Frank Norris 1870-1902
(Born Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr.) American novelist, journalist, essayist, and short-story writer.
The following entry provides criticism on Norris's works from 1983 through 1997. For criticism prior to 1983, see TCLC, Volume 24.
Norris is regarded as one of the architects of the American naturalistic novel at the turn of the twentieth century. In works such as McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), The Octopus: A Story of California (1901), and The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1903), Norris represented gritty aspects of life, such as poverty, degradation, and physical cruelty, which had previously been ignored in American literature.
Norris was born Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr., on March 5, 1870, in Chicago. When he was fourteen, his family moved to San Francisco, where he attended private schools. His father was a successful jeweler and real estate developer who wanted his eldest son to join him in the family business, while his mother, a onetime actress, nurtured in her son a love of art and poetry. Interested in a career as a painter, Norris enrolled in the Atelier Julien art school in Paris in 1887, following a trip abroad with his family. In 1890, at his father's insistence, he returned to the United States and enrolled at the University of California in preparation for going to work for the family business. Norris had begun writing a medieval romance during his time in Paris, and during his freshman year at the University of California, he wrote the romantic narrative poem Yvernelle: A Legend of Feudal France, which was published as a book in 1892. Norris spent four years at the university, but because he failed to complete the mathematics requirement, he left without a degree. He had, however, begun work on McTeague. By this time, his father had divorced his mother and moved back to Chicago; Norris not only didn't join the family jewelry business, he never saw his father again.
In 1894 Norris entered Harvard University to study French and English, and during one year there he worked on McTeague and the novel Vandover and the Brute which was not published until 1914, more than a decade after his death. Norris cultivated an affinity for the works of French author Émile Zola during his Harvard study and his own works began to take on an increasingly realistic tone. In 1895 he contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle as a foreign correspondent in South Africa, and the next year became an editor, contributor, and journalist for the San Francisco periodical Wave. His attempt to find a publisher for McTeague was unsuccessful at this point, but the serialized publication of his Moran of the Lady Letty: A Story of Adventure off the California Coast in 1898 caught the attention of S. S. McClure, who hired Norris as a journalist for McClure's magazine and as a reader for the Doubleday and McClure Company. Doubleday became the publisher for several Norris works, including McTeague and the semi-autobiographical love story, Blix (1900). Norris died of appendicitis on October 25, 1902, leaving behind unfinished and unpublished works including essays, short stories, and the early novel, Vandover and the Brute, many of which were published posthumously.
McTeague is considered by most critics to be the most important of Norris's early works. Inspired by a sensational murder case from 1893, the novel depicts the financial, social, and moral degradation of a dentist and his wife in San Francisco. McTeague shocked readers of the day with its frank and graphic portrayals of violence. In 1899, Norris began work on what he called a three-volume “epic of wheat,” which would focus first on the production of wheat in California, then on its distribution in Chicago, and finally on its consumption in Europe. The first novel of the planned trilogy was The Octopus: A Story of California, published in 1901. The second novel, The Pit: A Story of Chicago, was completed in 1902, and had been partially published in serialized form at the time of Norris's death. The proposed third volume, to be called The Wolf, was never written. The last of Norris's novels to be published, Vandover and the Brute, was actually the first he wrote. The manuscript, believed to have been lost in a San Francisco earthquake, was discovered and published in 1914. Other posthumously published volumes of works including A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West (1903), The Responsibilities of the Novelist and Other Literary Essays (1903), and The Third Circle (1906) have been characterized by critics as minor works, but revelatory of the author's influence on the reshaping of American fiction at the end of the nineteenth century.
During his lifetime, Norris was generally well-regarded by critics who perceived that his naturalistic narrative style would infuse American popular literature with a sense of realism that had been lacking. His regional Western voice was also noted; William Dean Howells praised the early work Moran of the Lady Letty as a modern American novel, set in “time and place of our own,” noting in particular its revelation “of a San Francisco world … interestingly unlike other worlds on either shore of the Atlantic.” Critics of his time acknowledged that readers might be offended by Norris's realistic depictions of prostitution, disease, poverty, and family dysfunction, yet they accepted his fiction as breaking new ground in American culture. Later twentieth-century critics, including James E. Caron and Susan Prothro McFatter, emphasize the parodic nature of Norris's works, most notably McTeague, suggesting that Norris's use of humor in the service of literary naturalism was perhaps unrecognized or not fully understood by his contemporaries. As a self-proclaimed admirer of French realist Émile Zola, Norris has been credited, along with Hamlin Garland and Stephen Crane, as being a pivotal figure in the introduction of realism and naturalism to early twentieth-century American fiction and popular culture.