August 9, 2015
I spent a good seven nights (though not all at once) this summer a few blocks from the old location of the Reno House on Sacramento St. near Kearney in San Francisco. It’s where Van Vandover is living as he concludes his downward slide in Frank Norris’ novel Vandover and the Brute, written in the 1890s but not published until 1914. I think of Frank Norris as a possible food ethics icon in virtue of the work he completed toward a trilogy he referred to as “The Epic of the Wheat.” The basic idea—which might actually be somewhat misleading given the components that Norris did get written—is that a capitalist food system is driven by soul-destroying greed, competitiveness and venality, only to end up delivering heroic blessings courtesy of the invisible hand. Sound familiar? Norris exemplified the first part of this theme in his two most influential novels, The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903). The former book is about wheat production in late 19th century Califorinia and the exploitation of industrial farmers by the railroad. Of course the farmers themselves were themselves exploiting both the land and their hired labor—competitiveness and venality, don’t you know. The latter volume is also about competitiveness and venality but this time at the Chicago Board of Trade, where wheat winds up after the railroads have gotten their hands on it.
Norris had reportedly planned a third volume where this wheat was going to end up feeding hungry people in the Ukraine (or some such exotic location—don’t quote me on this), redeeming all that soul-destroying venality and corruption. But he died of peritonitis at the tender age of 32, and he never got around to finishing “The Epic of the Wheat.” I guess that means that the capitalist industrial food system remains unredeemed to this day. I frankly don’t know whether Norris should be regarded as an apologist for the industrial food system, or one of its most effective critics.
Vandover and the Brute is not about food and farming, but I’m here to tell you that there are themes in food ethics that might be gleaned from it, nonetheless. If there are redemptive qualities to Norris’s first effort at the long form (and I think they are), they do not reside in the plotting. Vandover is the son of a wealthy San Francisco attorney. Right away we know that he’s a shiftless bum, more interested in his inflated dreams of painting a monumental battle scene than in actually doing any useful work. He ends up swabbing toilets and removing the rotting carcasses of vermin from the mill houses owned by his former Harvard chum Charlie Geary. It’s Charlie who is soulless, competitive and venal, while Van is a hapless boob consumed by the passions of the moment. But Norris is a writer who can strike just the right note in passages that recount the quotidian details of Vandover’s daily life—his ability to be deterred from his art by the pleasures of a bath or a cigar, for example.
And as any faithful reader of the Thornapple Blog would expect, food also shows up on the list of corrupting distractions. Welsh rabbits and oysters top the menu while Vandover still has enough of his family wealth to indulge himself. Meanwhile Charlie is downing steak after steak at the Imperial eating house. By the end Vandover is surviving on the crackers and sandwiches set out for taking for anyone who has a nickel for beer in the low-end barrooms of the late 19th century waterfront.
I’d like to go off on a typical Thornapple Blog tangent on the Welsh rabbit, which we typically render as “Welsh rarebit”, though Wikipedia tells me that “welsh rabbit” is, in fact, the original spelling. Norris uses both spellings, but it is always “welsh rabbit” when the reader is seeing the world through Vandover’s increasingly clouded perspective. Out here in the Great Midwest, we call this a “hot brown.” This nominally because something rather like it was served at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. As it happens, I was also at the Brown Hotel earlier this year, but I’m getting to the end of the blog this week, so I guess I’d better resist the tangent.
Unless I just did it. There are some random synapses lurking in my own debauched, corrupt and competitively venal brain suggesting that I should take up literary criticism and write about the food ethics themes in novels that are manifestly not about food, novels like Vandover and the Brute. But I doubt that I will ever put enough effort into that kind of thinking to pull it off. I would have enjoyed some oysters and a hot brown while in San Francisco, but the closest I came was some sushi from Bristol Farms.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University