“The Pit” by Frank Norris (1902)

“Gambling!” she murmured.

“They call it buying and selling,” he went on, “down there in La Salle Street. But it is simply betting. Betting on the condition of the market weeks, even months, in advance. You bet wheat goes up. I bet it goes down. Those fellows in the Pit don’t own the wheat; never even see it. Wou’dn’t know what to do with it if they had it. They don’t care in the least about the grain. But there are thousands upon thousands of farmers out here in Iowa and Kansas or Dakota who do, and hundreds of thousand of poor devils in Europe who care even more than the farmer. I mean the fellows who raise the grain, and the other fellows who eat it. It’s life or death for either of them. And right between these two comes the Chicago speculator, who raises or lowers the price out of all reason, for the benefit of his pocket. You see Laura, here is what I mean.” Cressler had suddenly become very earnest. Absorbed, interested, Laura listened intently. “Here is what I mean,” pursued Cressler. “It’s like this: If we send the price of wheat down too far, the farmer suffers, the fellow who raises it if we send it up too far, the poor man in Europe suffers, the fellow who eats it. And food to the peasant on the continent is bread—not meat or potatoes, as it is with us. The only way to do so that neither the American farmer nor the European peasant suffers, is to keep wheat at an average, legitimate value. The moment you inflate or depress that, somebody suffers right away. And that is just what these gamblers are doing all the time, booming it up or booming it down. Think of it, the food of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people just at the mercy of a few men down there on the Board of Trade. They make the price. They say just how much the peasant shall pay for his loaf of bread. If he can’t pay the price he simply starves. And as for the farmer, why it’s ludicrous. If I build a house and offer it for sale, I put my own price on it, and if the price offered don’t suit me I don’t sell. But if I go out here in Iowa and raise a crop of wheat, I’ve got to sell it, whether I want to or not at the figure named by some fellows in Chicago. And to make themselves rich, they may make me sell it at a price that bankrupts me.”

Frank Norris was born in Chicago. When he grew up he wrote “The Pit”, about the greed and speculation at the Chicago grain markets. It’s a powerful, epic novel. And just as wheat was an exploited and sought-after commodity, so was Laura, the protagonist of the novel, bid upon by the male speculators who knew her . . .

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