Octopus: A Story of California

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Novel by Frank Norris published in 1901 as the first part of his uncompleted trilogy, “The Epic of the Wheat.”

The central theme in this realistic study of California farm life is the growing and harvesting of the wheat. Magnus Derrick operates the great Rancho de los Muertos, near Bonneville in the San Joaquin Valley, and is the leading spokesman for the farmers of the community. His son Harran helps him to manage their tenants and agricultural activities, while another son, Lyman, is a corporation lawyer in San Francisco. Among the neighboring farmers are Broderson, Osterman, and Annixter, all of whom are associated in a struggle to resist the encroachments of the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad, which dominates the state government and gradually extends its monopoly over other industries. The railroad is in complete control of Bonneville, for it subsidizes Genslinger, editor of the town paper, and, through S. Behrman, its unofficial agent, influences prices, interest rates, and all financial transactions. Presley, a poet from the East, stays for a time at Derrick's ranch and learns to sympathize with the cause of the oppressed farmers. He writes a poem about them that is widely popular, but finds it has no effect in the conflict of tremendous issues and resigns himself to being only an observer of the stirring events which follow. The farmers hold much of their land on option from the railroad, which raises the price enormously and puts up the land for public sale. Outraged by the broken promises and unfair tactics of Behrman and the corporation, the farmers form a protective league to protest and influence the state administration in their interests, electing Magnus Derrick their president. The league succeeds in placing Lyman on the state commission to fix rates, but he is bribed by the railroad and betrays his backers. When the railroad causes legal authorities to dispossess the farmers of their land, they revolt and in an armed clash many are killed, including Annixter. The railroad has now won complete domination, and the families of the insurgents are thrown into poverty and suffering. Magnus has been disgraced and ruined and is forced to enter the employment of Behrman, who is later accidentally smothered to death while watching the loading on shipboard of his own dishonestly gained wheat. Presley, indignant over the outrages he has witnessed, visits Shelgrim, president of the railroad, but instead of the inhumane criminal he had expected finds Shelgrim sentimental and genial, convinced that his actions are dictated by circumstances and economic laws.

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Frank Norris (1870—1902)

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