As Norris Knew, Corruption an Unfortunate Byproduct of Business

Now that the jury is under deliberation in the Enron trial, I
have to wonder what Frank Norris might think of Kenneth Lay.
Now that the jury is under deliberation in the Enron trial, I have to wonder what Frank Norris might think of Kenneth Lay. No doubt, Norris would have a sharp word or two to say about the former Houston oil company’s shyster CEO and the crockpot of corporate cons his cronies cooked up.

Norris – the muckraking journalist and novelist who did some of his research and writing in the South Valley region – described pretty much the same type of dishonest behavior among business executives of his day a century ago. So, I don’t think he’d be all that surprised by the whole sordid Enron affair.

The writer was born Benjamin Franklin Norris on March 5, 1870, in Chicago. At the age of 15, he and his family moved to San Francisco. A few years later, the adventurous teenager tromped off to Paris for a couple of years to pursue his dream of becoming an artist.

It was in the City of Lights that he became acquainted with the naturalist novels of Emile Zola – and they dramatically changed his career path. He decided to abandon painting and instead write realistic novels about the lives of ordinary people dealing with corruption.

In 1890, the wannabe writer returned to California and attended the University of California, Berkeley, for four years, followed by one year at Harvard University. After college he drifted among publications, working as a news reporter in South Africa, an editorial assistant on the San Francisco Wave magazine, and, in 1898, as McClure Magazine’s war correspondent in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

That same year, his first novel, “Moran of the Lady Letty,” hit bookstores. Several more novels quickly followed, including his best seller “McTeague,” about a San Francisco dentist who brutally murders his wife. Hollywood turned that novel into the 1924 silent film classic “Greed,” directed by Erich von Stroheim.

In 1900, Norris married Jeanette Black. That was also the year the writer’s most famous novel, “The Octopus,” came out. It depicted the struggles that California’s wheat growers faced dealing with the corruption of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Norris was inspired to write the novel from a tragedy that happened in the dry creek region of Mussel Slough in the San Jouquin Valley just east of San Benito County.

In the 1870s, homesteaders bought from the Southern Pacific virtually worthless property at about $2.50 an acre. Through hard work and tenacity, they improved the land and made their livelihood growing wheat. Unfortunately, the farmers had been deceived. The railroad corporation had secretly retained title to the property. Railroad executives decided to make a killing by selling the now-productive land from under the farmers, making a tidy profit of $25 to $35 an acre.

On May 11, 1880, the U.S. marshal and his gang of hired thugs came to kick the farmers off the wheat fields. The farmers fought back. Six of the settlers died in the resulting shootout. One of the railroad’s men was also killed.

Backed by their corporate lawyers, the Southern Pacific took the case to court which convicted the farmers. They served short sentences and became California folk heroes immortalized in ballads of the time – and in Norris’s famous novel.

Through his writing, Norris fought for the underdog and showed how unbridled corporate avarice could destroy individuals caught by corruption. “The Octopus” was followed by “The Pit,” which portrayed how the Chicago Board of Trade’s price speculation could ruin the earnings of wheat farmers.

Near the end of his life, Norris settled down in a cabin on Redwood Retreat Road just off Hecker Pass. He wanted to finish his “Epic of Wheat” trilogy with the final novel “Wolf.” He called his ranch “Quien Sabe,” and its porch was a perfect place for the author to spend mornings penning his manuscript. Whenever he needed a break, he occasionally took time out to shoot quail or catch trout from the nearby Uvas Creek. He told a friend the Gilroy cabin “beat a New York City apartment any day of the week.”

Norris never finished his last novel. He died suddenly from appendicitis on Oct. 25, 1902, at the young age of 32.

Earlier this year, a new biography about the famous writer was published by the University of Illinois Press. Critics have praised “Frank Norris: A Life,” written by scholars Joseph McElrath and Jesse Crisler, for reviving the importance of Norris’s contribution to American literature.

Recently, I e-mailed McElrath to ask him how he imagined Norris might view our own century’s abuse of capitalism in scandals such as Enron.

“Readers of Frank Norris’s 1901 novel ‘The Octopus’ will have no trouble coming to a conclusion about what he might have thought of the Enron affair and like present-day predations that bring to mind the self-serving behavior of the ‘Robber Barons’ of the late 19th century,” McElrath replied. “In ‘The Pit’ as well, Norris focused upon those who gave no thought to the welfare of others – financial and otherwise – and saw the economy as an engine that had one purpose, the means to accumulate wealth by whatever means necessary.”

What’s different now, McElrath pointed out, is that the laissez-faire economic principles of the 1880s and 1890s no longer govern commerce in the ruthless ways they did when governmental regulation was minimal.

“And yet, despite the regulatory restraints now on the books, debacles such as that created by financial chicanery seen in the Enron affair appear little different from those featured in Norris’ fictional studies of the effects of unrestrained greed,” McElrath said.

The Redwood Retreat Road cabin where Frank Norris worked on his final novel still exists. It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby stands a small stone monument put up by the author’s close friend, Fanny Osbourne Stevenson. It reads:

“FRANK NORRIS, 1870 – 1902. Simpleness and gentleness and honor and clean mirth.”

Excellent values to live life by – even for a certain former Enron executive who most likely will be going to prison soon.

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