Frank Norris Essay - Critical Essays

Frank Norris American Literature Analysis

Once deemed the “father of American naturalism,” Norris is better understood as an author who delved into a variety of literary modes as a means of blending his naturalistic recognition of human failings and the potential emergence of a brute self with his romantic belief in the capacity of love to reform people into becoming their better selves.

What Norris sought to capture in his novels was a record of modern life. While he recognized literature as a marketable item (like any other commodity), he also believed that it had the capacity to express the life of the people. This should not necessarily be taken as a call for democratization of American life, however; Norris’s fiction is rife with the elitist and racist attitudes that shaped late nineteenth century American culture. Norris asserted, however, that the people have a right not to be deluded by illusionary views of life that relate only the heroic and self-sacrificing elements of human nature. What he deemed a “right to truth” meant that history, as well as emotions, must be truthfully rendered, depicted as they are and not as people would like them to be. This demands that the writer responsibly and objectively confront the society in which he or she lives.

The purpose behind every novel and the responsibilities that its author embraced in the act of writing were of great interest to Norris. His desire to define the moral responsibilities of an author grew, in large part, out of changes that were occurring in publishing trends at the turn of the twentieth century. Because of a significant increase in the number of Americans who had benefited from some form of education and thus had the capacity to consume a large quantity of printed matter, inexpensive and “easy reading” works were being published in record numbers. The authors of these works, however, often had little concern for the quality of information that they delivered.

Against such an influx of irresponsible publications, Norris suggested certain criteria for writers of novels. In essays such as “The Novel with a Purpose” (1902) and “The Responsibilities of the Novelist” (1902), Norris asserted that while lesser novelists simply told a story, the works by writers with higher artistic yearnings would entail a study of human motivations and representative human characteristics.

This required the novelist to draw fictional characters from his or her observations of actual people and to realize that the purpose of the highest form of the novel was to reform (while maintaining a keen eye for aesthetics and the action of the story), to bring the reader to a moral rather than a popular conclusion. Because readers will believe whatever is rendered with skill, that places upon the author a tremendous responsibility to act with the greatest awareness and sincerity.

There was an ongoing debate at the turn of the twentieth century over the need for someone to produce the “great American novel.” In this respect, Norris’s belief in evolutionary processes was brought to bear upon the issue. The United States had not yet sufficiently developed a nationalistic spirit, he asserted, and such a spirit was required before any nation could produce a national epic. Like other realistic authors of the period, including Rebecca Harding Davis, Hamlin Garland, and Sarah Orne Jewett, Norris believed that a writer should present the essential factors of a particular region of the country. Only after the accumulation of these particular studies could the United States hope to develop its own great novel.

Norris’s shifting alliance between realism (which he defined as fiction devoted to the subject of typical life) and romanticism (fiction that focused upon the exceptional rather than the normal) suggests his own lifelong struggle to find a literary means of expressing his fears for and beliefs in the capacity of human beings to shape their lives. If he ultimately failed to synthesize these elements, it is a failure representative of that modern life which he sought to record.

Norris’s early fiction was often sentimental and romantic. His first long publication was a romantic poem titled Yvernelle: A Tale of Feudal France (1892) that reflected his fascination with medieval themes and was highly moralistic in tone. Although the poem was a work of his apprenticeship years, the attention to romantic moralism remained long after the settings of his fiction moved from medieval to modern times. Years later, Norris still asserted that “preparations of effect” were the central feature of “fiction mechanics.” The difference between the hack writer and the great writer was the subtlety with which they rendered those preparations.

As Norris matured as a writer, his naturalistic philosophy developed into a belief that human beings are always destined to fail against the indifference and power of natural forces, of nature itself. In The Octopus, he expressed these ideas most clearly:Men were nothings, mere animalcules, mere ephemerides that fluttered and fell and were forgotten between dawn and dusk. . . . Men were naught, death was naught, life was naught; FORCE only existed—FORCE that brought men into the world, FORCE that crowded them out of it to make way for the succeeding generation, FORCE that made the wheat grow, FORCE that garnered it from the soil to give place to the succeeding crop.

Most prevalent in Norris’s large category of forces that controlled human beings were those of heredity and environment. Yet this evolutionary process as it related to human beings was not envisioned by Norris as a debilitating feature of human development but rather as the capacity for humankind to evolve into the perfect species. Thus, if in describing human failings, Norris depicted the force of sexual desire as one of the most overpowering facets of human nature, one that often devolved into a bestial, self-serving lust for gratification, he also acknowledged the regenerative capacity of the human spirit.

A year before his death, Norris published a short essay titled “The True Reward of the Novelist” (1901). The reward could not be defined in terms of popularity or sales; it came from the knowledge that the author had told his or her audience the truth as he or she knew it. Such honesty and realism did not preclude romance, Norris asserted:The difficult thing is to get at the life immediately around you, the very life in which you move. No romance in it? No romance in you, poor fool. As much romance on Michigan Avenue as there is realism in King Arthur’s court. It is as you choose to see it.

That recognition, then, becomes the ultimate responsibility of the novelist.


First published: 1899

Type of work: Novel

In late nineteenth century San Francisco, a community is completely disrupted when temptations and greed bring out the brute nature of its inhabitants.

Norris had begun writing McTeague while a student at Harvard, but by the time of its publication seven years later, in 1899, the influence of French and Russian naturalism was well recognized in American literary communities. Yet no native novelist had yet created quite so grim and unyielding a representation as Norris did in this, his first major novel. McTeague is deeply indebted to the works of Zola, whose naturalistic-romantic vision of the complex nature of human relationships and the compelling forces which led men and women into destructive behavior patterns reflected and encouraged Norris’s own beliefs. Although Norris would continue to incorporate the techniques of naturalism into his fiction, McTeague stands as his purest experiment in the genre.

As Norris would later counsel in his essays on fiction, he focused in this novel on one area in one region of the United States: Polk Street in San Francisco. More specifically, the novel follows a particular period of time in the life of “Mac” McTeague, a dentist on Polk Street. McTeague’s initial mood of melancholy and nostalgia for the country life of his youth reflects the sense of loss that has come with the prosperity of his urban existence.

Like all naturalists, Norris did not assert that environment alone could be blamed for the present condition of humankind’s slow evolution, and it is the brute strength of McTeague that is most striking. This beastlike nature, which Norris believed was a hereditary feature of all people, lies beneath the surface of McTeague’s lumbering presence. When circumstances threaten to reveal that he had never received proper certification as a dentist, the facade of his personality is ruptured and the uncontrollable brute self emerges.

Although Norris believed that there had been no great American women novelists and that this phenomenon was attributable to the fact that women led sheltered lives which did not allow them to study “real”...

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