Keeper: Frank Norris’ “A Deal in Wheat”

I think it’s fairly settled that I’ll finish up as an English major. I’ve been really pleasantly surprised to see how many visits to my blog I get by people searching on the same topics I’ve written school papers on. Pretty cool. And now, indulge me while I brag yet again and offer to share another one of my papers. This was my final research paper of the semester in Am Lit II. I finished the course with a 98.5. The topic was: pick one of the stories or poems we read this term and write a supported argument as to why it should remain in the canon of literature studied in college courses. Here’s my take:

Frank Norris’ “A Deal in Wheat” Deserves Membership in Canon

Today we call it “exposé.” A little over a century ago, investigative journalism that uncovered corruption, especially in the industrial and business sectors, was termed “muckraking.” Magazines were especially fond of printing this form of journalism as the more sensational the political and corporate corruption exposed, the more sales were generated for forerunners Cosmopolitan, McClure’s Magazine and the staunch social justice periodical, Everybody’s Magazine. The public’s seemingly insatiable interest in the facts and claims included in such journalism prompted more and more people to express their outrage at injustice and rally behind demands for reform (Goldfield 584). Wonderful while it lasted in that it generated a strong impetus toward necessary reforms that a century later many of us now take for granted – child labor laws, eight hour work days, public education, slaughterhouse regulations, national parks and forests, women’s suffrage and equal civil rights, just to name a few – muckraking as an “art” form came to a crashing halt in magazines and newspapers when many of the accused corporations pulled their advertising out of publications that criticized them. Demonstrating their power to financially cripple the magazines, the corruption of the corporate giants seemed once again to triumph over those who sought to rein in their wanton and unjust practices.

The voice of the American conscience was not to be so quickly silenced, however. In addition to magazine and newspaper articles exposing corruption and poverty, private publishing firms such as Doubleday & McClure and Scribner’s Sons in New York published novels and short stories offering a more in-depth look into not only the facts surrounding controversial “muckraking” matter, but delved into the character and emotions of the people involved, both villains and victims. Author Frank Norris, already a contributor to McClure’s Magazine for several years, was one of the writers of such novels with his 1899 work McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, depicting the seedier side of life there, and his 1901 work Octopus, about the Southern Pacific Railroad’s tyrannical control over California’s farmers (Belasco 324). Norris’ short story, “A Deal in Wheat,” showcases the effects on people’s lives when “speculators manipulate the commodities market at the expense of both farmers and consumers” (Belasco 325). First published in 1902 by Everybody’s Magazine, the story did not gain critic’s attention again until after Norris’ 1902 death when it was included in the 1903 collection A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West. Ending on a cynical note with the conclusion that the commodities traders had ruined lives and livelihoods without care for those whom they hurt in sole pursuit of their own wealth and power, Norris writes that the traders “gambled in the nourishment of entire nations, practiced their tricks, their chicanery and oblique shifty ‘deals’” and were ultimately “unassailable” (Norris 333). The story successfully showcases the unjustness of the practices used in commodities trading. Ultimately, President Theodore Roosevelt took stories by “muckrakers” like Norris seriously, and during his two terms in office enacted legislation that sought not so much to dissolve big business but to place government in a regulatory role over it (Goldfield 600).

In the canon of American Literature, “A Deal in Wheat” rightfully deserves a place as an example of the type of realistic writing prevalent of the time period. The term “Naturalism” was coined to describe writing that depicted life as it actually occurs, with all of its blemishes as well as with its happy moments. According to the section on Frank Norris in Short Story Criticism:

Norris played a major role in introducing Naturalism to late 19th and early 20th century American literature. Influenced by the French Naturalist writer Emile Zola, he achieved an unprecedented and sometimes shocking level of realism in his novels McTeague (1899), which depicts San Fran’s lower social depths, and The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903), both of which dramatize the brutal economic forces affecting American labor and big business. (“Norris, Frank…” 194).

The most popular muckraking articles of the late 1800s and early 1900s combined varying degrees of sensationalism with an otherwise realistic style of writing to portray events and thereby exposed hard facts about anything and everything that was “wrong” in the culture. Oftentimes focusing on poverty and corruption, the literary style of Naturalism was here to stay. Although modern periodicals such as The National Enquirer and other “rag sheets” focus on the juiciest tidbits of gossip based upon purported “facts,” they are descendants of Naturalism and muckraking. Regardless of how one personally views the merit of such gossip columns, works such as Norris’ in their fictionalized settings of truth have left in their wake valuable insights about things that have gone wrong in our culture in hopes that the future will not repeat the mistakes of the past.

The importance of preserving, not erasing, history cannot be understated. The old adage tells us that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it has never been truer than over this past century in American politics and government with its involvement in global conflicts and coping with its own internal strife. Elizabeth Kantor’s contribution to The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature highlights why the re-writing or erasing of historical gaffes and sins hurts those in the future when she writes:

‘Never again’ is, by itself, never good enough—because there’s always an argument, the next time, about whether the new evil is the same thing we’ve sworn never to tolerate again. The injustice always reappears in a different form. The very parade of self-condemnation or the elaborate distancing of ourselves from the injustice of the past—by which we think we guarantee our innocence—can itself become the occasion, or even the excuse, for the next injustice. But enforced ignorance is an even worse choice. Attempts to cut ourselves off from the knowledge of human nature that’s available in the history and literature of our culture are bound to be counter-productive. People did the appalling things that our most painful literature portrays […] because they were human beings. Human culture is the record of the long struggle to understand the human condition, and human nature—which will always be with us no matter how many fresh starts we get. Knowledge of that culture is a necessary weapon (not a liability) in the never-ending struggle for human dignity. (Kantor 178).

Along with Kantor’s justification for keeping historically significant works in print, “A Deal in Wheat” is also good choice for a scholastic anthology collection due to its brevity which makes it a practical length for use in a collected work.

Examples of the literary style of Naturalism espoused by writers like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair should be kept in the canon of literature and promulgated for future study since the style of realistic writing was a jumping off point which inspired other writers after them. Whereas the immediacy of the time frame and subject matter that was used in turn of the century investigative journalism called for the reader to act promptly to face and conquer the injustices dealt with therein, the style eventually lost readership as the reforms called for were passed. According to an article entitled “Revising the Literary Canon” about how literature is determined to be included the literary canon studied by college students, “the process of canon formation and evolution is influenced by cultural and historical change” (“Revising…”). The article defines the literary canon as consisting of works valued for their aesthetics and representation of the culture and politics of a society. It continues to state that modern critics and scholars generally agree that works to be taught in English language college curriculum should rightly allow many classic works to retain their status while supplementing the canon with the best examples of literature from the twentieth century. Specifically, supporters seek to continue the trend begun in the 1980s of including high caliber works by women and minorities so that the literature preserved is fully representational of the culture from which it came.

“A Deal in Wheat” is also a precursor to the rise over the last century of popular historical fiction and sagas by American writers such as James A. Michener, Margaret Truman and Dan Miller and English writers such as R.F. Delderfield. What Norris and each of these subsequent authors share in common is their devotion to meticulous research which combined with their unique storytelling abilities to produce enjoyable and also historically accurate and informative works. Frank Norris’ contributions a century ago allowed writers after him to further imagine “what if” and expand upon the framework he and other early “muckrakers” created by producing dramatized depictions of actual historical events using historical facts as background and overlaying upon them fictitious characters, many times interacting with real historical figures. In recent times, historical fiction has been produced for the stage and big screen with historical and biographical stories appearing in movies and television such as “Forrest Gump,” “Evita,” “Apollo 13,” the mini-series, “Roots” and even the perennial favorite, “The Ten Commandments.”

Finally, as with the popular historical fiction that came after him, Frank Norris’ stories of realistic places and realistic people experiencing realistic, historical events serve to put a face on the suffering as well as on the villains who cause it. He and the other investigative journalists of his generation ushered in the modern era of the public’s expectation and demand for transparency and accountability concerning politicians, corporate practices, government and reporting that continues to this day. Not often moved by mere dry facts, the reader can empathize more with a dramatized account in a way that they normally do not with a straight, factual relaying of news events. Human nature seems to take more seriously and find strength to rally to action when exposed to stories that affect people we could know. Today, news channels such as 60 Minutes, CNN and The Today Show have taken the investigative journalism models from a century ago and continue to use them in order to generate viewer empathy and reaction. Therefore, as a valuable record of American history, an example of the literary style of Naturalism, and as a forerunner to modern in-depth reporting, “A Deal in Wheat” deserves to remain in the English and American literary canon studied in today’s and future years’ college courses of excellent works of literature.

Works Cited

Belasco, Susan and Linck Johnson, eds. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume Two: 1865 to the Present. Ed. Susan Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. Print.

Goldfield, David et al. The American Journey: A History of the United States. 5th Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2009. Print.

Kantor, Elizabeth. “American Literature: Our Own Neglected Canon.” The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to English and American Literature. Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 2006. 167-185. Print.

Norris, Frank. “A Deal in Wheat.” 1902. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume Two: 1865 to the Present. Ed. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 325-333. Print.

“Norris, Frank – Introduction.” Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna J. Sheets. Vol. 28. Gale Cengage, 1998. eNotes.com. 2006. Web. 24 Apr, 2011 < http://www.enotes.com/short-story-criticism/norris-frank>

“Revising the Literary Canon – Introduction.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 114. Gale Cengage, 2006. eNotes.com. 2006. 24 Apr, 2011 <http://www.enotes.com/twentieth-century-criticism/revising-literary-canon>

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