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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Power: Taming the Octopus
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Power
Text 1. Images of the Octopus, five cartoons
Text 2. Standard Oil
Text 3. The Octopus in the West
» Reading Guide
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Text 4. The Populist Party Platform [Omaha Platform]
Text 5. The Pullman Strike
Text 6. Jack London, South of the Slot
Text 7. The Boss and the Reformer
Text 8. Images of Big City Politics
Text 9. Social Policy: Social Darwinism vs. the Social Gospel
Text 10. Theodore Roosevelt, The New Nationalism
Text 11. African American Strategies
Text 12. Women and Power

RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
Map, So. Pacific R.R., 1896
Map, So. Pacific R.R., 1896 (detail)
The Octopus in the West
- Frank Bellew, The American Frankenstein, cartoon, New York Daily Graphic, 14 April 1874
- Frank Norris, The Octopus, novel, 1901, excerpts

During this period the railroad became the nation's chief symbol of power. Railroads acquired vast economic might, amassing huge amounts of capital and providing their owners with unprecedented fortunes. They reached deeply into the daily lives of citizens as they rationalized business practices, set rates, controlled transport, and even defined the time of day through the establishment of standard time zones. They determined government policy and by virtue of their size eventually came to rival the government as a force in American life. Not surprisingly, Americans of this period exhibited ambivalent attitudes toward them. As we saw in the MEMORY section of the toolbox, they viewed railroads as agents of unity and healing after the bloody divisions of the Civil War. Moreover, they were a source of pride, for railroads, like the Brooklyn Bridge, displayed the nation's technological prowess. Yet they also engendered bewilderment and fear. Their power threatened rights, corrupted government, and contributed to the sense that people were losing control of their lives. The railroad was an octopus. It was also "The American Frankenstein."

As powerful as a force of nature, the railroad was an apt subject for Frank Norris. Born in Chicago in 1870, his family moved to San Francisco in 1885. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he became particularly interested in the ways natural forces influenced human thought and behavior. While he pursued a career as a novelist, he supported himself as a journalist and was for a time on the staff of McClure's. His novel The Octopus: A Story of California was the first of what Norris planned to be a naturalistic three-part "Epic of the Wheat." Only two volumes were published, The Octopus in 1901 and The Pit in 1903, a year after he died. The "hero" of the trilogy was to be the wheat itself, representing nature's indomitable power. From The Octopus we offer four excerpts. In the first, the poet Presley discovers inspiration for his art while riding his bike through the rich farmland of the San Joaquin Valley. His West has more in common with Owen Wister's than with Albert Bierstadt's, although he does experience what might be called the agricultural sublime. (See MEMORY.) Like Wister's, it is home to a displaced natural aristocrat from the South, a farmer named Mangus Derrick. In the second excerpt, Derrick, the most respected man in the Valley, and his son Harran encounter S. Berhman, the railroad's agent, and discover that the railroad can leave even powerful men unable to control their lives. In the third, the railroad's villainy drives Mangus to assume the leadership of The League, the farmers' alliance that has already bribed government officials to fight the railroad. Finally, we see the toll the bribe takes on Derrick. 17 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. How does the threat portrayed in "The American Frankenstein" differ from that portrayed in the octopus images?
  2. Compare the portrayal of the victims in "The American Frankenstein" with that in the octopus images. What do the differences suggest about the railroad's power?
  3. Through his vista from the pinnacle, what meaning does Presley assign to the West? How does it differ from Bierstadt's West? How is it similar to Wister's?
  4. What meaning does Mangus Derrick assign to the West?
  5. Compare Mangus Derrick to Owen Wister's Virginian.
  6. What is the relationship between the San Jaoquin Valley and the railroad that runs through it?
  7. How might the excerpts from The Octopus be said to illustrate Tarbell's case against Rockefeller?

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Topic Framing Question
  •  How did Americans respond to the shifts in economic and political power that occurred during this period?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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