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  • Anarchism and the Brute:Frank Norris, Herbert Spencer, and Anti-Government Atavism
  • Dan Colson (bio)

The Octopus was first published in April 1901, a mere five months before self-proclaimed anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley. Composed at the turn of the century, the first volume of Frank Norris's wheat trilogy not only takes up the era's anti-trust sentiment and progressive skepticism toward corporate power, but also evokes the anarchist menace, which threatened the existence of national governance. In the wake of Chicago's 1886 Haymarket bomb and Alexander Berkman's 1892 shooting of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, American anarchists like Johann Most, Emma Goldman, and Benjamin Tucker rose to prominence with their vocal calls for revolution and their highly publicized, yet far from consistent support for political violence. Late in The Octopus, when a bomb is thrown through S. Behrman's window, anarchism's violent potential appears: Presley acts only after a lengthy conversation with Caraher, an anarchist. Caraher is the only concrete instance of anarchism in Norris's work, but all of his major novels were written during an era of widespread anti-radicalism intermittently reignited by visible acts of aggression and perpetually haunted by anarchist rhetoric. Little attention has been paid to the impact on his work of these competing discourses—anarchism's call for revolution (whether violent or not) and the concomitant fear and outrage manifest in newspapers throughout the country.

This essay argues that traces of the period's fascination with antigovernment thought permeate The Octopus and Vandover and the Brute, which reveals Norris's engagement with and critique of Herbert Spencer's evolutionary theory. Spencer's purely scientific work posits what I call "evolutionary anarchism," while his writings on contemporary political issues espouse a classical liberalism that contradicts it. Late nineteenth-century [End Page 25] anarchists recognized this duality and were actively engaged in the political debates surrounding his work. In The Octopus, Norris juxtaposes Spencerian science with anarchism, entering into these politico-scientific conversations to construct a cohesive image of the "natural." Vandover, on the other hand, more subtly evokes anti-government thought through its attention to social Darwinism. As the mechanism that sutured Spencer's evolutionary anarchism to his liberalism, social Darwinism is critical to the stability of his synthetic philosophy. In Vandover, Norris complicates naturalistic tropes by granting social Darwinism a determinant role that shows the unnatural results of social "fitness." Together, these two novels reveal the specter of anarchism in Norris's work: its impact may have arisen from the violent actions of a few, but anarchism—in all its forms—was an important cultural question that saturated politics, science, and literature alike.

Anarchism, Spencer, and The Octopus

During the 1890s, Norris worked as a journalist, writing many articles and covering two wars, all while completing several novels. He lived in Boston, New York, and San Francisco and traveled widely. This same decade saw Berkman's failed attentat, Sante Geronimo Caserio's assassination of French president Sadi Carnot, the killing of Empress Elizabeth of Austria by Luigi Luccheni, and several other prominent acts of anarchist violence. These sensational events increased the public's interest in anarchism, giving Goldman and others a public venue to renounce senseless violence and explain their philosophy's peaceful nature. In the 18 September 1898 New York World Goldman declared that "even if this man Luccheni declared himself an Anarchist, I would be the first one to say he is not one [because] the philosophy of anarchy forbids the destruction of human life" (347). Throughout the 1890s and into the 1900s, she repeated this refrain in letters to editors, articles, and speeches covered by radical and mainstream periodicals. Articles by and about Goldman appeared in the San Francisco Call and The Oakland Enquirer, among other newspapers, while journalists across the country addressed anarchism's contradictions. Put bluntly, Frank Norris's brief period of literary productivity occurred at a time when anarchism—as a political philosophy and concrete threat to life, property, and nation—was unavoidable: it penetrated contemporaneous discussions of science and politics, and thus it is no surprise that we find overt and subtle traces of anarchism in Norris's novels...


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