Of the American writers who enjoyed considerable acclaim early in the 20th century, Frank Norris has perhaps fallen further off the radar than anyone else. Consider Norris alongside Stephen Crane. Crane was born a year later (1871) and died two years earlier (1900). Both produced a considerable amount of work during tragically short lives. Both wrote at least part of their oeuvre in the Naturalist vein. Why, then, does Crane stand as one of the great American writers while Norris is largely a footnote? The reason, I would argue, is that Norris simply is not that great of a writer. A talented but not brilliant artist, Norris benefited by tapping into the budding mistrust of big business and speculation that epitomized the progressive era. Today, his work seems exceptionally dated in detail, although in the wake of the debacle of 2008, his themes once again appear to be relevant.
“A Deal in Wheat,” the lead story in a collection of Norris’ short fiction, follows a crop of wheat from a farm in southwest Kansas through the Chicago Board of Trade and a Chicago bakery. At the outset, Sam Lewiston, a farmer, heads to town to sell his wheat at the ruinous price of $.66 a bushel, only to find out that the price has dropped to $.62 thanks to the market machinations of Truslow, an apparently fictitious market manipulator, referred to in this story as “The Bear.” Like James B. Duke in the tobacco market, Truslow makes his fortune by pushing prices lower and then purchasing from desperate farmers.
Truslow is balanced by “The Bull,” Mr. Hornung, whose strategy is to keep the price high after he has purchased the bulk of the supply. As the story shifts from the despair of the Lewistons to the market makers of Chicago, we see Hornung selling a huge lot of wheat to Truslow for $1.10 per bushel with the stipulation that the grain be exported. Eventually, we see mystery grain appearing on the market. In order to maintain his inflated price, now at $1.50, Hornung instructs his agents to purchase all of this grain. Over time, this grain proves to be the same that Truslow had purchased from Hornung. Ever the good sport, Hornung laughs at the crafty Bear and schemes to drive the wheat price to $2.00 in order to recoup his losses.
The story closes with Sam Lewiston in a line outside a bakery, waiting to receive the free bread distributed there. Given the high price of grain, however, the bakery has been forced to discontinue their charity. Not broken by this move, though, Lewiston inexplicably lifts himself up and enjoys a new success.
But Lewiston never forgot. Dimply he began to see the significance of things. Caught once in the cogs and wheels of a great and terrible engine, he had seen–none better–its workings. Of all the men who had vainly stood in the “bread line” on that rainy night in early summer, he, perhaps, had been th eonly one who had struggled up to the surface again. How many others had gone down in the great ebb? Grim question; he dared not think how many.
Let it not be said that Frank Norris failed to make his point. In “A Deal in Wheat,” there is a definite point. The grain traders, “the great operators, who never saw the wheat they traded in,” are callous and destructive, proceeding through life, “jovial, contented, enthroned, and unassailable.”
The truth contained within this story–and one could change the actors to include officials of gigantic banks and fraudulent real estate dealers–echoes to the present. Nonetheless, Norris’ story feels a bit too much like a sermon illustration, the sort of story that might be told in a State of the Union address before the President asks Sam Lewiston, who is seated near the First Lady, to stand and be recognized.
As a work of persuasion, this story works well. As a piece of art, it is less than satisfying. “A Deal in Wheat” should perhaps stand as a cautionary tale not just for the would-be farmer but for the fiction writer with a message to convey.