Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr., was born in Chicago on March 5, 1870, the first of five children born to Gertrude Doggett Norris and Benjamin Franklin Norris, Sr., the wealthy owner of a wholesale jewelry business. Only two boys besides Frank survived infancy; Lester was born in 1878 (and died in 1887), and Charles was born in 1881. Because of Frank, Sr.’s, health problems, the Norrises moved to Oakland, California, in 1882 and the following year settled in San Francisco.
After attending a preparatory school and Boys’ High School, neither of which suited his limited interest in schooling, Frank was enrolled in the San Francisco Art Association, where he studied painting. Although he studied art in London and Paris, his interest in painting soon waned, and after two years he returned home.
During this time, however, he had begun to write. His first article, “Clothes of Steel,” was published in the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after his return in 1889. The following year, he entered the University of California at Berkeley as a limited-status student. By this time, Norris knew precisely what career would suit him: College was preparatory to becoming a professional writer. It was at Berkeley that Norris first read the naturalistic works of French novelist Émile Zola that greatly influenced his own developing literary philosophy.
While Norris was attending college, his parents filed for divorce. His father soon remarried; Frank, Charles, and their mother moved to Massachusetts, where Frank studied creative writing at Harvard University for one year. It was during this period that he began writing McTeague (1899) and Vandover and the Brute (1914).
When Norris left Harvard, he traveled and wrote sketches in South Africa, but he was forced to return to San Francisco when his involvement in the political aspects of the Boer War resulted in his expulsion from the country. It was a disheartening event, but it resulted in a unique opportunity: In San Francisco, he became an assistant editor on a weekly publication, The Wave. The magazine published several of his short stories and serialized his first novel, a pirate story titled Moran of the Lady Letty (1898). In spite of the poor quality of this work, it caught the attention of the editor of McClure’s Magazine in New York, who offered Norris a position.
As a writer for McClure’s Magazine, Norris met William Dean Howells, who would become his greatest supporter, and was sent to Cuba to...
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