Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048
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 cover the Spanish-American War. It was during this assignment that Norris met Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis—who would become his literary competitors—and Frederic Remington, the artist. The trip was a painful experience all around for Norris. Raised in a luxurious and sheltered atmosphere, he found the realities of war horrifying. Moreover, the magazine decided not to publish his stories.
In San Francisco once again, Norris found success both personally and professionally. His relationship with Jeannette Black, who encouraged his work and appreciated the realistic character of his fiction, led to their marriage on January 12, 1900. They returned east and lived first in the elite residential area of New York’s Washington Square and then settled into their own home in Roselle, New Jersey. Additionally, both McTeague and Blix were published in 1899, and Norris began his research in California for his next project, The Octopus (1901).
Norris knew that the graphic realism and naturalistic philosophy of McTeague would be controversial, but he was able to withstand the ensuing literary scandal in large part because of the publication by the influential Howells of a supportive analytical essay on the novel that compared Norris to Zola and Charles Dickens. Several New York critics praised Norris’s novel, but many deemed it repulsive, unhealthy, and sordid, reflecting the genteel attitudes at the end of the nineteenth century. One review is representative of the offense that many readers felt upon reading the novel:Mr. Norris has written pages for which there is absolutely no excuse, and his needless sins against good taste and delicacy are fatal spots upon his work. McTeague undoubtedly will be widely read . . . but we pray that a kind fate may bring it only to those of vigorous mind and, shall we say it, strong stomach.
Norris, however, was already deeply involved in the research for his next project, a projected trilogy that would follow the growth, production, and distribution of wheat.
As Norris prepared to write the first novel of the trilogy, he moved from McClure’s Magazine to a position of a reader for Doubleday, Page, and Company, a new publishing company. This position was meant to afford Norris a reasonable income and time for his writing, but he also found himself embroiled in a major literary controversy. For the past several years, Norris had been developing and reshaping a literary philosophy that embraced naturalism but retained the transcendental belief in human potential. When, as a reader, he read a manuscript by Theodore Dreiser titled Sister Carrie (1900), he recognized not only a kindred spirit but also an extraordinary novel. Upon his recommendation, Dreiser’s novel was accepted for publication.
Although the publisher later sought, unsuccessfully, to negate Dreiser’s contract, Norris continued to support the publication of what has come to be known as one of America’s major naturalistic works of fiction.
The Octopus (1901) was the most successful novel of Norris’s career. When it appeared he was already living in Chicago and collecting materials for the second novel of the trilogy. Although he and his wife were joyful over the birth of a daughter, Jeannette, Jr., on February 9, 1902, he had become dissatisfied with industrialized urban settings while writing The Pit (1903) and decided that he and his family would prosper by moving back to San Francisco before they began a world cruise aboard a tramp steamer to gather materials for the final novel in the trilogy, which was to be titled The Wolf.
Norris was at the prime of his career: His previous novel had sold more than thirty thousand copies, he was publishing short stories again, and he was drafting ideas for another trilogy, on the Battle of Gettysburg. While Jeannette was recovering from an operation for appendicitis, however, Norris became ill. To his peril, he ignored his discomforts, and he died on October 25, 1902, from peritonitis that developed from a perforated appendix. He was thirty-two years old.