High Noon Homer *or* Western Lit

One would not expect Homer to figure importantly in an early 20th century realist novel about the struggle of Californian ranchers against the evils of the railroad, but his influence is felt throughout Frank Norris’ novel The Octopus. While the novel features an expansive cast, with frequent frictionless transitions from one character to another, Norris spends the most time and attention on the aspiring poet Presley, whom we follow from the very opening of the book until its depressing and unsatisfying conclusion. This is understandable enough, given that Presley seems to represent the figure of Norris himself.

Presley is not a rancher, but is closely involved with the social circle of the ranch community set in a fictionalized southern California at the end of the 19th century. His two chief friends in the community are Annixter, a brilliant but wildly churlish owner of a mid-sized ranch who hopes to cash in on the improvements he has made to the land once the railroad offers it for sale, and Vanamee, a wandering mystic who, endowed with a naturally poetic spirit, filters in and out of the community as he struggles to cope with his lover’s death. Presley admires Vanamee in large part due to his natural poetic sensibility, no doubt refined by his frequent solitary perambulations through the southwest.

Presley’s ambition is to write an epic of the American West:

Vanamee understood him perfectly. He nodded gravely.

“Yes, it is there. It is Life, the primitive, simple, direct Life, passionate, tumultuous. Yes, there is an epic there.”

Presley caught at the word. It had never before occurred to him.

“Epic, yes, that’s it. It is the epic I’m searching for. And HOW I search for it. You don’t know. It is sometimes almost an agony. Often and often I can feel it right there, there, at my finger-tips, but I never quite catch it. It always eludes me. I was born too late. Ah, to get back to that first clear-eyed view of things, to see as Homer saw, as Beowulf saw, as the Nibelungen poets saw. The life is here, the same as then; the Poem is here; my West is here; the primeval, epic life is here, here under our hands, in the desert, in the mountain, on the ranch, all over here, from Winnipeg to Guadalupe. It is the man who is lacking, the poet; we have been educated away from it all. We are out of touch. We are out of tune.”

Presley’s fondness for Homer was well known to the other ranchers. Annixter is regularly found reading David Copperfield. Mrs. Derrick, the wife of Magnus Derrick (the most prominent and respected of the ranchers), is an eager enthusiast for literature, but is troubled both by Presley’s fondness for Homer and his own literary efforts:

The monotony of the ranch ate into her heart hour by hour, year by year. And with it all, when was she to see Rome, Italy, and the Bay of Naples? It was a different prospect truly. Magnus had given her his promise that once the ranch was well established, they two should travel. But continually he had been obliged to put her off, now for one reason, now for another; the machine would not as yet run of itself, he must still feel his hand upon the lever; next year, perhaps, when wheat should go to ninety, or the rains were good. She did not insist. She obliterated herself, only allowing, from time to time, her pretty, questioning eyes to meet his. In the meantime she retired within herself. She surrounded herself with books. Her taste was of the delicacy of point lace. She knew her Austin Dobson by heart. She read poems, essays, the ideas of the seminary at Marysville persisting in her mind. “Marius the Epicurean,” “The Essays of Elia,” “Sesame and Lilies,” “The Stones of Venice,” and the little toy magazines, full of the flaccid banalities of the “Minor Poets,” were continually in her hands.

When Presley had appeared on Los Muertos, she had welcomed his arrival with delight. Here at last was a congenial spirit. She looked forward to long conversations with the young man on literature, art, and ethics. But Presley had disappointed her. That he—outside of his few chosen deities—should care little for literature, shocked her beyond words. His indifference to “style,” to elegant English, was a positive affront. His savage abuse and open ridicule of the neatly phrased rondeaux and sestinas and chansonettes of the little magazines was to her mind a wanton and uncalled-for cruelty. She found his Homer, with its slaughters and hecatombs and barbaric feastings and headstrong passions, violent and coarse. She could not see with him any romance, any poetry in the life around her; she looked to Italy for that. His “Song of the West,” which only once, incoherent and fierce, he had tried to explain to her, its swift, tumultous life, its truth, its nobility and savagery, its heroism and obscenity had revolted her.

“But, Presley,” she had murmured, “that is not literature.”

“No,” he had cried between his teeth, “no, thank God, it is not.”

We can understand readily enough that Mrs. Derrick found Homer violent. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are replete with scenes of appalling and horrific violence. But the impression that Homer is coarse is owing to a curious admixture of upper class snobbery and a rarefied notion of literary polish. (Indeed, one could argue that Pope’s Homer was so poorly received because Pope tamed Homer by rounding off all of the jagged edges and polishing him into rolling, monotonous, and correct Augustan insipidity.) The idea that there is something wild, primal, or untamed about Homer’s poetry had long been a cliché. John Dryden, in his preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern, compared Homer’s free and wild genius to the more restrained intellectual virtues of Vergil:

For the Grecian is more according to my genius than the Latin poet. In the works of the two authors we may read their manners and natural inclinations, which are wholly different. Virgil was of a quiet, sedate temper; Homer was violent, impetuous, and full of fire. The chief talent of Virgil was propriety of thoughts, and ornament of words; Homer was rapid in his thoughts, and took all the liberties, both of numbers and of expressions, which his language, and the age in which he liv’d, allow’d him. Homer’s invention was more copious, Virgil’s more confin’d.

Indeed, it was the wild, violent, or heroic aspect of Homer which made him such choice reading for the manly man in search of poetry. Thus, in his essay, Reading, Thoreau notes that we need not worry that Homer could have an enervating effect on us as readers:

The student may read Homer or Æschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity.

Thus, there is some precedent for Mrs. Derrick’s aversion to Homer, and Presley’s own reception of Homer as something peculiarly endowed with a raw, vital, and unbridled energy perfectly at home in the rugged American West. Even at a social event among the ranchers, he filters life through the Homeric lens:

Presley was delighted with it all. It was Homeric, this feasting, this vast consuming of meat and bread and wine, followed now by games of strength.

As The Octopus progresses, Presley continues to struggle with the development of a Western epic. Though he writes a poem addressing the injustices which the railroad visits upon the ranchers who work the land intersected by the tracks, the grand story of the frontier remains unwritten. Here we see Presley as the stand-in for Norris himself most clearly. In his essay, A Neglected Epic, Norris laments that a story as violent, exciting, and important as the conquest of the frontier had produced no Homeric literature of America:

But when at last one comes to look for the literature that sprang from and has grown up around the last great epic event in the history of civilization, the event which in spite of stupendous difficulties was consummated more swiftly, more completely, more satisfactorily than any like event since the westward migration began — I mean the conquering of the West, the subduing of the wilderness beyond the Mississippi — what has this produced in the way of literature ? The dime novel ! The dime novel and nothing else. The dime novel and nothing better.

The Trojan War left to posterity the character of Hector; the wars with the Saracens gave us Roland; the folklore of Iceland produced Grettir; the Scotch border poetry brought forth the Douglas; the Spanish epic the Cid. But the American epic, just as heroic, just as elemental, just as important and as picturesque, will fade into history, leaving behind no finer type, no nobler hero than Buffalo Bill.

The young Greeks sat on marble terraces overlooking the Aegean Sea and listened to the thunderous roll of Homer’s hexameter. In the feudal castles the minstrel sang to the young boys of Roland. The farm folk of Iceland to this very day treasure up and read to their little ones hand-written copies of the Gretla Saga chronicling the deeds and death of Grettir the Strong. But the youth of the United States learn of their epic by paying a dollar to see the “Wild West Show.”

One senses here that, despite all of the apparently demotic appeal which Homer (or other epics) are supposed to possess, that Norris acknowledges the fundamentally aristocratic origin of epic by contrasting it with vile and tawdry popular entertainments.

Rather than spend all of his energy lamenting the lack of Western epic, Norris bent his mind to an ambitious project: a novelistic triptych, The Epic of the Wheat, which was to chronicle the production of wheat in southern California (The Octopus), the processing of wheat in Chicago, (The Pit), and the consumption of wheat in Europe (The Wolf). Due to his early death at the age of 32, Norris never even began the last book of his trilogy. There is some irony in attempting to replicate the organic and non-teleological development of more authentic epics with a systematized plan for a trilogy. Perhaps the reason that Vergil satisfies so much less than Homer, and Milton seems so lacking in vitality compared to Beowulf, is just this: Vergil and Milton are too methodical, too self-consciously artistic, and too literary. But Norris compensates for this with a violent and primal literary energy of his own. Indeed, though The Octopus is a novel, he manages to capture some of the verbal effects most prominent in Homer, through the use of repetitive phrasing/imagery, and a kind of paratactic pile-on that refuses to deal too much with the lifeless niceties of subordinate clauses. (The Octopus was also apparently written in one go, with minimal editing. While some critics found fault with Norris’ scriptorial quirks, seeing in them little more than sloppiness or lack of attention, I think that they have neglected the parallel between Presley and Norris himself, and thus, overlooked the Homeric program on display in the book.)

I will never know exactly why the American West suggested itself to readers and writers as something especially Homeric. Perhaps it is the brutality, the harshness of life and the constant threat of death, and the general sense that most of that suffering is utterly tragic because it is brought on by human folly and in the last estimate is all for naught. In antiquity, the reception of the Trojan War typically featured the lament that it didn’t have to be that way. The eradication of an entire civilization, and the destruction which was in turn visited upon the eradicators, could have been prevented if humans were slightly less prone to error:

And Troy would still stand, and you, o lofty citadel of Priam, would still remain!

Troiaque nunc staret, Priamique arx alta maneres. [Aeneid, 2.56]

What if Troy still stood? What if the history of the American West were something other than one of genocide, plunder, and brutality? The cultural logic of human civilization made both of those counterfactuals impossible. Similarly, in The Octopus, the greed of the railroad and the unwillingness of the ranchers to yield to its depredations resulted in the murder of almost all of the ranchers; the arch-capitalist railroad agent S. Behrman dies after falling into a shipping hold of wheat, ruined by his greed; and Presley leaves America in disgust. But the railroad continues on as a malevolent but inescapable, impersonal force in human life. Frank Norris may not be Homer; but in The Octopus, he gave America the epic of senseless suffering and brutality it deserves.

G. Frederick Keller, The Curse of California

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