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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Norris was not consistent in his literary philosophies, sometimes advocating realism, sometimes romanticism; if he blended literary techniques, however, it was because he recognized that those techniques were vehicles for expression and not truths in themselves. He created graphic and dramatically powerful novels which addressed the issues of his day and have continued to speak to debates on human nature and social progress.
For a young man who died just as he was maturing as a writer, he left a surprisingly large body of work which influenced writers who followed him and has retained its place in American literature’s exploration of regional realism.
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Although invariably associated with San Francisco and naturalism, Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr., was actually born in Chicago, the son of a wealthy wholesale jeweler and a former actress (his parents were divorced in 1894). The family moved to Oakland in 1884 and across the bay the following year. Norris’s education was desultory, all the more so because of his unwillingness to follow in his father’s footsteps as a businessman. From 1887 to 1889 he was enrolled in the Atelier Julien in Paris but had little success as an art student and never did begin the huge painting of the Battle of Crecy he had planned. From 1890 to 1894 he pursued the literary course at the University of California but, owing to a deficiency in...
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