Frank Norris Essay - Norris, Frank (Short Story Criticism)

Norris, Frank (Short Story Criticism)


Frank Norris 1870-1902

(Full name Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr.; also wrote under pseudonym of Justin Sturgis) American short story writer, novelist, essayist, journalist, critic, and poet. See also Frank Norris Literary Criticism.

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 level of realism in his novels McTeague (1899), which depicts San Francisco's lower social depths, and The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903), both of which dramatize the 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 an author of light, popular novels, short stories, and newspaper articles.

Biographical Information

Norris, the son of a well-to-do Chicago jeweler, was encouraged at an early age by his mother to study art. Later, he decided to be a writer, and studied literature and French at the University of California at Berkeley and at Harvard. In college Norris published short stories and started work on what would evolve into his novels McTeague and Vandover and the Brute (1914). While pursuing a career as a journalist, he became an editor for the weekly San Francisco-based newspaper The Wave, where he wrote articles, short fiction, and sketches that often focused on the grittier aspects of West Coast life. Following the breakthrough success of his adventure novel Moran of the Lady Letty (1898), Norris found a publisher for McTeague and developed the other major works that many critics consider his greatest achievements, The Octopus and The Pit. These last two novels were meant to be part of an epic trilogy about the production, sale, and consumption of wheat. However, before he could begin the final installment of the series, he died from appendicitis at the age of thirty-two.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Norris wrote short fiction primarily to make money, and his stories, ranging from exotic thrillers to humorous society sketches and evocations of Western local color, were meant to appeal to a mass audience. Critics have observed that his stories tend to conform to the conventions of the magazine fiction of his era, noting such devices as the surprise ending used in "The Third Circle," a suspense story set in San Francisco's Chinatown. Scholars have also found similarities between the themes, or philosophical concepts, expressed in Norris's stories and those in his novels. For instance, "Lauth," "A Reversion to Type," and "A Case for Lombroso" deal with scientific and sociological ideas also found in McTeague and Vandover and the Brute. These works explore the evolutionary connection between humans and animals, and how a man's or a woman's predisposition towards good or evil can be genetically inherited. Characters and situations depicted in "Fantaisie Printaniere" and "Judy's Service of Gold Plate" likewise recur in McTeague, and the cycle of commodities speculation and economic ruin shown in "A Deal in Wheat" is essentially the same as that demonstrated in The Pit.

Critical Reception

Norris's short fiction received little critical attention during his short life. It was not until the publication of A Deal in Wheat (1903) and The Third Circle (1909), as well as the reprinting of his magazine and newspaper writings in the 1928 collected edition of his works, that Norris's stories generated interest among reviewers and a wider reading public. Generally speaking, commentators have regarded Norris's short stories as relatively minor compared to his work as a novelist. For the most part, critical discussion of the stories has focused less on their individual literary merits than on their thematic concerns, especially as they relate to Norris's novels.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West 1903

The Third Circle 1909

Complete Works of Frank Norris. 10 vols. (short stories, novels, criticism, essays, and sketches) 1928

Frank Norris of "The Wave": Stories and Sketches from the San Francisco Weekly, 1893 to 1897 1931

Other Major Works

Yvernelle: A Legend of Feudal France (verse) 1892

*Moran of the Lady Letty: A Story of Adventure off the California Coast (novel) 1898

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (novel) 1899

Blix (novel) 1899

A Man's Woman (novel) 1900

The Octopus: A Story of California (novel) 1901

The Pit: A Story of Chicago (novel) 1903

The Responsibilities of the Novelist and Other Literary Essays (essays) 1903

Vandover and the Brute (novel) 1914

The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris (criticism) 1964

The Letters of Frank Norris (letters) 1965

*Also published as Shanghaied, 1899.


Frank Norris (essay date 1896)

SOURCE: "The Modern Short Story," in The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris, edited by Donald Pizer, University of Texas Press, 1964, pp. 48-50.

[In the following essay, which was first published in 1896, Norris describes the development of the short story form.]

There is one type of the modern short story that is a sort of great-grandchild of the novel of fifty years ago, but that, finding no abiding place between the broad covers of a printed book, has been adapted and nurtured by the monthly magazine. Originally the short story was but a miniature novel, having all the features of a novel—introduction, plot, complication, development of character and the like—every characteristic in fact but that of length.

Balzac introduced this type—the type of the long short story, and it still survives in the present day in the form of the serial of two numbers that appears from time to time in Harper's or Century, or more especially in the "Novelette" of Lippincott's. Among the best examples of this type are Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Amélie Rives' "Quick or the Dead," and Mr. Hope's "Indiscretion of the Duchess." These stories may be read at a single sitting. They are hardly more than condensed novels. The introduction is entirely dispensed with, the action is generally simple, the movement rapid, the range very limited. But the writer, however, still retains the succession of incidents and episodes of the larger forms of fiction, and by means of these evolves a considerable amount of complication. But ever since the introduction of the short story as a form of fiction the tendency has been towards brevity. The short story has been getting shorter and shorter, not so much, I am confident, because of limited time on the part of the reading public as because of limited space on the part of the magazines. The popular magazine must cover in a given and fixed amount of space a great variety of subjects—art, literature, science, travel, biography, history and fiction, to say nothing of the space consumed by illustrations. All matter, fiction or otherwise, must consequently be reduced to the shortest possible length. Editors all over the country are constantly returning "available" matter to the authors with suggestions to condense. The short story is no exception. It has become shorter and shorter from year to year, until from being a shorter form of novel of incidents and episodes, it has been reduced in some cases to the relation of a single incident by itself, concise, pungent, direct as a blow. There have been successful stories written upon an incident so brief that the whole matter can be summed up in a single sentence. For instance, "An English officer's return to his regiment after years of imprisonment in Siberia." There does not seem to be material enough for even a very short story in this statement. Yet Mr. Kipling saw possibilities in it when he conceived the idea of "The Man Who Was." Or again, the impulse of a good-hearted young New Yorker to remove a little girl from the bad influences of stage life and return her to her father, is all that Mr. Davis permits himself to relate in "Her First...

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Frank Norris (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: "The Decline of the Magazine Short Story," in The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris, edited by Donald Pizer, University of Texas Press, 1964, pp. 27-8.

[In the following essay, which was first published in the magazine The Wave in 1897, Norris decries established short story authors as writing safe and dull fiction.]

Is it possible that the short story—the American short story—is on the decline? And if so is it because the authors have ceased to produce work of a high standard, or because the public—that particular circle of the public for whom the magazines cater—have ceased to demand it?

Four years ago the name of Richard...

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Gelett Burgess (essay date 1903)

SOURCE: "One More Tribute to Frank Norris," in Sunset, Vol. 10, January, 1903, p. 246.

[In the following essay, Burgess offers an appreciative assessment of Norris's growth as a short story writer.]

"The House With the Blinds," originally printed in the San Francisco Wave, is one of the best examples of what may be called the intermediate stage of the late Frank Norris' work. His earlier fiction, contributed to the Overland Monthly, while clever and often strong, was slightly imitative and showed the effect of his admiration for Kipling's style and manner. A little later the charm of Stevenson laid upon Norris the spell that produced the adventure-story...

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The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art (review date 1903)

SOURCE: "Tales of Norris," in The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art, September 26, 1903, p. 652.

[In the following review, the critic praises the stories of the "buccaneer West" in A Deal in Wheat.]

"A Deal in Wheat" is the first and the shortest of these stories by the late Frank Norris. The title, of course, suggests Chicago and The Pit, but the fact is that the stories which have already appeared in magazine form, are with one exception concerned with the gun-firing, cow-punching West of the plains, or the semi-piratic seafaring West of the Pacific Coast, not with the new West of the grain exchange and the gambler in breadstuffs.


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Frederic Taber Cooper (review date 1903)

SOURCE: "The Sustained Effort," in The Bookman, Vol. 18, November, 1903, pp. 311-12.

[In the following excerpt, Cooper describes the stories in A Deal in Wheat as fascinating exercises by a developing novelist.]

Mr. Norris took himself and his work with great seriousness; his ideal in fiction was a lofty one, and he was steadily, persistently, indomitably, working towards it—indeed, in the opinion of many of those who best know his work, he had already crossed the threshold of achievement. Yet, whatever place is ultimately assigned him in the history of American letters, this at least is sure—that he was first and last an artist who depended upon bold lines...

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The Athenaeum (review date 1903)

SOURCE: A review of A Deal in Wheat, in The Athenaeum, No. 3967, November 7, 1903, p. 613.

[In the following review, the critic offers a negative appraisal of A Deal in Wheat.]

The author of The Octopus and The Pit would not, we think, have given to the stories which fill this volume [A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories] the honour of publication in book form. Yet, since he is no longer with us, we are inclined to consider the publication justifiable. The stories are a good way below the level of his best work, but they are characteristic, full of muscular force and energy. They are not original work, in the sense that the never...

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The Athenaeum (review date 1909)

SOURCE: A review of The Third Circle, in The Athenaeum, No. 4269, August 21, 1909, p. 206.

[In the following review, the critic describes the stories in The Third Circle as interesting examples of Norris's apprentice work.]

There are some sixteen stories or sketches brought together in [The Third Circle], and if it were not that they are posthumous papers, we should have questioned the wisdom of preserving some of them. They represent the early work of a clever writer, whose life, unfortunately, was not long enough to admit of the maturing of his talents. Combined with the somewhat feverish energy which came to him in Western America, Frank...

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The Bookman (review date 1909)

SOURCE: A review of The Third Circle, in The Bookman, Vol. 37, October, 1909, p. 54.

[In the following review, the critic praises the stories in The Third Circle.]

Nine times out of ten it is a mistake, or something worse, to go dredging into the back numbers of old magazines and newspapers and bringing to light the prentice work of an author who has become sufficiently famous to make such an enterprise commercially worth while; in the tenth case it is entirely justifiable. This is one of those tenth books; it would have been a thousand pities if the stories and sketches salved in The Third Circle had been left to their dusty oblivion in the files...

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Will Irwin (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Third Circle, A Deal in Wheat, and Other Stories of the New and Old West, Doubleday, Doran, & Co., 1928, pp. vii-ix.

[In the following essay, Irwin discusses Norris's literary apprentice work on The Wave.]

I succeeded Frank Norris as sub-editor of the San Francisco Wave, a weekly periodical with more lives than a cat. My duties included "putting the paper to bed." This ceremony began on Tuesday night. We were working short-handed, as all unprosperous weeklies do; and that Tuesday usually stretched itself out into Wednesday. Most often, indeed, the foreman did not pound the last quoin into place and draw the last page-proof until...

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John Chamberlain (review date 1931)

SOURCE: "The Prentice Days of Frank Norris," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 80, May 3, 1931, pp. 2,10.

[In the following review of Frank Norris of "The Wave," Chamberlain traces the themes of Norris's novels to those of writings he did for The Wave.]

When he was a student at the University of California, in 1891 and 1892, Frank Norris contributed two stories to a San Francisco weekly called The Wave. One of the tales was so horrifying to the literary taste of the time that a friend of Mr. Norris senior stopped him on the street one day and said: "If I had a son who wrote a story like that, I'd have him put out of the world in a lethal chamber."...

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Florence Haxton Britten (review date 1931)

SOURCE: "Prissy Frank Norris," in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. 7, No. 50, August 23, 1931, p. 13.

[In the following excerpt, Britten offers a lukewarm review of Frank Norris of "The Wave."]

It is always interesting to examine the tentative, youthful efforts of a writing talent whose mature work we hold in great respect. But the best of Frank Norris's earlier pieces from The Wave and elsewhere had already been gathered into a volume of abort stories called The Third Circle, and into Volume X of the more recent Argonaut Edition of his works. The sketches, interviews, short stories, parodies, articles and reviews which make up the diverse table...

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C. Hartley Grattan (review date 1931)

SOURCE: A review of Frank Norris of "The Wave," in American Literature, Vol. 3, November, 1931, pp. 349-50.

[In the following excerpt, Grattan expresses a negative opinion of Frank Norris of "The Wave."]

[Frank Norris of "The Wave"] should be read in conjunction with Volume X: Collected Writings in the collected edition of Norris's work. It is, in effect, a printing of material omitted from the volume for one reason or another, Its excuse for being, other than the fact that a file of The Wave is almost impossible to come by, is rather difficult to discover, for it was already rather glaringly apparent that Norris's early journalism was no...

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Franklin Walker (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "College High Jinks," in Frank Norris: A Biography, Doubleday, Doran, & Co., 1932, pp. 53-77.

[In the following excerpt, Walker discusses Norris's early development as a short story writer.]

That Norris's energy was not entirely absorbed by his college activities is made clear by his published writings which reveal his development between the period of the composition of Yvernelle and the time late in his university career when he started an ambitious program of novel-writing under the spur of Zola. During his four years at Berkeley he contributed three poems, four sketches, a play, and two short stories to student magazines, and, after abandoning...

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John S. Hill (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Poe's 'Fall of the House of Usher' and Frank Norris' Early Short Stories," in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, November, 1962, pp. 111-12.

[In the following essay, Hill discovers traces of Poe's story in "A Case for Lombroso" and "His Single Blessedness. "]

An apparent influence upon the early fiction of Frank Norris has been overlooked, to date, by the critics examining Norris' work. For example, neither Ernest Marchand, in Frank Norris: A Study (Stanford, 1942), nor Franklin Walker, in Frank Norris: A Biography (Garden City, 1932), discusses the parallels between Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" and two of Norris' stories,...

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Lee Ann Johnson (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Western Literary Realism: The California Tales of Norris and Austin," in American Literary Realism, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 278-80.

[In the following essay, Johnson discusses Western-themed stories by Norris and Mary Austin.]

Frank Norris and Mary Austin are two Western writers whose accomplishments in short fiction have generally been neglected; critical attention has most frequently focused on their novels. Yet in studying the emergence of realism in Western literature, Norris' and Austin's tales should not be overlooked; their stories of California, in particular, achieve realism with subjects previously treated in romance.


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Stephen Tatum (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Norris's Debt in 'Lauth' to Lemattre's On the Transfusion of Blood'," in American Literary Realism, Vol. XI, No. 2, Autumn, 1978, pp. 243-48.

[In the following essay, Tatum cites a scientific article about blood transfusion as a probable source for Norris's story "Lauth."]

Whatever its critical merit as a literary effort, Frank Norris's "Lauth" (Overland Monthly, March 1893) remains his most important early writing, distilling as it does his concepts of personality and morality in a fictive presentation of total human reversion. Because "Lauth" bears the imprint of key influences upon Norris's development as a writer, the story has usually been...

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Donald Pizer (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Significance of Frank Norris's Literary Criticism," in Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, revised edition, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984, pp. 112-20.

[In the following excerpt, Pizer suggests that "Dying Fires" can be read as an allegory of Norris's view of literature.]

It is not surprising . . . to find a Wilde-Kipling contrast running through Norris's descriptions of "literature" and "life," a contrast sharpened and vitalized by his personal rejection of the minor Bohemian worlds he encountered in San Francisco and New York. Indeed, he tended in his later criticism to establish Kipling-like conflicts between the...

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Joseph R. McElrath, Jr.(essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "A Novelist in the Making," in Frank Norris Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 1-21.

[In the following excerpt, McElrath traces Norris's early development as a journalist and fiction writer.]

At the same time that Norris—at age 21—was realizing his mother's ideal conception of a son as college man and artist, a personality adjustment was occurring in him. Another side of his nature was emerging, for at Berkeley few fraternity men were as ferociously involved in the society as he became. The gloves and cane were put in the closet and some "regular guy" socialization began: the frat house became increasingly more central. Indeed, Norris's present...

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Joseph R. McElrath Jr. (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Frank Norris' 'The Puppets and the Puppy': LeContean Idealism or Naturalistic Skepticism?" in American Literary Realism, Vol. 26, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 50-9.

[In the following essay, McElrath explores Norris's satirical depiction of philosophical views in "The Puppets and the Puppy. "]

A good deal has been written about Frank Norris' philosophy. Since the turn of the century, in fact, more attention has been given to the understanding of his thought than to the qualities—period and personal—of his literary artistry. This began to change by the late 1970s. Happily, the growing emphasis has been upon his salient traits as a prose fictionalist. Yet novels...

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Further Reading


McElrath, Joseph R. Frank Norris, A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University Pittsburgh Press, 1992, 355p.

Comprehensive bibliography of Norris's writing.


Frohock, W. M. Frank Norris. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968, 47 p.

Brief examination of Norris's major works, including some discussion of his short stories.

Marchand, Ernest. Frank Norris, A Study. New York: Octagon Books, 1942, 258 p.

One of the first thorough...

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