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California State Polytechnic University, Pomona The Inconsistent Octopus R O B E R T E . M O R S B E R G E R “How can you stand teaching The Octopus?” asked a colleague of mine who is devoted to the well-crafted fiction of Henry James. “Com­ pare it to The Ambassadors and it seems a work of rank amateurism. The style is turgid, the characters crude, and the philosophy an utter jumble of inconsistencies.” In a sense, he is right. Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus is usually identified as a major work of literary naturalism, the school of fiction known for combining a sordid realism with a philosophy of pessimistic determinism. Certainly these ingredients are in The Octopus. Yet it has equally prominent elements of Romanticism, mysticism, and Transcendental optimism. On the one hand, it is a muckraking novel denouncing the railroad’s abusive practices towards the California farmers; on the other hand, it denies the railroad’s responsibility and justifies laissez-faire in the name of the law of supply and demand. It simultaneously seems to call for reform and denies the possibility of reform. It is these inconsistencies that caused my colleague to despair of making anything coherent out of the novel. Though The Octopus lacks Henry James’s finesse, his psychological and stylistic nuances, though it insists too much on dotting its i’s and crossing its i’s, as James might have put it, it has a vitality often lacking in James’s sometimes attenuated narratives and Prufrock-like protag­ onists. Part of this vitality comes from its very inconsistencies. Life 106 Western American Literature itself is rarely consistent, and at the end of the 19th century, America was torn by conflicting views, values, and sentiments. The “gay” nineties were a decade of economic depression, labor strife, and fin-desiecle pessimism, while the official belief was in inevitable progress. Americans were obsessed with the gospel of wealth and venerated mil­ lionaires while simultaneously denouncing them as bloodsucking robber barons. They were apostles of growth who supported trust-busting. The churches were split between a reform movement advocating the social gospel and support for a plutocratic status quo with its doctrine that wealth and virtue were synonymous and that poverty was a sign of sin and weakness. The dominant literary genre favored by the critical establishment was contemporary realism, while the best-selling novels were historical romances. It was an age of slums and of sentimentality, of Victorian prudery and roaring pornography. The McKinley and Roosevelt administrations advocated imperialism, while many leading social and intellectual thinkers supported the Anti-Imperialist League. The star-spangled banner waved proudly over a field of skeletons, Fili­ pinos killed in a My-Lai-type massacre during their war for independence. As Mark Twain demonstrated in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, technology was making life more comfortable but provided the means for murderous mass warfare. Frank Norris was not a systematic abstract thinker; in many ways he reflected rather than molded the artistic, philosophical, and economic currents of his age. As a picture of America at the end of the nineteenth century, The Octopus may be more accurate and revealing because of its inconsistencies. Norris was clearly aware of some of the paradoxes of his novel. He introduces Presley as a poet who wants to write the virile epic of the West. His ambition is Homeric or at least Whitmanesque, but he does not know exactly what or how to write, except that he is sure it is “some vast, tremendous theme, heroic, terrible, to be unrolled in all the thundering progression of hexameters.”1 Presley, however, has a squeam­ ish overrefinement and recoils with horror at the uncouth brutes of farm hands. On one hand, he wishes to portray life realistically; on the other, “he wished to see everything through a rose-coloured mist.” (p. 9) He retreats when romance becomes realism. 1Frank Norris, The Octopus (Boston: H oughton Mifflin Riverside Edition, 1958), p. 7. All subsequent references are given in parentheses in the text. Robert E. Morsberger 107 The actual epic of the West has been lived by Vanamee, a patri­ archal...


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