Financial History Issue 131 (Fall 2019) - Page 10

EDUCATORS’ PERSPECTIVE Frank Norris’s The Pit (Part II): A Career Cut Short By Brian Grinder and Dan Cooper Frank Norris punched his meal ticket with the success of The Pit, the second book in his wheat trilogy. In the last Edu- cators’ Perspective column, we explored the difficulties Norris encountered as he struggled to understand what was tak- ing place in Chicago’s commodities mar- kets. Fortunately, he was able translate his knowledge into a highly readable novel that captivated the imagination of readers. He painted an accurate, realistic and dra- matic picture of commodities trading in the early 20th century 1 as his protagonist, Curtis Jadwin, attempts and ultimately fails to corner the wheat market. Norris explains the end of the corner in naturalis- tic terms writing, “…demand and supply, these were the two great laws the Wheat obeyed. Almost blasphemous in his effron- tery, [Jadwin] had laid his puny human grasp upon Creation and the very earth herself, the great mother, feeling the touch of the cobweb that the human insect had spun, had stirred at last in her sleep and sent her omnipotence moving through the grooves of the world, to find and crush the disturber of her appointed courses.” The 32-year-old Norris had accom- plished his goal of becoming a full-time writer. In 1899, he described his vision of success to his friend Bruce Porter shortly before leaving New York on a trip to San Francisco. According to Porter, Norris exclaimed, “’Bruce, see that?’—as he waved a little swagger stick between his hands ‘I’m going to walk down Sutter St., swinging that!—And they’ll say ‘That’s Frank Nor- ris!’ I never liked him better than at that moment,” wrote Porter, “…going home to his boyish reward, for the struggle and the travail—but with his goal attained.” With the publication of The Octopus, the first book in the wheat trilogy, and a $3,000 advance from The Saturday Eve- ning Post for its serialization of The Pit, fame and fortune awaited Norris. After he finished writing The Pit, Norris returned to San Francisco in 1902 with his wife Jean- nette and their daughter to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The planned round-the-world trip to research the third wheat novel, The Wolf, was pared down to an excursion to Australia with a stop in Samoa. The Norrises had fallen in love with the redwood forests while visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s widow, Fanny, at her country estate near Gilroy, California. They purchased a one-room log cabin on 10 acres next to Stevenson’s property for $500 and then spent another $550 on improve- ments. Norris wrote to his friend F. Nelson Doubleday, “I can shoot a deer from my front windows… There’s a trout stream just around the corner. We have the Stevensons for near neighbors. This beats a New York apartment.” Life was good. But then tragedy struck. Jeannette fell ill with appendicitis in mid-September and underwent a successful appendectomy at Mount Zion Hospital. Her quick recovery allowed Norris to purchase tickets for their trip to Australia in mid-October. Nor- ris, however, began to suffer from acute indigestion at about this time but chose to do nothing about it. He finally agreed to a physical examination with Dr. Julius Rosenstirn, the same doctor who success- fully treated his wife. Rosenstirn’s diagnosis was appendicitis, and he recommended immediate surgery. Norris, unconvinced that his illness warranted such a radical step, delayed treatment. He awoke two days later in excruciating pain and was rushed to the hospital. Unfortunately, Norris’s appendix had burst and he was besieged with gangrene. There was nothing to do but irrigate the abdominal cavity and hope for the best. Norris died three days later on October 25, 1902. He was 32 years old. At the time of Norris’s death, the sixth installment of The Pit had just been pub- lished in The Saturday Evening Post. Installments ran until January 1903. The unabridged book became available that same month and went on to become one of the best-selling books of the year. The works of Norris have fallen out of favor today primarily because of his racist attitudes. Norris came from a snobbish Left: Image from The Pit, as it appeared in the November 29, 1902 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Right: Announcement of Frank Norris’s illness on page 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle, October 23, 1902. 8    FINANCIAL HISTORY  |  Fall 2019  |