After the Civil War American life was drastically transformed under the impact of unprecedented industrial developments. At the heart -- and throat -- of the new age were the trusts, whose owners formed a new plutocracy. These magnates, by ruthless business practices, created enterprises and garnered wealth on a hitherto unknown scale. Americans, angered or bewildered by the trusts' methods and accomplishments, were confronted with the crucial task of understanding and evaluation. Frank Norris' The Octopus, published in 1901, is one of the most successful of the works of the American imagination which grappled with the new phenomenon.
The Octopus, massive as it is, was conceived as only the first part of a gigantic trilogy to be called the Epic of the Wheat, which would deal with the fundamental issues of American life by an examination of the production, distribution, and consumption of wheat. As Norris envisioned it, his herculean task was to be at once exhaustive and comprehensive. He wanted to impart significance to fleeting incidents by depicting the historical phase of which they were a part and tracing their cosmic implications. In the first volume he planned to depict the romance of the West, the passing of the frontier, and the effects of a trust upon an agricultural community. What is surprising is not the occasional blurs on the huge canvas, but the power and organization of the whole.
Seeking verisimilitude, he based the novel's plot on the Mussel Slough affair of the 1870's and 80's, a conflict over freight rates and land prices between the Southern Pacific Railroad and the wheat growers of California's San Joaquin Valley, which culminated in a bloody armed battle. Here in vivid form he could find or transplant examples of the ways in which a trust exercised its economic machinery and enforced its will, by corrupting judges and elected officials, to drain society of its wealth. The railroad industry was beautifully suited to Norris' purpose for its history was flamboyantly representative of the trusts' achievements, and it had played a commanding role in the reshaping of American life.
Norris amassed a mountain of material on all aspects of his subject and The Octopus carries with considerable grace a huge burden of historical fact. But he was not an indiscriminate collector and purveyor of facts. He freely condensed and transformed history to . . .