- From Fields of Wheat to Fields of ValueThe Energy Unconscious of The Octopus
Early in The Octopus, the first volume of what Frank Norris imagined would be a three-part Epic of Wheat, the would-be poet Presley, whose frustrated search for “the great poem of the West” (40) introduces us to Norris’s California setting, thinks he is finally on to something. Having graduated from what is simply termed an “Eastern college” at the beginning of the novel, Presley finds himself on Los Muertos ranch where he encounters the “world’s frontier of Romance” (9). Smart enough to know which way the wind blows, Presley is on the hunt for literary pay dirt. The only trouble is that the epic romance he longs to translate into literary pedigree is “out of tune” with the world he encounters (41). In the West the details are, literally, in the dirt. Puffed up on naturalismo, Presley learns to read the birth pangs of a fallow field, the will of wind, and the great, spacious rhythms of hydrology. Attuned finally from high in the San Joaquin Valley, Presley “seemed to dominate a universe, a whole order of things” (47). A new cartography rises up in front of him defined not by the people but the weather of the West. For an instant, he holds a new sense of setting. Yet the cartographic satisfaction of this version of naturalism is, in The Octopus, both provisional and, as a character quality, dangerously partial. Just as quickly as the novel seems to achieve aesthetic clarity, Presley’s scopic grip is shocked by the interruption of the “confused thunder” of Rockefeller’s train, on the one hand, and the “sobbing wails” of the sheep herd it turns into road kill, on the other (49).
The rail, of course, is the real source of this new setting. Its rhythms and density, its space and time, and its figurative force on [End Page 391] the landscape require a new, mythic form of naturalism that Norris’s novel comes to emblematize. Yet even while the rail and all it stands for comes to dominate the unfolding drama of The Octopus, its technological interruption expresses much larger transformations underwriting the novel’s attention to setting, the physical and cultural source of which are fossil fuels. But in The Octopus, like so many literary encounters with fossil-fueled transformation in the twentieth century, neither coal nor oil will rise to the level of content. Instead, to use Stephanie LeMenager’s phrasing, fossil fuels will surface as an “expressive form” (Living Oil 66), which is to say not an endogenous figure but an exogenous force on literary history. Presley simply cannot realize the havoc Rockefeller’s rail would have on the ambitions of realism until this scene in the novel, and his always provisional confidence in seeing “the whole order of things” will emerge and recede in step with the novel’s encounter with industrialization and the social landscape it generates. With the hyperbole of the futurists Norris anticipates, his novel presents an energic lexicon unique to the new century:
Presley saw again, in his imagination, the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon; but saw it now as the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus.(51)
This passage closes the opening chapter of the novel, from which we turn to the decidedly postpastoral drama of ranchers and the new international wheat market made present by the railroad. Which is to say, the novel turns its eye to a new kind of naturalism implicitly suspicious of Presley’s singular and seamless cartography. Presley will find himself routinely at a loss for words, the novel’s description of which indexes and develops an emergent sense of setting tied to fossil fuels.
The suspicion that begins to squeeze Presley out of the narrative—he becomes...