Frank Norris 1870-1902
(Full name Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr.; also wrote under pseudonym of Justin Sturgis) American short story writer, novelist, essayist, journalist, critic, and poet. See also Frank Norris Literary Criticism.
Norris played a major role in introducing Naturalism to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature. Influenced by the French Naturalist writer Emile Zola, he achieved an unprecedented and sometimes shocking level of realism in his novels McTeague (1899), which depicts San Francisco's lower social depths, and The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903), both of which dramatize the brutal economic forces affecting American labor and big business. While laying the foundations for his career as a serious fiction writer, Norris also established himself as an author of light, popular novels, short stories, and newspaper articles.
Norris, the son of a well-to-do Chicago jeweler, was encouraged at an early age by his mother to study art. Later, he decided to be a writer, and studied literature and French at the University of California at Berkeley and at Harvard. In college Norris published short stories and started work on what would evolve into his novels McTeague and Vandover and the Brute (1914). While pursuing a career as a journalist, he became an editor for the weekly San Francisco-based newspaper The Wave, where he wrote articles, short fiction, and sketches that often focused on the grittier aspects of West Coast life. Following the breakthrough success of his adventure novel Moran of the Lady Letty (1898), Norris found a publisher for McTeague and developed the other major works that many critics consider his greatest achievements, The Octopus and The Pit. These last two novels were meant to be part of an epic trilogy about the production, sale, and consumption of wheat. However, before he could begin the final installment of the series, he died from appendicitis at the age of thirty-two.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Norris wrote short fiction primarily to make money, and his stories, ranging from exotic thrillers to humorous society sketches and evocations of Western local color, were meant to appeal to a mass audience. Critics have observed that his stories tend to conform to the conventions of the magazine fiction of his era, noting such devices as the surprise ending used in "The Third Circle," a suspense story set in San Francisco's Chinatown. Scholars have also found similarities between the themes, or philosophical concepts, expressed in Norris's stories and those in his novels. For instance, "Lauth," "A Reversion to Type," and "A Case for Lombroso" deal with scientific and sociological ideas also found in McTeague and Vandover and the Brute. These works explore the evolutionary connection between humans and animals, and how a man's or a woman's predisposition towards good or evil can be genetically inherited. Characters and situations depicted in "Fantaisie Printaniere" and "Judy's Service of Gold Plate" likewise recur in McTeague, and the cycle of commodities speculation and economic ruin shown in "A Deal in Wheat" is essentially the same as that demonstrated in The Pit.
Norris's short fiction received little critical attention during his short life. It was not until the publication of A Deal in Wheat (1903) and The Third Circle (1909), as well as the reprinting of his magazine and newspaper writings in the 1928 collected edition of his works, that Norris's stories generated interest among reviewers and a wider reading public. Generally speaking, commentators have regarded Norris's short stories as relatively minor compared to his work as a novelist. For the most part, critical discussion of the stories has focused less on their individual literary merits than on their thematic concerns, especially as they relate to Norris's novels.