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  • A Note on S. Behrman as a Jew in Frank Norris's The Octopus
  • Donald Pizer (bio)

Frank Norris's epic novel of California life, The Octopus, is based upon the late 1870s conflict between the Southern Pacific Railroad and Tulare County farmers for control of large bodies of arable land occupied by the farmers but claimed by the railroad. The conflict culminated in the infamous Mussel Slough massacre of May 1880, when a number of farmers were killed as they sought to prevent their forcible evictions. Norris's sympathies were entirely with the farmers (or "ranchers" as he calls them), and he depicts in the novel the full litany of evils ascribed to the railroad by anti-railroad groups, ranging from false promises and corruption of officials to rate fixing.

Almost all of these practices are embodied in Norris's portrayal of one of the central figures in the novel, the railroad official S. Behrman. Behrman is not only the railroad's county land agent, directly responsible for management of its vast land holdings, but he also sets its freight rates for the area and runs the county's largest bank. He is in a sense the railroad personified. In all of Behrman's dealings he is superficially affable but also entirely untrustworthy and self-serving. Norris does not explicitly cite him as a Jew, but almost all commentators on the novel agree that he fits to a tee the late nineteenth-century anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jewish parasitical money-manager.1 Behrman is fat, oily in manner, greedy, and unscrupulous. His portrayal harks back both to the centuries-old Shylock image and to the more recent revival of the Jew as greed personified in the figure of the international banker. It should be recalled that Norris wrote The Octopus at the turn of the century, when both the western populist movement and the eastern distaste for the vast number of Eastern European [End Page 88] immigrants brought American anti-Semitism to a peak.2 In this regard, two well-known political cartoons of the day render the connection in the public mind (and thus probably in Norris's as well) between the Southern Pacific leadership and the Jewish financier. In the first, a cartoon in the popular tract Coin's Financial School (1894) portrays the House of Rothschild as a fat bloated octopus gathering in the wealth of the world (Harvey 215; Pizer 28). In the second, a widely reprinted 1896 San Francisco Examiner cartoon depicts a huge octopus with a head labeled "C. P. Huntington" (Collis P. Huntington, the president of the Southern Pacific) squeezing the life out of California farmers, merchants, etc. (Orsi 41).

Over thirty-five years ago, the late Robert Forrey published an essay entitled "The 'Jew' in Norris' The Octopus" on Frank Norris's portrayal of Behrman as an anti-Semitic Jewish archetype. Forrey accepted fully that Norris intends to portray Behrman as a Jew and thus to implicitly link the Southern Pacific with the exploitation of American workers and farmers by Jewish international bankers. He also acknowledged that he did not find a specific source for S. Behrman in that there were no comparable Southern Pacific land agents on the scene during that time who were Jewish.3 It appears, however, that Norris's research into the background of the Mussel Slough incident did produce a non-Jewish figure who could indeed have led to his creation of S. Behrman, and that Norris's transformation of this figure into a Jew thus further clarifies his intent in the novel.

The Southern Pacific land agent in Tulare County from 1869 to 1893 was Daniel K. Zumwalt. Zumwalt (1845-1904) was born in Illinois and moved with his family to the Sacramento Valley in 1854.4 After graduation from the College of the Pacific, he settled in Tulare County, at Visalia, in the mid-1860s, where he became a successful lawyer, farmer, and promoter of regional good works. He continued in all these activities during his long tenure as the Southern Pacific attorney and land agent for the county. His many activities included the establishment of dairy farming in the area and efforts...


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