Amber Waves of Grain

The Pit
Frank Norris

the_pitOpen outcry. It may be the romance in finance, to turn the old Tiny Grimes lyric on its head,

Readers of a certain age may not even recognize the term. But from the earliest days at the buttonwood tree until about 10 years ago open outcry was a way, and for a very long time the only way, traders communicated with each other. A trading floor in full roar may be the ultimate embodiment of Lord Keynes animal spirits.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Frank Norris, born Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr, was an American writer whose life coincided almost entirely with that period known as the Gilded Age. While he had some success it didn’t serve to secure him a place in the long-standing popular imagination.  Edith Wharton and Sherwood Anderson, to name two of his contemporaries, are far more likely known to the casual reader than Norris. Count me among the masses that reach college never having heard of him.

Frank Norris 1870-1902 A leading candidate for fisrt modern American novelist.

Frank Norris
1870-1902
A leading candidate for fisrt modern American novelist.

His most famous work, the one I was assigned, is McTeague. It is, as far as I know, the only work of literature whose main character is a dentist. Maybe that’s why he’s a lesser light.

Yet I think there’s an argument to be made that he’s the first modern American novelist in a way those other two writers I named (and a host of others) aren’t. And if that isn’t supportable I’d amend the argument to say he’s the first writer to establish what I’ll call the Californian style.

That style is not so much literary as accessible. It would be a stretch to call Norris a great stylist; you’re not going to weep or gape in awe at the beauty of his language. When he strives for that he gets a bit purple. But at his best he drags you in and pulls you along with vivid characters that make up in spectacle what they lack in complexity. That could be his own personal reaction to California. While born in Chicago, Norris moved with his family to San Francisco at the age of 13 or 14, a point at which I, for one, was quite impressionable.

The persistence of a strong image. Tamara Ecclestone, evidently a British Kardashian-type, rolls around naked in money, an image first imagined by Frank Norris.

The persistence of a strong image. Tamara Ecclestone, evidently a British Kardashian-type, rolls around naked in money, a scene first described by Frank Norris.

McTeague, in fact, marks the first appearance of what you may think of as Hollywood inventions. It  opens with McTeague removing a cue ball from the mouth of a patient.  A woman rolling naked on a bed full of money? It’s in the book. Handcuffed to your adversary in the middle of Death Valley? That’s there, too.  The date was 1899.

Having successfully married comedy and dentistry Norris set his sights on bigger game. In her preface to the Barnes & Noble edition of The Pit, Donna Campbell notes that Norris planned a trilogy to explore the workings and  downside of the emerging American economic colossus. He finished two-thirds of it before his sudden death. The first installment, The Octopus, is usually the only other Norris work you hear of. I’d certainly never heard of The Pit before I found it on the remainder shelf.

A commodities trading pit at the Chicago Board of Trade circa 1900, right around tthe time this novel is set.

A commodities trading pit at the Chicago Board of Trade circa 1900, right around tthe time this novel is set.

Some editions of this novel bear the subtitle “A story of Chicago” and that’s fair billing; it’s the Ivory soap of Chicago novels–99 and 44/100% of the action occurs north of Van Buren Street and south of the Wisconsin border. It’s the story of two people–Laura Dearborn and Curtis Jadwin–who end up married. Laura is an unusual woman for the time, educated, headstrong, not inclined to losing herself in romance but also almost  desperately wanting it, at least on her own terms. Jadwin is a self-made man in the modern American mold.

Campbell suggests that The Pit is like Bonfire of the Vanities in the way it showcases lives in a city. But Bonfire is a sprawling mess and Wolfe, as I recall, was emulating Dickens. He also made sure to tap into the whole city. By comparison Norris’s city is whatever bit of Chicago his characters are in at the moment and no one outside their class emerges for more than a sentence or two.

WHen Ferris and friends took the day off they tried out hand singals at the CBBOT.

When Ferris and friends took the day off they tried out hand singals at the CBOT.

No, the better comparison for Norris, I think, is Upton Sinclair. Norris’ plan for his trilogy was to do for the novel what Sinclair, Tarbell and the rest of the muckrakers did for journalism.

Often classified with the natuarlists,  Norris doesn’t really fit. His characters are capable of creating their own misery and he’s too relentlessly Californian to embrace the pessimism that’s seemingly required in that genre. You do get the details of daily life that’s consistent with naturalism. Still, it’ startling to see expressions you grew up with like ‘sitting on the stoop’ rendered in quotes as if it’s slang or euphemism.

So what of the tale? Jadwin is a man who likes to win. He’s a succesful realt estate developer who decides he wants Laura and, offstage, woos and wins her. He also, early on, takes a flyer on the wheat market based on some advance information, the type of scoop that turns a bet into a sure thing.

"The new harvest was coming in; the new harvst of wheat, huge beyond possibility of control; so vast that no moey could buy it..." (p. 312)

“The new harvest was coming in; the new harvst of wheat, huge beyond possibility of control; so vast that no moey could buy it…” (p. 312)

That score is the first of many and Jadwin proves himself a canny operator. Norris is particularly good with the scenes at the Board of Trade and on the trading floor. In brief, Jadwin tries to corner the wheat market and in so  doing, like so many speculators before him, he sows the seeds of his own financial demise with some terrible consequences for others.

In the end, it’s all a bit too neat. Despite sleeplessness, hints of an impending stroke and an incessant, internal drumming of “wheat, wheat, wheat,” Jadwin survives as does his marriage. We see the Jadwins off to California to start anew.

Norris has been criticized for the ‘love story’ parts of The PIt but I don’t think that’s fair. It might have been a commercial nod but more than likely it was intentional.  One of the characters, Sheldon Corthell, is an artist and delivers the brief for new combinations that don’t slavishly follow rules.

I can’t say The Pit is a lost masterpiece but the book and its author deserve better than the place they’ve wound up.

 

 

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