On May 11, 1880, at a San Joaquin Valley ranch, a shootout between tenant farmers and a sheriff’s posse left seven dead. The dispute was over land rights. The law was acting in the service of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
This tragedy marked the beginning of the end for the American frontier, and it became the inspiration for Frank Norris’s epic tale of wheat croppers struggling against the tightening grip of the railroad industry.
With a cast of characters ranging from poor hired hands to wealthy landowners and railroad barons, Norris’s novel goes beyond its central conflict to chronicle the myriad political and social issues that rippled out from it. The first work in Norris’s planned Epic of the Wheat Trilogy, The Octopus was an important exposé of railroad greed that drew comparisons to Émile Zola for its incredible breadth. It is a great read for fans of gritty, historically inspired western series such as Deadwood or Hell on Wheels.
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McTeague and his bride, Trina, begin their marriage on a happy note—Trina has won $5,000 in a lottery. But Trina, in a fit of frugality, refuses to touch the principal from her lottery win and instead invests the money with her uncle. When McTeague's dental practise is shut down by local authorities, the couple's financial means is quickly exhausted, and they descend into poverty with disastrous and shocking consequences.
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A Story of California
by Frank Norris
Just after passing Caraher's saloon, on the County Road that ran
south from Bonneville, and that divided the Broderson ranch from
that of Los Muertos, Presley was suddenly aware of the faint and
prolonged blowing of a steam whistle that he knew must come from
the railroad shops near the depot at Bonneville. In starting out
from the ranch house that morning, he had forgotten his watch,
and was now perplexed to know whether the whistle was blowing for
twelve or for one o'clock. He hoped the former. Early that
morning he had decided to make a long excursion through the
neighbouring country, partly on foot and partly on his bicycle,
and now noon was come already, and as yet he had hardly started.
As he was leaving the house after breakfast, Mrs. Derrick had
asked him to go for the mail at Bonneville, and he had not been
able to refuse.
He took a firmer hold of the cork grips of his handlebars--the
road being in a wretched condition after the recent hauling of
the crop--and quickened his pace. He told himself that, no
matter what the time was, he would not stop for luncheon at the
ranch house, but would push on to Guadalajara and have a Spanish
dinner at Solotari's, as he had originally planned.
There had not been much of a crop to haul that year. Half of the
wheat on the Broderson ranch had failed entirely, and Derrick
himself had hardly raised more than enough to supply seed for the
winter's sowing. But such little hauling as there had been had
reduced the roads thereabouts to a lamentable condition, and,
during the dry season of the past few months, the layer of dust
had deepened and thickened to such an extent that more than once
Presley was obliged to dismount and trudge along on foot, pushing
his bicycle in front of him.
It was the last half of September, the very end of the dry
season, and all Tulare County, all the vast reaches of the San
Joaquin Valley--in fact all South Central California, was bone
dry, parched, and baked and crisped after four months of
cloudless weather, when the day seemed always at noon, and the
sun blazed white hot over the valley from the Coast Range in the
west to the foothills of the Sierras in the east.
As Presley drew near to the point where what was known as the
Lower Road struck off through the Rancho de Los Muertos, leading
on to Guadalajara, he came upon one of the county watering-tanks,
a great, iron-hooped tower of wood, straddling clumsily on its
four uprights by the roadside. Since the day of its completion,
the storekeepers and retailers of Bonneville had painted their
advertisements upon it. It was a landmark. In that reach of
level fields, the white letters upon it could be read for miles.
A watering-trough stood near by, and, as he was very thirsty,
Presley resolved to stop for a moment to get a drink.
Russ Castronovo’s new edition gathers historical materials on literary naturalism, gender and criminality, and the visual culture of the late nineteenth century.
A literary sensation when first published in 1899, Frank Norris' cult classic was one of the earliest works in American literature to present a compelling, realistic view of human nature at its most basic level. It was also the the basis for Erich von Stroheim's groundbreaking 1924 silent film, Greed. A riveting tale of avarice, degeneration, and death, McTeague is "one of the great works of the modern American imagination" (Alfred Kazin).