Monday, March 30, 2009

Drowning in the river of grain

On page 49, I say the following about Frank Norris' novel, The Pit: A Story of Chicago (published in 1903),

Though Norris’s novel doesn’t include such a scene, it gives its reader enough material and inspiration to imagine that “justice” would consist in either throwing the unsuccessful speculator into the mighty river whose course he foolishly attempted to divert for his personal benefit, or forcing him to eat the millions of bushels of grain he managed to hoard as part of his attempted corner, and thus driving home the point that grain is food, not a plaything for capitalist speculators. But it was only in the late 20th century that the American river of grain was actually portrayed as smothering and lethal. I can only find one such instance, but it is potent: in The Witness, a film directed by Peter Weir (1985), one of the “bad guys” gets buried by and suffocates to death in the grain stored an Amish country elevator. And yet there is no “poetic justice” in this death by drowning in grain. It just happens.

In point of fact, D.W. Griffith's short film "A Corner in Wheat" -- released in 1909 and based upon a short story by Frank Norris called "A Deal in Wheat" (published in 1913) -- includes a scene in which the man who corners the market in wheat slips and falls into a grain bin while he is inspecting one of his elevators. While he is "drowning" (suffocating), we see scenes at the bread shop, where, due to the corner on wheat, flour has become so expensive that the baker soon runs out, which causes a bread riot.

Note well that such a scene is not included in Frank Norris' original, which only mentions grain elevators in "Part IV: The Belt Line," where they are used to disguise the corner as it is in progress. Griffith not only added the "drowning" scene, but also created a new part of the narrative, which he called "At the Elevators," in which to highlight it.

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