Financial History Issue 131 (Fall 2019) - Page 11

EDUCATORS’ PERSPECTIVE To Frank Norris By Emery Pottle line of WASPs who believed in the racial superiority of Anglo-Saxons; inferior races threatened to corrupt this pure race. His writings clearly reflected the racism that was prevalent in his day. According to liter- ary critic Donald Pizer, “Frank Norris’s rac- ism, which includes one of the most vicious anti-Semitic portrayals in any major work of American literature, has long been an embarrassment to admirers of the vigor and intensity of his best fiction and has also contributed to the decline of his reputation during the past several generations.” Norris’s 1899 novel, McTeague, contains a character by the name of Zerkow. Pizer contends that Norris’s depiction of Zerkow is largely “responsible for his reputation as an anti-Semite.” Norris wrote, “Zerkow was a Polish Jew … It was impossible to look at Zerkow, and not know instantly that greed—inordinate, insatiable greed— was the dominate passion of the man. He was the Man with the Rake, groping hourly in the muck-heap of the city for gold, for gold, for gold.” There is some evidence that Norris’s racism began to moderate as he grew older. 2 However, his premature death cut short his rehabilitation. Pizer argues, “[Norris’s] anti-Semitism…should be recognized for what it is, but its pres- ence should not preclude a continuing interest in Norris as a richly talented late 19th century American writer.” Similarly, Norris’s attitude towards women reflected the general attitude of his day. In The Pit, Norris describes Jadwin’s wife’s utter ignorance of her husband’s futures trading. When he tries to explain why he bought three million bushels of wheat, she murmurs, “‘Three—million—bushels! Why, what would you do with it? Where do you put it?’” Jadwin tries to explain that he had only bought the right to buy grain on a particular date, “…but” writes Norris, “she could not understand this very clearly. ‘Never mind,’ she told him, ‘go on.’” In The Pit’s climax, Jadwin’s sister-in-law comes to the exchange to watch the action. “She had seen all that had happened, but she had not understood. The whole morning had been a whirl and a blur… She was desperately anxious to find Landry [her fiancé], and to learn the truth of what had happened…” The pit was a man’s world where this clue- less woman, who couldn’t possibly under- stand without a man to explain it to her, was bewildered by the frenzied activity. In spite of Norris’s failings, The Pit remains relative today because of the timelessness of its message. Investors still get caught up in the markets and attribute their successes to their superior skills, while dismissing their failures as bad luck. Norris’s last novel also points to many issues that still matter today such as: 1. The social consequences of market actions—As Jadwin drives the price of wheat higher and higher, farmers— encouraged by the price increase—plant more wheat to take advantage of these higher prices. However, higher wheat Simple and kind he lived, rich in the gracious dignity Of labor and of love. And knowing him our House of Life More perfect grew, and added to its symmetry A turret strong and bold — A battlement within whose high serenity we dwelt Content, as friends must ever be. . . . . . So in his death This splendid masonry of love’s upbuilding Has crumbled grievously to earth; Our House of Life, more incomplete than in the days before his coming. Stands strangely desolate; Only a bird, full-throated with the melody of hope. Sings in the empty courtyard. Portrait of Frank Norris, by Arnold Genthe. prices lead to higher bread prices, which has an adverse effect on the poor and needy. 2. The effects of investment activity on family and friends—Jadwin neglects his wife as he becomes caught up in the wheat corner. After his first speculation in wheat, he lies to her and tells her he is out of the market, but his lie soon becomes apparent as his obsession with wheat grows. She, in turn, nearly falls into her own pit of adultery because of his neglect. Likewise, Jadwin’s friend Charles Cressler, who doesn’t realize that Jadwin is the “Unknown Bull” attempting to corner wheat, agrees to join Crookes’s group in their attempt to break the wheat corner after they convince Cressler that it’s a sure thing. As the price of wheat continues to rise, Cressler, realizing he is financially ruined, commits suicide. Jadwin, on hearing the reason behind Cressler’s demise, laments, “’He was in the Crookes ring, and we never knew it— I’ve killed him, Sam. I might as well have held that pistol myself.’ He stamped his foot, striking his fist across his forehead, “Great God—my best friend—Charlie— Charlie Cressler! Sam, I shall go mad if this—if this—” 3. The price of a sure thing—both Jadwin and Cressler are drawn into market  |  Fall 2019  |  FINANCIAL HISTORY  9