Heroic Fiction: The Epic Tradition and American Novels of the Twentieth Century

By Leonard Lutwack | Go to book overview

2
The Octopus

Of all the writers with whom we have to deal, Frank Norris was the most ambitious to produce a novel in the epic tradition. Following the example of Zola, he thought of the novel as the epic of the present age, and, in an article entitled "A Neglected Epic," urged American authors to write about the winning of the West as "the last great epic event in the history of civilization" worthy of comparison with the events that were celebrated in the Odyssey and the Song of Roland.1 He was modest enough not to cite his own book, The Octopus, as having already treated a part of that epic subject, although while he was working on the book he did not hesitate to describe it to his friends, including William Dean Howells, as "a big epic trilogy," a "big, epic, dramatic thing."2 The first edition proudly bore the subtitle "The Epic of Wheat." From Howells to Granville Hicks friendly critics have accepted Norris's denomination of his work. In one review Howells called the book a "prodigious epic," in another a social epic standing as an Iliad in relation to McTeague, which he deemed an Odyssey or "personal epic."3Hicks has said that The Octopus is "not wholly unworthy of the name of epic"; Parrington, that it is an "epic of the soil."4

The Octopus is the epic novel that Frank Norris went on to write, so to speak, after Presley, the young poet in the story, gave up his project to write a poem

-23-

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Heroic Fiction: The Epic Tradition and American Novels of the Twentieth Century
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iv
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Introduction xi
  • 1 - History and Definition 1
  • 2 - The Octopus 23
  • 3 - The Grapes of Wrath 47
  • 4 - For Whom the Bell Tolls 64
  • 5 - Bellow's Odysseys 88
  • 6 - Invisible Man 122
  • 7 - The Continuing Tradition 142
  • Notes 157
  • Selected Bibliography 167
  • Index 171
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