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Bowling Green State University C H A R L E S L. C R O W The Real Vanamee and His Influence On Frank Norris’ The Octopus The shepherd Vanamee and the subplot in which he appears have always been the most puzzling aspects of Frank Norris’ The Octopus. William Dean Howells, in a sympathetic review, wrote that the “episode of Venamee [sic] and Angele, with its hideous tragedy, and the long mystical epilogue ending almost in anti-climax, is the only passage which can be accused of irrelevance . . Donald Pizer recently suggested that the Vanamee plot is “the most important flaw” in the work.1 Yet Norris believed Vanamee essential. Even before completing the novel, he wrote enthusiastically to Isaac F. Marcosson that the VanameeAngele idyll was “pure romance . . . even mysticism . . . and the fire in it is the allegory of the wheat.”2 The reader may find this allegory and mysticism, as well as Vanamee’s extra-sensory powers, inconsistent with the naturalism of the main plot, but Vanamee’s story is clearly intended as the story of The Octopus m miniature. The return of Angele, walking from the Seed Ranch across the fields of sprouting wheat, condenses the meaning of the novel, as Vanamee’s last conversation with Presley reveals. Indeed, the dialogues of Vanamee and Presley contain the artistic and philosophical beliefs upon which Norris tried to build his most ambitious work. It is surprising, then, that scholars who have traced the sources of other episodes, characters and ideas in The Octopus have given so little attention to Vanamee. It is still more curious since a historical model for this otherworldly character was suggested as early as 1932 1Howells, “Frank Norris,” North American Review, 175 (Dec. 1902), p. 776; Donald Pizer, The Novels of Frank Norris (Bloomington: Indiana U. P., 1966), p. 160. -The Letters of Frank Norris, ed. Franklin Walker (San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1956), p. 67. 132 Western American Literature by Franklin Walker.3 The source for Vanamee was a San Francisco painter, stained-glass craftsman, writer and art patron named Bruce Porter. The personality and beliefs of this close friend of Norris have a significance, heretofore unassessed, in the making of The Octopus. I Bruce Porter (1865-1953), born Edmund Cushman Porter, is remembered no|Wonly by scholars of California history, an occasional stu­ dent of Norris’ life, and San Francisco antiquarians. Yet his early career promised more than this relative obscurity. He was a man of undeniable talent, respected by men of greater fame, but, in retrospect, more important for his association with them than for his own tangible achievements; such men are often found on the periphery of literary or artistic movements. Henry James valued his friendship, and the warmth of James’s affection for the younger man may be measured by a recently discovered letter in which he praised Porter for “the beautiful magnaminity & the noble intelligence that you have always treated me to so abounding a measure of . . .”4 In 1917 Porter would marry James’s niece, Mary Margaret, the daughter of William James. Porter also knew Robert Louis Stevenson, and after his death helped to design a monument for him in San Francisco. He was a longtime friend and correspondent of the poet Louise Imogen Guiney. And in the 1890’s, in San Francisco, there was hardly a writer or artist of consequence with whom the young Porter was not associated. In that period of San Francisco’s cultural infancy he was thought by Gelett Burgess “the most picturesque, romantic, stimulating figure in the new California.”"' He had already been made secretary of the city’s Guild of Arts and Crafts and was displaying a talent to “sense and 3Franklin Walker, Frank Norris: A Biography (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1932), p. 260. 4Dated May 15, 1911. This letter and other Porter family documents have been lent to the Bancroft Library of the University of California by Mrs. Robert Bruce Porter. Quoted by permission of James D. Hart, Director of the Bancroft Library. 5Gelett Burgess, Bayside Bohemia: Fin de Siècle San Francisco and Its Little Magazines, ed. James D. Hart (San Francisco: The Book Club of California...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 131-139
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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