Towards the end of the century Norris made a clean break with the naturalistic method of writing. He wrote much about his views on realism in his critical articles. A collection of these articles was published posthumously in 1903 under the title "The Responsibilities of the Novelist". In these articles Norris writes about Leo Tolstoy. In his estimation Tolstoy was one of the greatest of humanists because his works were not merely pictures copied from life but were works written about the people and addressed to the people.
Norris's greatest work is his famous novel "The Epic on the Wheat". Norris had planned to write a vast trilogy, three separate novels on one and the same theme: the first book, "The Octopus", tells of the growing of the wheat; the second book, "The Pit", describes the marketing of the wheat; and the third novel, "The Wolf", was to be about the consumption of the wheat. But Norris completed only the first two parts of the trilogy, the stories of which take place in America. These were received with great enthusiasm by the readers. The third book, which was to beset in Europe, was never written because of the author's untimely death.
As seer, by the novels of the trilogy, the writer dealt with his subject-matter from a sociological and economic point of view. The epic form which Norris chose for the work demanded large canvasses. Norris showed man as part of society: the individual is swallowed in the enormous mass of people and is swept along with them.
"The Octopus" is a story of farm life in California; The Pit" —a story of the stock-market in Chicago. In both books Norris meant to expose the crimes of the businessmen and show how difficult it was for the farmers to struggle against the monopolies.
By the octopus Norris meant the new railroad that had been built across the great Californian valley. The agents of the railroad are the villains in the story. There is the local banker, Behrman, a land speculator, and an agent of the railroad; there is a lawyer who is also a politician, and other businessmen. They are a gang of robbers who decide to make millions of dollars for themselves first by literally stealing land from the farmers, and then by raising railroad tariffs on the shipment of wheat. The farmers who till the soil in the valley along the San Joaquin River are unable to pay for the shipment of their goods. The railroad ruins the Californian farmers and finally they are to lose their land. The farmers stick to their rights in armed defence, but it is the railroad firm that is victorious.
The railroad grips the wheat growers in its cruel tentacles. It spares neither man nor beast. The impact of the "octopus" is shown in one of the first scenes of the novel when a locomotive roars, by filling the air with the reek of hot oil, vomiting smoke and sparks; it destroys on its way a flock of sheep that wandered upon the track. "It was a slaughter, a massacre of innocents." Norris symbolizes by it the crushing of the men and women of the valley under the wheels of modern industrialism. The novel gives a picture of actual life in California. There is plowing, planting, harvesting, sheep-herding, merry-making, rabbit-hunting, love, labour, birth and death.
Norris sympathizes with the farmers. Everything he hated in capitalist America is concentrated in the land speculator Behrman. He is the great boss, the unscrupulous dealer and money-lender. He is victorious, while the farmers whose sweat and blood went into the land lose the fight. They all meet with a tragic end.
Norris, the realist, does not make Behrman die in the fight with the farmers, because he knows that there surely will be another Behrman of the same kind, should this one be done away with. Norris sees the wheat as the symbol of a mightier power than that of the masters of the monopolies — the power of the toiling masses; therefore, at the end of the novel, Norris has Behrman suffocated to death under the grain while it is being loaded into the hold of the ship.
Questions and Tasks
1. How did the sociological novel develop in American literature? I3escribe the new character that appeared in literature at the time.
2. What was the neo-romantic trend? Why was it easy for writers of this trend to publish their novels?
3. Who were the European novelists whose works appeared in the English translation in America towards the end of the century? How did they influence American writers?
4. In what way did the French method of writing influence the American writers, and why was the influence of the Russian writers greater?
5. Who were the progressive American writers of the nineties?
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