Scientific theories and economic realities have often influenced a writer’s assumptions and style. The biological and economic determinism popular in the late nineteenth century shaped the literary theory of naturalism that Émile Zola popularized in Europe. Stephen Crane, the first American proponent of this genre, introduced readers to the forms of naturalism during the early 1890’s and was soon followed by Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and others. Authors who drew on naturalism dealt with four implicitly antagonistic elements—frankness, objectivity, determinism, and fatalism. As with a scientific theory in the hands and heads of subjective human observers, naturalism often succumbed to a not-so-subtle moralism.
Norris, one of the most promising American followers of Zola, died young. His fame as a novelist had been secured by the publication of McTeague in 1899, and the brilliance of his career grew more intense with the appearance of The Octopus in 1901. The latter title was the first volume of Norris’s intended Epic of the Wheat trilogy. The Octopus deals with the production of wheat, while The Pit describes the marketing of the grain; the final, unwritten volume, “The Wolf,” was to have covered the consumption of wheat.
Like his mentor Zola, Norris depicts large, dramatic scenes, such as the vast expanses of the San Joaquin Valley in California or the tumult on the floor of the Chicago grain exchange. These vivid scenes testify to the nation’s fertile soil, a hard-working populace, the technological imagination of inventors, and the organizational flair of entrepreneurs. Considering the menacing determinism in the titles of Norris’s books, it becomes evident that the human and social potential of the growing nation is countered by the fatalism of the life-cycle analogy, and the realities of the victors-and-the-vanquished syndrome.
Henry James and William Dean Howells were abandoned; Norris and his colleagues became the literary spokespersons of the populists, and the vanguard of the muckrakers. Norris sensed the passing of the old America of warmth, community, and lasting personal relationships. He was eager to humanize the new emerging society that was altered by the impersonal forces of urbanization and controlled by unsavory business tactics. To others, the decline of the genteel tradition signaled the passing of the great race and the...
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