Frank Norris: “Octopus” (1901): Part One

Aren’t you ever going to learn any sense? Don’t you know that cheap transportation would benefit the Liverpool buyers and not us? Can’t it be fed into you that you can’t buck against the railroad? When you try to buy a Board of Commissioners don’t you see that you’ll have to bid against the railroad, bid against a corporation that can chuck out millions to our thousands? Do you think you can bid against the P. and S. W.? (661)


Octopus, the title referring to the railroad trusts that dominated the American West in the late nineteenth century, is Frank Norris’ epic novel. It is the first part of his planned “Epic of Wheat.” Octopus would explore the production of wheat in the American west. The next novel (which is not collected by the Library of America so I will not read it now), The Pit, is about the processing and sale of wheat in Chicago. The unfinished final novel, The Wolf, would have looked at famine relief in Europe, ending the epic with the consumption of wheat. Norris died before he could begin work collecting material on the final novel. The trilogy was as much about power as it was about wheat. The Octopus was one of the best novels I have ever read on power of capitalism to squeeze and exploit producers and the difficulty of opposing that power from within the system.


Much of the tension in the first half of the novel is about the different strategies of San Joaquin valley ranchers to oppose the growing power of the railroad over their lives. By the period described in the novel, the farmers of the west were transformed from subsistence farmers into petty businessmen cash croppers, tied into market networks that they did not create or control. From the perspective of the ranchers, the railroads are a malevolent force, an almost Lovecraftian horror.

Again and again, at rapid intervals in its flying course, it whistled for road crossings, for sharp curves, for trestles; ominous notes, hoarse, bellowing, ringing with the accents of menace and defiance; and abruptly Presley saw again, in his imagination, the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon; but saw it now as the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus. (617)

There is an entire host of issues brought up on the ranches by the presence of the railroad. The price of land is set by the railroad companies that claim that their “improvements” demand compensation in higher land prices and freight rates. The farmers, regardless of the success of a harvest, are tied to steady or rising rates. (The novel is set during some hard time for the ranchers, threatening smaller land holders with bankruptcy). Many of the farmers are indebted and are hoping for a “bonanza” year after a couple years of drought in order to pay off their debts. The high railroad rates threaten their recovery. Another issue had to do with ownership and pricing of land owned by the railroads but improved by the ranchers who leased the land. The railroads eventually threaten to sell this land to speculators. One of the more prominent men in the small community of ranchers, Magnus Derrick, had a history of being active in politics and sees the solution in political action. He hopes to elect members of the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Railroad Commission in order to keep the rates low. Others are more skeptical and confess the need to bride candidates directly to prevent them from becoming tools of the railroads. Another rancher, Annixter, reflects a more radical voice who sees politics as ultimately corruption and expresses total fatalism over their prospects of resistance. He refers to previous failed efforts to mobilize the regions farmers (perhaps suggest the era of the Farmers Alliance and the Populists although the inspiration for the plot took place around 15 years before those movements took off). Despite their differences, these ranches essentially are calling for a democratic economy in which they can have a say over the price of freight, which when rose too high means the difference between destitution and survival (regardless of how hard they work or how lucky they are in a harvest).

octopus1 octopus2

The signs of a farming economy in transformation are everywhere in the novel and are particularly conspicuous in the descriptions of the technological transformations taking place on the ranches. At the same time, the collective efforts during the plowing season (described in chapter four of part one) harken back to old American values of cooperation and rural solidarity, something rapidly being undone by the forces of the railroads and industrial agriculture. The collective labor in raising a barn are other memories of the American agrarian ideal. The romantic side of American rural life is represented by the sheep rancher Vanamee and the poet Presely. He sustained a mystical relationship with the land, unlike the more business approach of the larger ranch owners, especially Derrick. He is also the one who sustained a real religious perspective, cultivated by his mystical relationship with the land.

What I found most striking in the first half of this novel is how fearful the ranchers were of the railroad. The language that runs through the novel is that of a horror novel. “[T]he leviathan with tentacles of steel, to opposed which meant to be ground to instant destruction beneath the clashing wheel. . . . A leviathan with a heart of steel, knowing no compunction, no forgiveness, no tolerance; crushing out the human atom with soundless calm, the agony of destruction sending never a jar, never the faintest tremor through all that prodigious mechanisms of wheels and cogs.” (719, 720) The three major responses Derrick (fight with reason and argument), Osterman (resist with all force), and Annixter (fatalism) are all logical responses to this overwhelming and malevolent power.

Part one of The Octopus ends with the organization of the ranchers into a political force. The railroad issues letters to the ranchers (who are tenants) that their land will be sold on the market at rates that none of them can afford (they were earlier promised 2.50 an acre). This emerges from rage over the railroads schemes and the charisma of Osterman. They form what is in essence a local farmers’ alliance. “Everyone one of us here to join it, to form the beginnings of a vast organization, banded together to death, if needs be, for the protection of our rights and homes. Are you ready? Is it now or never? I call for a League.” (797) Magnus Derrick is elected the president of this organization. The stage is set for an epic confrontation between producers and capital.

“Legal means first; if those fail—the shotgun.” (796)

Richard Henry Dana, “Two Years Before the Mast,” Chapters 12-23 (Violence, Power, and Diversity)

One striking aspect of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast is just how often the crew seemed to be on the brink of mutiny.  At minimum, the crew was always searching for a way to avoid work but was always careful not to cross a line that would lead to violent confrontation (although this did not always work). This balking at work was called “work Tom Cox’s traverse” according to Dana.  “Send a man below to get a block, and he would capsize everything before finding it, then not bring it up till an officer had called him twice, and take as much time to put things in order again.” (71) It also seems that the plotting of work avoidance was something discussed openly over meals in the forecastle. If liberty days would not be coming from the officers, the crews found ways to seize their own liberty day.


Much of the second section of Two Years Before the Mast covers the Pilgrim and its crew while it stayed on the California coast, trading and engaging in the hide business.  We learn one of the greatest anxieties about sea voyages, particularly to the Pacific in these years, came from fears over the length of the voyage. It was never quite clear how long they would sail up and down the coast before returning home, or worst yet taking a trip to China or other Pacific ports. “All these little vexations and labors would have been nothing,–they would have been passed by the common evils of sea-life, which every sailor, who is a man, will go through without complaint,–were it not for the uncertainty, or worse then uncertainty, which hung over the nature and length of our voyage.” (87) It is strongly suggested that the information was held from the crew.  At the very least, this was how the forecastle seemed to interpret their lack of information. The crews relied on rumors and innuendo to psychologically prepare for the unknown. Lack of communication about things so central to sailors life emerges as one of the major ways that the officers and captains maintained their power over the crews, but it was also one of the potential flashpoints that could lead to resistance. From the perspective of the sailors, a little more respect and openness would have made the voyage, its length, and its odious labor more acceptable. In a sense, they were asking for democratic values to be put in place on the ship.


That the sailors saw themselves as less than free is reflected most directly in chapter fifteen, which describes in brutal detail the confrontation between a “heavy-molded fellow from the Middle States” named Sam and the captain, who proceeded to whip Sam in front of the entire crew as punishment for he “jaw.” When a highly-respected sailor John the Swede, intervened he was also punished. Hitting hard is the heavily racialized language of the exchange, suggesting that the line between slavery and freedom on the ship was slight indeed. Sam protested: “I’m no negro slave.” And the captain replied: “Then I’ll make you one. . . Make a spread eagle of him! I’ll teach you all who is master aboard.” (96—97) After Dana explains in detail the horrors of flogging and the brutal impact it had on the fellow crew members who saw their “brother” abused and humiliated, Dana reveals how the captain relishes the entire display, again in heavily racist language. “I’ll make you toe the mark, every soul of you, or I’ll flog you all, fore and aft, from the boy, up! – You’ve got a driver over you! Yes, a slave driver—a negro-driver! I’ll see who’ll tell me he is n’t a negro slave!” (99-100) And then, almost mundanely, Dana describes the next days labors, which went on smoothly except for the “dark hole” that hovered over the forecastle, the realization that they all lived under a tyranny. The flogging remained an unspoken reality for weeks on the ship. Anyone who brought it up was shut down by the crew, but it was the most present truth for that part of the voyage and perhaps the central even in the entire narrative.


Loading hides on the California Coast

Loading hides on the California Coast

I suppose I only want to say one more thing about the central part of Two Years Before the Mast.  The California coast, due in part to Spanish colonization and the arrival of intense merchant shipping activity, was incredibly diverse and vibrant. Near the hide-processing stations where Dana and the crew worked for long months lived Spaniards, Indians, Hawaiians (Sandwich Island Kanakas), and members of merchant ship crews from may European nations as well as the United States. This required a great degree of cultural flexibility of the crew that Dana presents in striking contrast to the hierarchical and singular nature of the powerful, such as his captain. “The greater part of the crews of the vessel came ashore every evening, and we passed the time in going about from one house to another, and listening to all manner of languages. The Spanish was the common ground upon which we all met; for everyone one knew more or less of that.  We have now, out of forty or fifty representatives from almost every nation under the sun: two Englishmen, three Yankees, two Scotchmen, two Welshmen, one Irishman, three Frenchmen. . . one Dutchman, one Austrian, two or three Spaniards, half a dozen Spanish-Americans and half-breeds, two native Indians from Chili and the Island of Chilow, one Negro, one Mulatto, about twenty Italians, from all parts of Italy, as many more Sandwich Islanders, one Otaheitan, and one Kanaka from the Marquesas Islands.” (153) What brought these people together was global capitalism on the California coast.  They came by different means and via different land and maritime empires but they all reached the coast in service of the God of capital. That service, reflected in never-ending labor and brutal discipline (verging as we have seen toward slavery) was the glue that brought this diverse lot together. Their cultural flexibility, creativity, and openness is striking and, it seems to me, a useful alternative to the mutual indifference and cultural isolation (albeit with the enforcement of respect) of multiculturalism.  Let’s call it solidarity.
Of course there is much more of interest, including his detailed descriptions of the work regimen in the hide trade and the social life in the California settlements (he is brilliant on the relative social and sexual freedom of Spanish-American women).  I may get to some of those questions in my next post.

Herman Melville, “Moby Dick,” The 300th Lay

The first thirty-six chapters of Moby Dick do much more than just set up the plot.  It is true that it is not until the 36th chapter that we are introduced to Ahab’s monomaniacal mission to kill the “white whale.” We are also introduced to the multi-ethnic crew of the Pequod, enjoy some fascinating discussions on religious relativism and its role in community, the exploitative economics of 19th century whaling, and the narrator Ishmael’s motives.


The novel opens with several pages of “extracts” revealing the evolution of interpretations about whales in Western culture.  The opening extracts, from Biblical and Classical texts suggest an evil or malevolent force, much like Ahab’s interpretation of the “white whale” as a “inscrutable malice.” (967)  Later extracts paint a picture of a whale as a scientifically-examined mystery or as a victim of industrial exploitation.  As whaling expanded, whales and whale products became a part of daily life, but it is still used as a symbol, suggesting the inability of humans to fully understand the whale, despite its role in society and centuries of scientific investigation.  Of course, over the course of the novel we will learn that whalers have a unique perspective on whales (going so far as to oppose the scientific designation of whales as mammals).  The transformation of the natural world into commodities to be studied, used, and discarded does nothing to improve our understanding of the plants and animals that share this planet with us.  Managers may spend much of their day around workers, but know little of their needs, desires, or lives.  Meat-eaters consume flesh from animals they are indifferent to and utterly ignorant of.  A butcher may have some additional knowledge, but likely little understanding.  There is no guarantee that a farmer will have a more spiritual or honorable relationship to the land than an city-dweller.  As in most things, the problem is one of power.  In five thousand years of science and technological progress we go from the Bible’s “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” to “he saw the distended jaws of a large Sperm Whale close to the head of the boat, threatening it with instant destruction.” (783, 792)


The novel begins in some familiar territory, a worker (in this case a teacher) bored with his life and seeking a new adventure decides to go on a ship.  Reading only the first chapter, we recognize Ishmael as akin to Typee or Taji.  Redburn and “White-Jacket” were straight up workers, lacking some of these romantic journeying of the characters in the Pacific novels.  Nevertheless, we get a richer and more cynical picture of the human condition in the opening pages of Moby Dick.  Ishmael has no illusions about a better life at sea.  He even claims that all humanity is enslaved and slavery on a whaling ship is not worse than any other.  He addresses the “November in my soul” by becoming a worker.  There is no Typee for him, no Yillah to search for.  He is also resigned to “Fate.” “I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.” (799)  Ahad’s motives are, of course, different.  He is on a quest to destroy and evil and malevolent force.  Those on the top can always redirect the energies into hobbies.  Working folk are lucky if their labors affirm any of their values or pique their interests.

After introducing his motive, Melville introduces Ishmael to Queequeg, a Pacific Islander.  This is the first hint that the interracial, transnational working class community of the whaling ship will play a major role in Moby-Dick.  As in Typee, the narrator begins hesitant to interact with people he deemed a cannibal.  (The tattooing plays a similar role as a facade of savagery as it does in Typee).  Queequeg is not only a Pacific Islander, he is also a pagan, a fact that will test Ishmael’s solidarity and openness.  We are introduced to the rest of the crew in the two chapters titled “Knights and Squires.”  We are introduced to the officers first.  Starbuck is the pure reflection of American pragmatism and capitalistic logic.  Flask  reflects more of the adventuring spirit of the American frontiersman.  Stubbs is the epitome of American cheer and optimism.  These three “knights” had three squires: Queeqeug, Tashtego, and Daggoo.  Together they represent an international working class stretching from Africa to the South Pacific.  In Mardi, Melville took the world and recreated in as a series of islands.  In Moby-Dick, he takes the world with him as the crew of the Pequod.

Pay on the Pequod and other whaling ships was determined by a fraction of the total profits of the voyage, known as “lays.”  Ishmael had hoped his experience in the merchant service would have provided for him a 200th lay, that is 1/200 of the profits.  In one of the most memorable parts of the early sections of this book, we encounter two of the major owners of the ship, Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad, arguing about how severely to exploit Ishmael.  Ishmael, already having decided to sign onto a whaling ship, has little bargaining power.  At worst, he figured a 275th lay would have paid for his clothes.  Bildad wanted to pay Ishmael the 777th lay and Peleg countered with the 300th lay, the amount he eventually agreed to.  The much more valuable harpooner, Queequeg, received the 90th lay.

The same class distinctions that divided the crew of the Neversink in White-Jacket affect the Pequod, particularly in the contrast between the ordered hierarchy on the top and chaotic democracy among the workers.  “Now, Ahab and his three mates formed what may be called the first table in the Pequod’s cabin.  After their departure, taking place in inverted order to their arrival, the canvas cloth was cleared, or rather was restored to some hurried order by the pallid steward. . . . In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain’s table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooneers.  While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their good with such a relish that there was a report to it.” (953)

There you have it.  In these early chapters of Moby-Dick, Melville describes the dynamics of global capitalism in terms of power, the make-up of the working class, exploitation, and environmental destruction.  This is the setting of his epic.