(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Pit was the second novel in Norris’s proposed trilogy called “The Epic of the Wheat.” In this “story of Chicago,” Norris moves from the production of wheat to its distribution on world markets, from the natural countryside of California to the artificial terrain of futures speculation. Continuing his portrayal of the effects of temptation and greed, Norris also depicts the decline evident in the space of only one generation—from the moral generation of elders who made their money through honest labor to their degenerate offspring who labor only after money and the power it bestows.

The Pit was Norris’s most successful novel in terms of sales and initial reception; this may have been aided in part by its publication so soon after his sudden death, but it was also a novel that spoke directly to the times. Every major American naturalist, from Stephen Crane to Jack London and from Rebecca Harding Davis to Edith Wharton, acknowledged through their fiction that speculation—gambling on the future—had become an ironic indicator not only of economic but also of social “progress” in the United States.

Norris’s plot of Curtis Jadwin’s fascinating and ruthless efforts to corner the Chicago wheat market was based on an actual event in 1897, when Joseph Leiter attempted such a feat. In fictionalizing the story, Norris reflected upon the cultural implications of such daring maneuvers. He was interested not only in the consequences of illegal market manipulations but also in the facets of human nature that would lead someone to commit such an act. In Curtis Jadwin, one discovers a man whose life is so financially secure (but without direction, without goals for achievement) that, for him, the adventure of such an endeavor becomes its greatest appeal. Norris had predicted in The Octopus that the wheat would always prevail as a natural force; in The Pit, he demonstrates that power against all calculations of human reason when an unexpected bumper crop thwarts Jadwin’s illegal designs.

Against this background, Norris also...

(The entire section is 861 words.)