Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Notes on Frank Norris' The Octopus

_The Octopus_ by Frank Norris (NY:  Bantam Books, 1958) is a novel about CA wheat growers and their fight against the railroad at the turn from 19th to 20th century.  It was the first of a trilogy that Norris planned on "Epic of the Wheat," from growth to market to feeding the hungry.  He didn't live to finish the third book.

The story is based upon a real incident, The Mussel Slough Tragedy of May 11, 1880, where seven people were killed in a land dispute with the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) in central San Joaquin Valley.

Large wheat growers consider bribing and buying a railroad commissioner:
(page 71)  “I can be no party to a scheme of avowed bribery and corruption, Mr Osterman,” declared Magnus, a ring of severity in his voice.  “I am surprised, sir, that you should even broach the subject in my hearing.”

“And,” cried Annixter, “it can’t be done.”

I liked these for the turn of phrase:
(95)  Hope, after all, is only memory seen reversed.
(100)  …watching the night build itself, dome-like, from horizon to zenith.

Advice from Mr Cedarquist of the Atlas Company:
(203)  The great word of this nineteenth century has been Production.    The great word of the twentieth century will be - listen to me, you youngsters - Markets.

(208) hylozoism - the doctrine that all matter has life

Society ladies and their clubs:
(208-209)  It was the Fake, the eternal, irrepressible Sham;  glib, nimble, ubiquitous, tricked out in all the paraphernalia of imposture, an endless defile of charlatans that passed interminably before the gaze of the city, marshalled by “lady presidents,” exploited by clubs of women, by literary societies, reading circles and culture organizations.  The attention the Fake received, the time devoted to it, the money which it absorbed, were incredible.  It was all one that impostor after impostor was exposed;  it was all one that the clubs, the circles, the societies were proved beyond doubt to have been swindled.  The more the Philistine press of the city railed and guyed, the more the women rallied to the defense of their protégé of the hour.  That their favorite was persecuted, was to them a veritable rapture.  Promptly they invested the apostle of culture with the glamour of a martyr.

The fakirs worked the community with bursting pocket-books, passing on the word to the next in line, assured that the place was not worked out, knowing well that there was enough for all.

After the deaths:
(369)  “They own us, these task-masters of ours;  they own our homes, they own our legislatures.  We cannot escape from them.  There is no redress.  We are told we can defeat them by the ballot-box.  They own the ballot-box.  We are told that we must look to the courts for redress;  they own the courts.  We know them for what they are - ruffians in politics, ruffians in finance, ruffians in law, ruffians in trade, bribers, swindlers, and tricksters.  No outrage too great to daunt them, no petty larceny too small to shame them;  despoiling a government treasury of a million dollars, yet picking the pockets of a farm hand of the price of a loaf of bread.

“They swindle a nation of a hundred million and call it Financiering;  they levy a blackmail and call it Commerce;  they corrupt a legislature and call it Politics;  they bribe a judge and call it Law;  they hire blacklegs to carry out their plans and call it Organization;  they prostitute the honor of a State and call it Competition.

The President of the railroad speaks:
(386)  “You are a very young man.  Control the Road!  Can I stop it?  I can go into bankruptcy if you like.  But otherwise if I run my road, as a business proposition, I can do nothing.  I can _not_ control it.  It is a force born out of certain conditions, and I - no man - can stop it or control it.  Can your Mr Derrick stop the Wheat growing?  He can burn his crop, or he can give it away, or sell it for a cent a bushel - just as I could go into bankruptcy - but otherwise his Wheat must grow.  Can anyone stop the Wheat?  Well, then, no more can I stop the Road.

Vanamee the shepherd and wanderer
(426-427)  “Death and grief are little things,” he said.  “They are transient.  Life must be before death, and joy before grief.  Else there are no such things as death or grief.  These are only negatives.  Life is positive.  Death is only the absence of life, just as night is only the absence of day, and if this is so, there is no such thing as death.  there is only life, and the suppression of life, that we, foolishly, say is death.  ‘Suppression,’ I  say, not extinction.  I do not say that life returns.  Life never departs.  Life simply _is_.  For certain seasons, it is hidden in the dark, but is that death, extinction, annihilation?  I take it, thank God, that it is not.  Does the grain of wheat, hidden for certain seasons in the dark, die?  The grain we think is dead _resumes again_;  but how?  Not as one grain, but as twenty.  So all life.  Death is only real for all the detritus of the world, for all the sorrow, for all the injustice, for all the grief.  Presley, the good never dies;  evil dies, cruelty, oppression, selfishness, greed - these die;  but nobility, but love, but sacrifice, but generosity, but truth, thank God for it, small as they are, difficult as it is to discover them - these live forever, these are eternal.  You are all broken, all cast down by what you have seen in this valley, this hopeless struggle, this apparently hopeless despair.  Well, the end is not yet.  What is it that remains broken?  Look at it all from the vast height of humanity - ‘the greatest good to the greatest numbers.’  What remains?  Men perish, men are corrupted, hearts are rent asunder, but what reamins untouched unassailable, undefiled?  Try to find that, not only in this, but in every crisis of the world’s life, and you will find, if your view be large enough, that it is _not_ evil, but good, that in the end remains."

(427)  “We shall probably never meet again,” said Vanamee;  “but if these are the last words I ever speak to you, listen to them, and remember them, because I know I speak the truth.  Evil is short-lived.  Never judge of the whole round of life by the mere segment you can see.  The whole is, in the end, perfect."

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