Tracking Corporate Personhood in Frank Norris’ The Octopus: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Corporate Character


Law and Contemporary Theory Working Group
Spring Talks and Workshops

Abstract: In this dissertation chapter, Eugene McCarthy provides a socio-legal reading of Frank Norris’ The Octopus (1901), the naturalist novel depicting the late nineteenth-century clash between Californian wheat ranchers and the Southern Pacific Railroad Corporation. The Octopus describes the rise of the modern business corporation and the economy’s shift to corporate capitalism, developments that enabled a new “economy of character” and allowed for a unique form of literary characterization of the corporation. Norris’ epic novel introduces this new literary character that the corporate personality’s legal and textual embodiment make possible. During this era, several important (and controversial) Supreme Court decisions produced the legally personified business corporation that emerged as an ontologically real bearer of rights. Engaging this legal history, McCarthy argues that The Octopus is the first work of fiction to take seriously the corporate person as a real person susceptible to characterization. This new character blunts the human characters’ personalities, while sharpening the corporate personality into a razor’s edge, one that cuts through the text and undercuts traditional notions of representation. In an era that led historians to declare that the modern business enterprise “took on a life of its own,” Norris seeks to portray this new life and show how this emergent character could radically influence culture by assimilating, dominating, and often obliterating the human individuals it encountered. At the end of the nineteenth century, it becomes clear that the emergent corporate person – both as a legal actor and as a literary character – threatens the very existence of unincorporated human individuality.

This is a pre-circulated paper and there will be no formal presentation. Please RSVP to if you plan to attend the talk and wish to receive a copy of the chapter.

Eugene McCarthy is a PhD candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley. His dissertation examines the role of nineteenth-century American corporate law in producing and delimiting new forms of personhood. Reading nineteenth-century American fiction in conjunction with legal history, his dissertation examines constitutional corporate personhood, the legally augmented financier, female-initiated divorce as a form of corporate merger, and the law’s singular denial of corporate status to labor unions.