Frank Norris was the son of Gertrude Doggett and Benjamin Franklin Norris, a successful businessman specializing in wholesale jewelry. Born in 1870, Norris’s early years were spent in Chicago. Except for a trip to Europe when he was eight years old, Norris’s childhood was rather uneventful. At age fourteen, he moved with his family to California. They settled first in Oakland and then moved to a large house on Sacramento Street in San Francisco. His father began a real estate development business, building cheap houses for working-class people to rent, and enjoyed financial success. The young Norris would later write about these houses in his first novel.
Frank Norris found San Francisco stimulating. The family home was located only a block from fashionable Van Ness Avenue with its ongoing series of parades and pageants and only a few blocks from the business section of Polk Street with its rich variety of small shops—there was even a dental parlor with a grotesque golden tooth sign hanging from the building. The scenes and settings were memorable, and Norris captured many of them for later use as local color in his novels.
In 1885, Norris was enrolled in the Belmont Academy. This marked the beginning of a long, largely unsuccessful attempt at formal schooling. Norris had neither the temperament nor the talent in mathematics for scholarship and, after breaking his arm playing football scarcely one year after enrolling, he quit the academy for a convalescence at home. It was during this period that he made up his mind to pursue a career as an artist.
After a short stint at Boy’s High School, Norris convinced his parents to send him to the San Francisco Art Association School. His success there persuaded Benjamin Norris to send him to the finest art schools in Paris. While Norris did not learn how to paint in Paris, he did learn the fundamentals and principles of art and also the discipline that would later serve him well as a writer. Convinced that his son was not spending his time painting, Norris’s father called him home in 1889. Norris returned from France with a new interest in writing and, more important, a solid foundation on which to build his writing career.
In the fall of 1890, Norris entered the University of California, Berkeley, determined to become a writer. Almost at once he found himself at odds with the English Department faculty over proper methods of composition. His academic progress in mathematics was abysmal. Norris turned to a more social life and joined Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. There he found a perfect outlet for his frustrations and a wealth of amusements to occupy his time. Although his academic career at Berkeley was undistinguished, Norris’s fraternity pranks were memorable.
While Norris was gaining a reputation as a prankster, his family...
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