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Writer Frank Norris played a major role in introducing naturalism to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature. Influenced by the French naturalist writer Emile Zola, he achieved an unprecedented and sometimes shocking realism in his novels McTeague (1899), a depiction of San Francisco’s lower social depths, and The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903), which dramatized brutal economic forces affecting American labor and big business. While laying the foundations for his career as a serious fiction writer, Norris also established himself as a critic and as an author of light, popular novels, short stories, and newspaper articles.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Paris and Zola
Born in Chicago in 1870, Norris was the elder son of a prosperous wholesale jeweler and a onetime actress. When he was fourteen, he moved with his family to San Francisco, where his father entered into real estate development while retaining his successful jewelry business. Norris was educated in private schools, including Belmont Academy and the Boys’ High School in San Francisco, and his mother shared with him her love of poetry and art. His parents’ marriage, however, became increasingly unstable, and the young Norris would witness frequent domestic disputes, many of which would become models for his later novels.
In 1886 Norris enrolled at the San Francisco Art Associations school, where he received instruction in drawing and painting under the direction of the French-trained instructor Emil Carlsen. In 1887, entertaining ambitions to become a painter, Norris remained in Paris following a family tour abroad and enrolled in the Atelier Julien art school. Over the next three years, while studying art, Norris also became acquainted with the works of French naturalist writers, such as Emile Zola. These French naturalists attempted to capture life in its most realistic sense and frequently depicted man in constant struggle against a harsh world driven by human greed and market capitalism. Though Norris still harbored a fondness for the adventure novels he read as a youth, he developed an interest in the politics and aesthetics associated with the naturalist movement. While in Paris, he began writing, sending installments of a medieval romance to his younger brother, Charles, at home in California. In 1890 Norris returned to the United States and, at his father’s insistence, entered the University of California in preparation for assuming a position in the family jewelry business.
Return to the States
Although Norris entered the university against his will and later considered his education practically useless, the experience he gained during his four years at the University of California is considered pivotal to the maturation of his writing. While in his freshman year he wrote a romantic narrative poem, Yvernelle: A Legend of Feudal France, which was published in book form in 1892. During the same period his father divorced his mother, remarried, and moved back to Chicago; Norris never saw him again. By the time Yvernelle was published, Norris had lost his youthful interest in purely romantic literature and soon began to use more realistic subject matter in his writing. By the time he left the university— without a degree due to his failure to meet the mathematics requirement—he had begun the novel McTeague. In 1894 Norris entered Harvard University as a special student in English and French, and during his year there he worked on both McTeague and another novel, Vandover and the Brute. These two volumes are considered by critics to be the most naturalistic and the most ambitious of his early work. Under the direction of Professor Lewis Gates, Norris cultivated his affinity for the works of Zola and began to base his own fiction on a more realistic foundation than he had previously considered.
Journalism, Naturalism, and Fiction
In 1895 Norris left the university and served as a foreign correspondent in South Africa for the San Francisco Chronicle. During this time South Africa was in between the First (1880-1881) and Second (1899-1902) Boer Wars, and hostilities were still pronounced between British colonials and the Boers (residents descended from Dutch settlers). Witnessing the constant violence between the Boers, the British soldiers, and the native tribes of South Africa deepened Norris’s naturalistic views on the condition of man. After a year Norris returned to San Francisco to become an editor, contributor, and journalist for a local periodical titled the Wave. While on staff for the magazine, he wrote articles, short fiction, and sketches that often focused on grittier aspects of West Coast life. During this time he also finished McTeague, for which he could not find a publisher, and Moran of the Lady Letty: A Story of Adventure off the California Coast (1898), a more conventional adventure story that was serialized by the Wave and by the S. S. McClure syndicate in New York. The novel caught the attention of S. S. McClure himself, who hired Norris as a journalist for McClure’s magazine and as a reader for the Doubleday and McClure Company. During this time Norris outlined an epic trilogy about the production, sale, and consumption of wheat. The first two novels, The Octopus and The Pit, were well received. However, before he could begin the final installment of the series, he died from appendicitis at the age of thirty-two.
Works in Literary Context
Norris centered the majority of his work on California, exploring the lifestyle and social concerns that influenced the formation of the American West in the late nineteenth century. His novels pay close attention to the relationship between class and language, using diction and dialect as markers for specific characters. Norris believed strongly that America was too large to have a “national” literary character and argued that American literature was, by virtue of the size of the country, given to regionalism. In his essay titled ”The Great American Novel,” Norris insists that a significant American novelist could not, strictly speaking, claim to have written a national work because of the extraordinary sectional diversity in the United States. Every noteworthy American author he cited when arguing the point was known for a regional sensibility and a local-color focus in his fiction, and Norris was, of course, implying the same about himself. Five of his seven novels are situated in California, and his canon of approximately three hundred works repeatedly demonstrates how appropriate it is to view him as a self-conscious and deliberate regional writer.
In such works as McTeague, The Octopus, and The Pit, Norris adopted the methods of the French novelist and literary theorist (Emile Zola in representing poverty, degradation, and physical cruelty, which had previously been ignored by writers of the genteel tradition in American literature. Zola’s harsh realism and attention to social inequalities came to be known as the naturalist movement and was espoused by Norris and other American writers, including William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Stephen Crane.
The works of these authors document a remarkable period of intellectual and artistic transition at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. This shift was due largely to the works of biologist and evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin, who argued that man and ape were descended from a common ancestor, and that man’s behavior depended as much on genetics as on social environment. The need to redefine man’s situation in the ”new world” revealed by evolutionary scientists, by antitraditional social theorists, and by new schools of philosophical inquiry was a primary motivation for Norris as he shaped his more serious writings. Conventional certainties about man, God, nature, and society had waned. Norris was one of many writers who sought to clarify the troubling questions of the age and to provide new explanations of life in his descriptions of characters and environments.
Works in Critical Context
Although Norris published a great number of short stories and essays throughout his career, he is best known for his naturalistic novels. His career as a novelist was remarkably short; however, the few works that he wrote have endured among literary scholars.
McTeague is generally considered the most important of Norris’s early works and is rated a masterpiece by some observers. Depicting the financial, social, and moral degradation of a dentist and his wife in San Francisco, McTeague was inspired by a sensational murder case in 1893 in which a husband murdered his wife in the kindergarten where she worked as a janitor. While admitting that some readers would judge its subject unpleasant and its central characters contemptible, John D. Barry, writing in a review in Literary World, asserts that ”every figure is perfectly realized; every episode has its significance.” Continuing, Barry calls the work a ”volume which seems to me worthy to rank among the few great novels produced in this country,” and he accords high praise to ”its profound insight into character; its shrewd humor; its brilliant massing of significant detail, and … its dramatic force.” Writing in 1911, the critic Frederic Taber Cooper asserts:
McTeague does not begin to show the breadth of purpose or the technical skill of The Octopus or The Pit, yet there are times when one is tempted to award it a higher place for all-around excellence. There is a better balance between the central theme and the individual characters,—or to state it differently, between the underlying ethics and the so-called human interest. If Norris had never written another book, he would still have lived on in McTeague.
Set in the San Joaquin Valley in California, The Octopus depicts the clash between wheat farmers and railroad operators, a symbol of the broader conflict of agriculture with the monetary interests of capitalism. Both aspects are depicted in the novel as inexorable forces beyond the control of the individuals involved, with wheat representing the supply and the railroad the means of fulfilling the demand. In a review of The Octopus, Norris’s contemporary, Jack London, writes enthusiastically that ”the promise of .. .McTeague has been realized. Can we ask more?” In a retrospective essay in 1935, Granville Hicks notes inconsistencies in Norris’s philosophy and approach to his subject, yet writes of Norris, ”He had at least one quality of greatness: he could seize upon the central issues of his time and create people in whose lives those issues were reflected.” Charles Child Walcutt, who traced the influence of Zola’s theories and technique on Norris’s works, calls The Octopus ”one of the finest American novels written before 1910. It towers immeasurably far above the sickly sentiment of Norris’s contemporaries.”
The sequel to The Octopus, The Pit centers on a wealthy trader, Curtis Jadwin, whose greed leads to his financial ruin after he attempts to corner the market on the wheat harvest, thereby upsetting the balance of a system that serves as the chief source of the world’s grain supply. Frederic Taber Cooper notes, The Pit, considered as a human story, has a stronger, more direct appeal” than The Octopus because ”the interest [is] focused more directly on the central characters. . . . One feels that somehow and somewhere he had gained a deeper insight into the hearts of the men and women about him.”
- Cooper, Frederic Taber. Some American Story Tellers, 1911. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.
- Hicks, Granville. The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1935.
- Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Frank Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.
- Walcutt, Charles Child. American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956.
- Barry, John D. Review of McTeague. Literary World (March 18, 1899): 88-89.
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