Frank Norris Additional Biography


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111201270-Norris.jpg Frank Norris. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Frank Norris’ creativity first showed itself in his ability to paint. His family moved from San Francisco to Europe, first London, then Paris in 1887, so that he could study art. His career as a painter was short and the family returned to San Francisco.

Travel was a significant part of Norris’ life. In addition to Europe, during his short life he made trips to South Africa and Cuba. In the United States, he lived on both coasts for long periods of time. Despite his travels, Norris is primarily a novelist of the American West. His novels and short stories are about poor, hardworking people who must struggle not only with nature and the disasters it can deliver to them but also with rich and powerful men and corporations, who can be equally brutal.

An author who influenced Norris wasÉmile Zola, a French novelist of the late nineteenth century who created the literary school of naturalism. Norris was introduced to Zola’s works when Norris studied for a year at Harvard University. In Zola and Norris, naturalism was a literary technique for the representation of social and economic class differences and class warfare. Particularly in Norris’ work, laboring classes are symbolic of victimized good and upper classes are symbolic of tyrannical evil. For example, in The Octopus the central conflict is between some California farmers and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Norris did not write with the scientific objectivity that was part of the intellectual foundation of naturalism. His works often contain romantic idealism and even melodrama. Norris defends this practice in an essay titled “A Plea for Romantic Fiction.” In this essay he describes realism as “harsh, loveless, colorless, and blunt,” whereas romanticism can get at the colorful, “living heart of things.”

The Octopus and The Pit were to be the first two books in a trilogy about wheat. The books illustrate Norris’ observations and ideas about economics and social forces. He was planning a trip to India to get information for the third book when he died of complications from appendicitis. He was living in San Francisco and was thirty-two years old.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Frank Norris wrote in 1899: “Tell your yarn and let your style go to the devil. We don’t want literature, we want life.” However, the life he portrayed in his own novels was more naturalistic—emphasizing the brutality in humankind, the sordid in experience—than realistic.

The oldest son of a wealthy jewelry manufacturer and a doting mother, he was born in Chicago on March 5, 1870, and christened Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. When he was fourteen, his family moved to San Francisco. The bustling and varied life of that city, as well as his wide reading, stimulated his boyish imagination and turned him away from all thoughts of a business career.

Physically frail as a boy, Norris greatly admired his...

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(Novels for Students)

Benjamin Franklin Norris Jr.—Frank Norris, to his readers—is remembered for being one of the founding figures of American naturalism, a...

(The entire section is 415 words.)