Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Pit

I tried. I really, earnestly tried to finish Frank Norris's The Pit (1903). But I just couldn't do it. Norris is a fascinating author (just look at that character, would ya?) but I found both The Pit and McTeague rather tough to get through, which is a shame because there are so many reasons why I should have loved reading them both.

The Pit takes place in Chicago, where I have numerous friends living. It investigates the wheat trading floor (aka the pit) at the Chicago board of trade, and forces the reader to examine how the acts of individual traders can have a global impact. So-and-so corners the market and runs up the price of wheat - great for them, good for farmers, awfully bad for the Europeans hoping to turn that wheat into bread.

The book is most fascinating and pertinent for our time on this point. If there was ever a time to be reminded that numbers on the stock market are connected to actual products/services/people, it surely is now. The Pit of course deals with a tangible commodity: wheat, as opposed to dividends and mortgage-backed securities, or whatever the hell we've all been talking about for the past few months, which makes its story more simply told. Crops are changeable, and the people with the most information about those crops are able to use those changes to their advantage, and rake in huge profits while starving half the world.

This aspect of the novel is also intriguing because it reminds us that there was a time when America fed huge parts of the world, when America really was a giant breadbasket, and when American farmers were valued on a global scale. Don't get me started on how drastically things have changed. It makes me feel too sad, too helpless, too small.

I love its turn of the century setting, and I'm intrigued by the main character, Laura, and her inscrutable desires. And yet ...

I just couldn't finish it. Try as I might to pick up the lovely Penguin edition with its delicious photographic cover, I found myself reaching for Gaskell's Wives and Daughters instead, every time. Norris's Saturday Evening Post style has never spoken to me in the way that Dreiser, or Hawthorne, or Sedgwick have. I'm sure that I'll have Norris on my lists for my doctoral exams, and at that time I'm sure I'll slog back through one of the novels I've already broached, but until then I must leave you with this rather charming description of Chicago and invite you to compare it to today:

Chicago, the great grey city, interested her at every instant and under every condition. As yet she was not sure that she liked it; she could not forgive it dirty streets, the unspeakable squalor of some of its poorer neighbourhoods, that sometimes developed, like cancerous growths, in the very heart of fine residence districts . . . Suddenly the meaning and significance of it all dawned upon Laura. The Great Grey City, brooking no rival, imposed its dominion upon a reach of country larger than many a kingdom of the Old world. For thousands of miles beyond its confines was its influence felt . . . It was Empire, the resistless subjugation of all this central world of lakes and the prairies. Here, mid most in the land, beat the Heart of the Nation, whence inevitably must come its immeasurable power, its infinite, infinite, inexhaustible vitality. Here, of all her cities, throbbed the true life - the true power and spirit of America; gigantic, crude with the crudity of youth, disdaining rivalry; sane and healthy and vigorous; brutal in its ambition, arrogant in the new-found knowledge of its giant strength, prodigal of its wealth, infinite in its desires.

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