Frank Norris Essay - Norris, Frank (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Norris, Frank (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Frank Norris 1870-1902

(Born Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr.) American novelist, journalist, essayist, and short-story writer.

The following entry provides criticism on Norris's works from 1983 through 1997. For criticism prior to 1983, see TCLC, Volume 24.

Norris is regarded as one of the architects of the American naturalistic novel at the turn of the twentieth century. In works such as McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), The Octopus: A Story of California (1901), and The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1903), Norris represented gritty aspects of life, such as poverty, degradation, and physical cruelty, which had previously been ignored in American literature.

Biographical Information

Norris was born Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr., on March 5, 1870, in Chicago. When he was fourteen, his family moved to San Francisco, where he attended private schools. His father was a successful jeweler and real estate developer who wanted his eldest son to join him in the family business, while his mother, a onetime actress, nurtured in her son a love of art and poetry. Interested in a career as a painter, Norris enrolled in the Atelier Julien art school in Paris in 1887, following a trip abroad with his family. In 1890, at his father's insistence, he returned to the United States and enrolled at the University of California in preparation for going to work for the family business. Norris had begun writing a medieval romance during his time in Paris, and during his freshman year at the University of California, he wrote the romantic narrative poem Yvernelle: A Legend of Feudal France, which was published as a book in 1892. Norris spent four years at the university, but because he failed to complete the mathematics requirement, he left without a degree. He had, however, begun work on McTeague. By this time, his father had divorced his mother and moved back to Chicago; Norris not only didn't join the family jewelry business, he never saw his father again.

In 1894 Norris entered Harvard University to study French and English, and during one year there he worked on McTeague and the novel Vandover and the Brute which was not published until 1914, more than a decade after his death. Norris cultivated an affinity for the works of French author Émile Zola during his Harvard study and his own works began to take on an increasingly realistic tone. In 1895 he contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle as a foreign correspondent in South Africa, and the next year became an editor, contributor, and journalist for the San Francisco periodical Wave. His attempt to find a publisher for McTeague was unsuccessful at this point, but the serialized publication of his Moran of the Lady Letty: A Story of Adventure off the California Coast in 1898 caught the attention of S. S. McClure, who hired Norris as a journalist for McClure's magazine and as a reader for the Doubleday and McClure Company. Doubleday became the publisher for several Norris works, including McTeague and the semi-autobiographical love story, Blix (1900). Norris died of appendicitis on October 25, 1902, leaving behind unfinished and unpublished works including essays, short stories, and the early novel, Vandover and the Brute, many of which were published posthumously.

Major Works

McTeague is considered by most critics to be the most important of Norris's early works. Inspired by a sensational murder case from 1893, the novel depicts the financial, social, and moral degradation of a dentist and his wife in San Francisco. McTeague shocked readers of the day with its frank and graphic portrayals of violence. In 1899, Norris began work on what he called a three-volume “epic of wheat,” which would focus first on the production of wheat in California, then on its distribution in Chicago, and finally on its consumption in Europe. The first novel of the planned trilogy was The Octopus: A Story of California, published in 1901. The second novel, The Pit: A Story of Chicago, was completed in 1902, and had been partially published in serialized form at the time of Norris's death. The proposed third volume, to be called The Wolf, was never written. The last of Norris's novels to be published, Vandover and the Brute, was actually the first he wrote. The manuscript, believed to have been lost in a San Francisco earthquake, was discovered and published in 1914. Other posthumously published volumes of works including A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West (1903), The Responsibilities of the Novelist and Other Literary Essays (1903), and The Third Circle (1906) have been characterized by critics as minor works, but revelatory of the author's influence on the reshaping of American fiction at the end of the nineteenth century.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Norris was generally well-regarded by critics who perceived that his naturalistic narrative style would infuse American popular literature with a sense of realism that had been lacking. His regional Western voice was also noted; William Dean Howells praised the early work Moran of the Lady Letty as a modern American novel, set in “time and place of our own,” noting in particular its revelation “of a San Francisco world … interestingly unlike other worlds on either shore of the Atlantic.” Critics of his time acknowledged that readers might be offended by Norris's realistic depictions of prostitution, disease, poverty, and family dysfunction, yet they accepted his fiction as breaking new ground in American culture. Later twentieth-century critics, including James E. Caron and Susan Prothro McFatter, emphasize the parodic nature of Norris's works, most notably McTeague, suggesting that Norris's use of humor in the service of literary naturalism was perhaps unrecognized or not fully understood by his contemporaries. As a self-proclaimed admirer of French realist Émile Zola, Norris has been credited, along with Hamlin Garland and Stephen Crane, as being a pivotal figure in the introduction of realism and naturalism to early twentieth-century American fiction and popular culture.

Principal Works

Yvernelle: A Legend of Feudal France (poetry) 1892

Moran of the Lady Letty: A Story of Adventure off the California Coast (novel) 1898; also published as Shanghaied, 1899

Blix (novel) 1899

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (novel) 1899

A Man's Woman (novel) 1900

The Octopus: A Story of California (novel) 1901

A Deal in Wheat, and Other Stories of the New and Old West (short stories) 1903

The Pit: A Story of Chicago (novel) 1903

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

The Joyous Miracle (novel) 1906

The Third Circle (short stories) 1909

Vandover and the Brute (novel) 1914

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

The Letters of Frank Norris (letters) 1956

The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris (criticism) 1964

A Novelist in the Making: A Collection of Student Themes and the Novels “Blix” and “Vandover and the Brute,” (novels and essays) 1970


Ron Mottram (essay date winter 1983)

SOURCE: Mottram, Ron. “Impulse toward the Visible: Frank Norris and Photographic Representation.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 25, no. 4 (winter 1983): 574-96.

[In the following essay, Mottram discusses the influence of photography and early motion pictures on Norris's writing.]

The traditional view of Frank Norris as a principal American proponent of literary naturalism has proved to be inadequate to a full understanding of his work. It has also relegated him to a position of minor importance in American letters, worthy of serious study only as a link in the chain of literary history and as an example of late nineteenth-century interest in biological...

(The entire section is 9499 words.)

Richard Lehan (essay date March 1984)

SOURCE: Lehan, Richard. “American Literary Naturalism: The French Connection.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 38, no. 4 (March 1984): 545-57.

[In the following essay, Lehan traces the connections between Norris and the French writer Émile Zola.]

There was no American novelist who covered the panorama of economic and historical activity of a Zola [Émile Zola]. But collectively there were hundreds of novels which did for America after the Civil War what Zola did for the Second Empire. Indeed, the aftermath of the Civil War in America parallels the kind of historical changes taking place in France between 1848 and 1870 as both economies moved from a landed to a...

(The entire section is 5131 words.)

Walter Benn Michaels (essay date winter 1985)

SOURCE: Michaels, Walter Benn. “The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism.” Representations 0, no. 9 (winter 1985): 105-32.

[In the following essay, Michaels draws on characters from McTeague and Vandover and the Brute to examine the portrayal of miserly behavior in Norris's naturalistic fiction.]

Democracy is threatened not only by armies but by debt and austerity. We must liberalize the trade of the world and give the world again a money it can rely on, a dollar “as good as gold.”

—Rep. Jack Kemp, in a speech before the Republican Convention, 1984

Why does the miser...

(The entire section is 13532 words.)

James E. Caron (essay date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Caron, James E. “Grotesque Naturalism: The Significance of the Comic in McTeague.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 31, no. 2 (summer 1989): 288-317.

[In the following essay, Caron argues that McTeague is a comic story.]

McTeague came and went furtively, dizzied and made uneasy by all this bustle. He got in the way; he trod upon and tore breadths of silk; he tried to help carry the packing boxes, and broke the hall gas fixture; he came in upon Trina and the dressmaker at an ill-timed moment, and retiring precipitately, overturned the piles of pictures stacked in the hall.1


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Susan Prothro McFatter (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: McFatter, Susan Prothro. “Parody and Dark Projections: Medieval Romance and the Gothic in McTeague.Western American Literature 26, no. 2 (summer 1991): 119-35.

[In the following essay, McFatter argues that in McTeague Norris intended to create a parody of the medieval romance genre.]

More than one Norris critic has commented on the obtrusive craftsmanship of McTeague, a work characterized by conspicuous animal imagery and an intrusive narrator who insists that heredity and environment control the characters' actions. Other commenters note the obvious resemblance between the characters of Polk Street and those that people Zola's...

(The entire section is 7018 words.)

William J. Hug (essay date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Hug, William J. “McTeague as Metafiction? Frank Norris' Parodies of Bret Harte and the Dime Novel.” Western American Literature 26, no. 3 (fall 1991): 219-28.

[In the following essay, Hug compares McTeague with the Western fiction of American writer Bret Harte.]

Whenever literary critics and historians discuss Frank Norris' McTeague, they generally dwell upon the first four-fifths of the novel. With rare exceptions, scholars have given its curious finale—the dentist's flight into the California hinterlands and, finally, Death Valley—rather short shrift, largely because it seems so removed from and inferior to the heart of the story,...

(The entire section is 4016 words.)

Clare Eby (essay date autumn 1994)

SOURCE: Eby, Clare. “Domesticating Naturalism: The Example of The Pit.Studies in American Fiction 22, no. 2 (autumn 1994): 149-68.

[In the following essay, Eby offers a critical overview of The Pit, which was Norris's final novel.]

Behind the release of the new paperback edition of The Pit in the summer of 1994 lies a disagreement between the editor and publisher over the cover art for it. The editor, Joseph McElrath, Jr., originally selected an art nouveau print by the graphic artist Alphonse Mucha, perhaps best known for his posters of Sarah Bernhardt. Plate 47 from Mucha's Documents Decoratifs (published in 1902, the same year as...

(The entire section is 8281 words.)

Paul Civello (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Civello, Paul. “Evolutionary Feminism, Popular Romance, and Frank Norris's ‘Man's Woman’.” Studies in American Fiction 24, no. 1 (spring 1996): 23-44.

[In the following essay, Civello discusses the recurrent character-type in Norris's fiction known as the “man's woman.”]

The late nineteenth century was a period of intense ideological struggle—in fact, a period of several struggles that often overlapped and intersected. The well-known clash between evolution and Christianity, for example, has tended to obscure a less conspicuous battle within the evolutionary camp itself that pitted Darwin and his supporters against evolutionary-minded advocates...

(The entire section is 8785 words.)

Jesse S. Crisler (essay date September 1997)

SOURCE: Crisler, Jesse S. “Howells and Norris: A Backward Glance Taken.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 52, no. 2 (September 1997): 232-51.

[In the following essay, Crisler discusses the literary relationship between Norris and American novelist William Dean Howells.]

The early assessment by Herbert Edwards of the relationship between William Dean Howells and Frank Norris remains typical of subsequent critical treatment of it in both intention and accuracy:

Howells was among the first who found a ‘new thrill’ in McTeague, and was probably the first to say so in print. Howells was largely instrumental in bringing Norris...

(The entire section is 7310 words.)

Further Reading


Bower, Stephanie. “Dangerous Liaisons: Prostitution, Disease, and Race in Frank Norris's Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 42, no. 1 (spring 1996): 31-60.

Examines the literary portrayal of prostitution, venereal disease, and race in Norris's short stories and novels.

Elrath, Jr., Joseph R., and Jesse S. Crisler. “The Bowdlerization of McTeague.American Literature 61, no. 1 (March 1989): 97-101.

Recounts events that led to Norris's revision in 1899 of several pages of McTeague in order for the book to receive clearance to be published in England.


(The entire section is 284 words.)