Filed under: Books | Tags: books, cities, Frank Norris, realism, sheep, The Octopus
The Octopus by Frank Norris, (full title: The Epic of Wheat: The Octopus, a Story of California) was published in 1901 as part of an intended three part series about wheat. Norris sadly died after completing the second volume. But Norris, who the inside cover of this book describes as “strikingly handsome,” wrote about more than just wheat. He wanted to capture, in the style of the newly popular European realists, the destructive push and pull between wheat farmers and railroad monopolies in the West. He essayed to show how these big businesses (a popular depiction of them at this time was in the form of an octopus) hurt American families and small businesses while poisoning the whole industry with their black gold ink. Unclear if Norris will at any point talk about “big government” but I look forward to the likely parallels between his nostalgia for a wild, more independent America and some of the opinions expressed today about a changing american market and economy.
For now a passage, in which I feel Norris may not only be talking about sheep. His dreary account of this pack resonates with some the turn-of-the-century fears of big American cities becoming urban wastelands of lost abused and anonymous souls.
The sheep were spread out roughly in the shape of a figure eight, two larger herds connected by a smaller, and were headed to the southward, moving slowly, grazing on the wheat stubble as they proceeded. But the number seemed incalculable. Hundreds upon hundreds of gray, rounded backs, all exactly alike, huddled, close-packed, alive, hid the earth from sight. It was no longer an aggregate of individuals. It was a mass– a compact, solid, slowly moving mass, huge, without form, like a tick pressed growth of mushrooms, spreading out in all directions over the earth. From it there arose a vague murmur, confused, inarticulate, like the sound of very distant surf, while all the air in the vicinity was heavy with the warm, ammoniacal odor of the thousands of crowding bodies (28).