- Transforming HistoryThe Economic Context of Frank Norris's "A Deal in Wheat"
Despite the belief that Frank Norris's "A Deal in Wheat" has little significance save as a preliminary sketch for The Pit, the story is a self-contained unit that illustrates the causative agents governing the experiences of the working class.1 Norris develops the societal influences operating upon the protagonist, Sam Lewiston, through aspects of Joseph Leiter and P. D. Armour's battle for control of the nation's wheat between April 1897 and June 1898. As David Marut has demonstrated, these individuals serve as the models for the speculators in the work: Hornung, the bull dealer who purchases when the market is depressed and hopes to sell at a higher price; and Truslow, the bear trader who sells stock for future delivery in the belief that rates will decrease (75).2 Marut observes that Norris condensed the forces responsible for the central character's plight "so that economic control fell to the Chicago Board of Trade speculators alone as he created a story that dramatized the need for change in policies governing the grain market" (79). While Marut has made an important contribution to Norris scholarship by identifying the factual antecedents of the text, it is possible to extend this discussion, which centers on May 1898, by analyzing events from earlier in the Leiter-Armour struggle that are relevant to the narrative. The action of "A Deal in Wheat" suggests that Norris combined Leiter's first attempted corner in December 1897 with his second of five months later, and this broader temporal range highlights the significant role of market speculation in the economic determinism operating on the rural and urban poor.
The basic events of the narrative stem from actual occurrences on the Chicago Board of Trade. Leiter, the son of millionaire Marshall Fields's cofounder Levi Z. Leiter, began purchasing wheat in April 1897 after allegedly flipping a coin to determine whether to buy stocks in the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway or to attempt a corner of the nation's wheat [End Page 119] supply (Leech and Carroll 306). After settling on the latter course of action to acquire a sufficient quantity of grain in order to manipulate its price, Leiter came into conflict with Armour, co-founder of the Armour Elevator Company. He had considerable authority at the Board of Trade to the extent that he was able to break his competitor's attempt to control the market in December 1897, and Armour was also able to take on Leiter's holdings for the purposes of distribution after his financial collapse the following year. While conducting research for The Pit in Chicago, Norris learned the details of Leiter's rise and fall through examining newspaper accounts of his battle with Armour. As Joseph R. McElrath and Jesse S. Crisler observe, "Joseph Leiter was the main reason for the hours spent in the public library's newspaper files," and Norris "was again taking his prompt from the press" in his representation of these proceedings (389). They further posit that after finishing his investigation in Chicago, "he had recovered from periodicals the outline of Leiter's rise and fall" (390). Although the exact articles that Norris used as his sources for "A Deal in Wheat" are unclear, the central events of the narrative correspond to the Chicago Tribune coverage of Leiter's market activities, which sheds light on the historical context that frames the action of "A Deal in Wheat" and allows for a broader understanding of the economic determinism in the story.
Norris identifies Hornung and Truslow as the deterministic agents in the text as their control of the nation's wheat supply gives them the power to manipulate prices with dire consequences for both producers and consumers. Reflecting on the forces that engendered Lewiston's circumstances, the narrator contends that
the great operators, who never saw the wheat they traded in, bought and sold the world's food, gambled in the nourishment of entire nations, practised their tricks, their chicanery and oblique shifty "deals," were reconciled in their differences, and went on through their appointed way, jovial...