little direct influence of one on the other.


AL: One of the main characters in The Octopus is a strange mystic. Was Norris himself interested in mysticism?


DP: Vanamee is the only mystic figure in Norris’s fiction that I can recall. There was a great interest in mysticism during this period, especially in the possible ability to communicate with the dead through mediums, but Norris did not appear to share in it, though one of his San Francisco friends was an ascetic reputed to have psychic powers. Vanamee served a specific purpose for Norris in The Octopus as a figure who can, because of his powerful capacity to live the spiritual life, articulate the basic religious interpretation of experience that Norris wished to make clear at the end of the work.


AL: In the novel, Vanamee’s beautiful lover, Angele, is raped and dies in childbirth. There is a theory that the unknown rapist whom Norris refers to as The Other was the town padre, Fr. Sarria.


DP: I believe that an article supporting the notion of Fr. Sarria as the unknown rapist appeared some years ago. I don’t find any evidence for this idea either in the novel or in any external source, including Norris’s surviving papers.


AL: In both McTeague and The Octopus Norris writes of the hard side of San Francisco life–of beggars and prostitutes, greed and poverty. How accurate was his depiction of San Francisco in the 1890s?


DP: As in any American great city of the 1890s, San Francisco social life included great wealth and extreme poverty. Norris was prone to introduce an element of the melodramatic in his accounts of extreme need, as in Mrs. Hooven’s death [from hunger and malnutrition in The Octopus] but the conditions were themselves accurately depicted. There is little in Norris’s accounts which differ from the first-hand reports of 1890s New York Lower East Side in Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives.


AL: How important was Norris’s interview with Collis Huntington in terms of The Octopus’s ending?


DP: My own reading of the conclusion of The Octopus is that Norris was responsive to the personal power and philanthropy of Huntington but that he also recognized the sophistry of Huntington’s defense of railroad practices on the basis that they were inseparable from natural processes, a view that later came to be called Social Darwinism.


AL: Some critics believe that the book’s ending is a copout.


DP: Remember, Presley is initially impressed by Shelgrim’s argument but later explicitly rejects it since it does not reflect his powerful sense that the ranchers had been deceived by the railroad and that Annixter and Hooven have been lead to their deaths by its actions. In brief, Norris held that natural processes are indeed supreme and do in the end produce progress for mankind as a whole, but that men (and corporations) must still be held accountable for their actions. It is helpful in understanding this belief to realize that if one substitutes God for Norris’s idea of nature, one is left with the conventional Christian paradox of a benevolent and omnipotent God who nevertheless permits man free will and thus responsibility for his own fate even if it leads to evil.


AL: What American writers have Norris influenced and are there any of his literary descendants writing today?


DP: A number of specific influences have been noted, including the early work of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) . More recently, the scene in the late John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich, in which Rabbit and his wife make love in a bed filled with gold coins, closely resembles that of Tina in bed with her gold coins in McTeague. But Norris’s more significant influence on later generations of American writers was the general effect of his demonstration that any range and any aspect of American life was available to the American writer for serious-minded exploration.


(Additional background information was obtained from Professor Kenneth S. Lynn’s Introduction to The Octopus, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1958, and J.L. Brown, The Mussel Slough Tragedy, 1958 as well as Wikipedia, "Battle of Crecy." Retrieved Sept. 2010). AL would like to thank Michael Roux of the University of Illinois Press for arranging this interview.)


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