Frank Norris: A Life


"Born in Chicago in 1870, Frank Norris led a life of adventure and art. He moved to San Francisco at fifteen, spent two years in Paris painting, and returned to San Francisco to become an internationally famous author. He died at age thirty-two from a ruptured appendix. During his short life, he wrote an inspired series of novels about the United States coming of age. The Octopus was a prescient warning about the threat of monopolies, and The Pit exposed the intrigues and dirty dealings at the Chicago grain exchange. Extensively reprinted,
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"Born in Chicago in 1870, Frank Norris led a life of adventure and art. He moved to San Francisco at fifteen, spent two years in Paris painting, and returned to San Francisco to become an internationally famous author. He died at age thirty-two from a ruptured appendix. During his short life, he wrote an inspired series of novels about the United States coming of age. The Octopus was a prescient warning about the threat of monopolies, and The Pit exposed the intrigues and dirty dealings at the Chicago grain exchange. Extensively reprinted, Norris's works have also found their way into popular consciousness through film (Erich von Stroheim's Greed), and even an opera, McTeague, based on his portrait of the huge, dumb, and murderous dentist." Interest in this dynamic writer was wide and sustained, but Frank Norris and his family did biographers no favors. Norris burned most of his correspondence, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire devoured more, and his brother and widow dispersed his surviving papers as gifts. As a result, it was thought impossible to assemble enough material to surpass the single existing biography, published in 1932. Authors Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Jesse S. Crisler, acknowledged as the leading experts on Norris, have spent over thirty years overcoming these obstacles, devotedly amassing the material necessary to at last fashion a truly full-scale portrait of the artist. This is the first complete biography of this centrally important American novelist to appear in seventy years, and anyone familiar with the breezier existing accounts of the man and hungering for the real story will agree that Frank Norris, A Life was worth the wait.
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Editorial Reviews

Victor Davis Hanson
If McElrath and Crisler have written a hagiography, at least they defend their unbridled admiration for their author by explaining why his work is still very much worth reading. First, they argue, both his politics and his craft are often misunderstood and underappreciated. Norris was proclaimed "the American Zola," and much of his writing was patterned after lurid French sensationalism, especially his attention to Darwinism, naturalism and rationalism, or the effort to show characters as sweaty, often repugnant animals driven by instinctual self-interest in a world explicable only by cold reason.
— The New York Times
From the Publisher
"An important book. Norris is a compelling figure in American letters—youthful, ambitious, prolific, Californian—and he merits just this kind of learned assessment."—Los Angeles Times

"Not only is the narrative readable and captivating, but McElrath and Crisler correct a number of common misconceptions about Norris and his work, persuasively demonstrating that he was much more than simply the 'American Zola' that many of his contemporaries made him out to be. This book demonstrates that Norris and his writings deserve much more careful attention from students and scholars. Essential."—Choice

"The authors . . . began their research as graduate students in 1971 and have devoted most of their scholarly careers to finding out who Frank Norris really was.  Norris died unexpectedly of a ruptured appendix in 1902 at the age of 32, and the authors conclude that much of our existing information about his brief life is plain wrong. . . . In setting the record straight, the meticulous McElrath and Crisler have written the definitive biography of Norris. In it, they emphasize how appreciation of Norris's literary genius is inseparable from an untimely death that forever raised the unfulfilled promise of even greater work to come."—New York Times Book Review

"The meticulous McElrath and Crisler have written the definitive biography of Norris. In it, they emphasize how appreciation of Norris's literary genius is inseparable from an untimely death that forever raised the unfulfilled promise of even greater work to come."—New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252030161
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 10/10/2005
  • Pages: 520
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.50 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph R. McElrath Jr. is the William Hudson Rogers Professor of English at Florida State University and the author of Frank Norris Revisited and Frank Norris: A Descriptive Bibliography. Jesse S. Crisler is Humanities Professor of English at Brigham Young University, the editor of Frank Norris: Collected Letters, and the coeditor of Frank Norris: A Reference Guide.

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Read an Excerpt


A Life
By Joseph R. McElrath Jr. Jesse S. Crisler

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-03016-8

Chapter One


The American novelist Frank Norris was a universally well-liked person with an inextinguishable joie de vivre, a fine sense of humor, a gift for maintaining long-term friendships, and a degree of self-confidence that early career-related disappointments could not dampen. These are not, of course, warrants for the writing of a biography. They simply make pleasurable the task of telling the story of a man whose passing in 1902, at the age of thirty-two, prompted an outpouring by those who knew him of testimonials to a life well lived. The fact that, three decades after Norris's death, Franklin Walker, his first biographer, could easily obtain positive recollections through correspondence and interviews is only further encouragement to complement and, when necessary, correct his portrait. It is now clear that there was much more to the story of this personable individual than Walker was able to discern in 1932, or his successors have discerned in articles, parts of books, M.A. theses, and Ph.D. dissertations. However, our principal reasons for devoting extended attention now to Norris are of another kind.

His vital accomplishments as a still readable literary artist and insightful observer of American life account for his present high status in U.S. cultural history. He has long stood as a "touchstone" figure who, in two distinct ways, provides immediate access to what was transpiring in American thought and literary expression at the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.

This eminently respectable man-baptized, confirmed, married, and given last rites by the Episcopal church-was in many of his works a distinctly conventional writer who understood and deliberately appealed to the dominant tastes of his contemporaries and many of their widely shared assumptions about life at the turn of the century. Norris's own interests matched those of various readerships, ranging from high- to middle- and, on occasion, lowbrow. His eclecticism manifests itself in his many informed allusions to classical authors such as Homer and Horace; to modern masters such as Sir Walter Scott and Honoré de Balzac; to popular contemporaries such as Bret Harte, Lew Wallace, and William Dean Howells; to turn-of-the-century celebrities such as Richard Harding Davis and David Belasco; and to the authors of the pulp fiction of his day. In Norris's writings, one character's quotation from a play by Shakespeare or Racine may stand cheek-by-jowl with another's reference to a now-forgotten potboiler novel of 1888, Archibald C. Gunter's Mr. Potter of Texas. Norris took into account and reflected the enthusiasms of the whole of the American reading public. Such multifarious literary influences are apparent even in his most original works, to the same degree as long-embraced doctrines such as Emersonian self-reliance and the Anglo-American's conceit of racial superiority.

Norris's third novel, Blix, is exemplary of how he worked within traditional boundaries. While it does display some traits of post-Victorian modernity-for example, it tests the limits of tolerance for the liberated New Woman represented by its heroine intent upon becoming a physician-in the main, this sprightly romance of 1899 treats courtship and the flowering of true love in a way that gratified the most Victorian of readers in Norris's and his parents' generations. In this scrupulously "clean-minded" work-dedicated to Norris's mother, no less-the narrator even informs the reader that sex has had nothing to do with the hero's realization that he has unwittingly fallen in love with the heroine. It is remarkable that Norris rendered such idealistic plots and characterizations, preferred by genteel readers of the late nineteenth century, in a manner that remains credible and enjoyable today.

To be described thus as a traditionalist whose virtue lay in gratifying the tastes of his readers and revalidating their ways of seeing things is not, of course, an advantage in one respect. The present reputations of great literary figures, painters, and composers since the early nineteenth century typically depend upon their being perceived as members of an avant-garde, bravely violating and innovatively transcending established criteria for artistic production. Edouard Manet and Paul Gaugin, for example, have long been heroicized for their bold departures from convention and their anticipation of and influence on modernist values in the visual arts. More traditional artists of the late nineteenth century, such as the men under whom Norris studied drawing and painting in the 1880s, have not fared so well. And yet, as with Norris's writings of the kind, the equally artful but more conventional paintings of Virgil Williams, Emil Carlsen, and William Bouguereau serve an important cultural function. They tell one what Cézanne's and Van Gogh's signature works cannot: how late Victorians typically saw and understood the world before them. That they do so in a compelling way accounts in part for the fact that their creators have not been wholly overshadowed by more experimental contemporaries, nor by their twentieth- and twenty-first-century successors who distanced themselves yet farther from late nineteenth-century artistic values.

Another case in point, like Blix, is Norris's final novel, The Pit, posthumously published in 1903. In no respect a work of art that foreshadows early twentieth-century modernist experiments in form by contemporaries such as Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser, it appealed strongly to the popular as well as the more sophisticated, "high-culture" readerships of its time. It embodied traditional convictions regarding the essentials of a successful marriage and the threat to a happy union posed by the egotistical self-absorption of either of the partners (a problem Norris also examined in A Man's Woman [1900]). The Pit is a profoundly "serious" work of fictive psychology fashioned in light of the events and probable cultural influences leading to the divorce of Norris's own parents in 1894. At the same time, he crafted the novel for the mass market; it became a best-seller viewed by many critics as his masterpiece. That it continued to speak engagingly to Norris's generation was evident as late as 1917: like three others of his works, The Pit was adapted as a silent film and distributed nationally to movie houses.

At the same time, Norris was indeed a touchstone figure as a member of the avant-garde. Book reviewers in his own time, like later literary historians, recognized him as a remarkably versatile writer whose most innovative works marked a radical departure from not only prevailing literary conventions but the preferred worldview of the vast majority of his contemporaries. In McTeague, the 1899 novel that is now seen as his masterpiece, he ignored the long-standing boundaries for "appropriate" subject matter in American art, treating types of characters, kinds of experience, and decidedly post-Victorian concepts that would become commonplace in more adventuresome novels and plays by the 1930s, particularly in John Steinbeck's early works. But in 1899, when Victorian standards were still in place, seven months before Blix typed the kind of novel privileged by the guardians of public morality, Norris was the author of a perverse, dirty book. The transgressiveness of McTeague is reflected by the fact that, as late as 1924, when Erich von Stroheim's almost literal cinematic adaptation of the novel was released as Greed, reviewers judged it a perverse, dirty film.

When the novel appeared, no less respectable an authority on aesthetics than William Dean Howells celebrated what he saw as its many little miracles of observation. Willa Cather admired Norris's adaptation of the literary methods of the French novelist Emile Zola to create a truthful study of American life. But "vulgar," "gruesome," "gross," "sordid," "revolting," and "stomach-turning" are typical of the epithets that outraged American and English reviewers hurled at McTeague-reacting as they had for two decades to Zola's novelistic violations of Anglo-American taboos. Their reasons are immediately apparent upon a first reading. To cite one of many possible examples, Norris includes something uniformly omitted in other American and English novels of the 1890s. The omission is a curious one, discoverable even in works representative of a progressive realist movement that was in place in the United States at the time. Unlike those reading about them, no characters in novels published by respectable firms felt the need to, or did, urinate. Urination is not, per se, an essential element of world-class literature -any more than is the heroine of McTeague being seized by a fit of vomiting, or her siblings' being victimized by an obsessive, abusive father governed by a need to maintain order in his life. A pants-wetting scene featuring her young brother may now seem a trivial enhancement of an already quite sensational novel-though this was not the case at the end of the nineteenth century, since Norris was obliged to rewrite the passage prior to the third 1899 printing. The English publisher Grant Richards informed the American firm Doubleday and McClure that he would not market the book for British readers unless the bowdlerization occurred. He was adamant about this, and it was not until 1941 that a publisher restored the text of McTeague to its original condition.

There need be little debate, however, about the importance of another deliberate oversight common in contemporaneous prose fictions pretending to be true to human nature but declining to deal with aspects that polite Victorians saw as rankly animalistic. Acknowledgments of sexuality as a factor in courtship and marriage were rare; and, when authors did attend to instinct-rooted drives that linked human behavior to that of the barnyard, they acknowledged the "lower" or "brutal" dimension of human nature in an ultradiscreet manner. For example, The Scarlet Letter (1850) hardly encourages the reader to imagine what role sexual appetite plays in the conception of Hester Prynne's illegitimate daughter. Had Hawthorne prompted his reader to do so, he would have risked the charge of animalism in art-the very indictment later leveled at Zola and Norris. Just how distasteful human sexuality was for many as late as 1896 may be seen in Norris's withering review of a novel by a fellow San Franciscan, Mrs. J. R. Jarboe. Her Robert Atterbury dealt with, as Norris phrased it, "the 'ultimate physical relation of man and woman.' A dangerous subject truly." Jarboe advanced the thesis that marriage is nothing "but legalized prostitution"-to which Norris responded with a decidedly post-Victorian perspective on, and acceptance of, the indelible characteristics of the human animal, the bête humaine of Zola's canon. Is it not true, Norris asked in his review, that "humanity still is, and for countless generations will be, three-quarters animal, living and dying, eating and sleeping, mating and reproducing even as animals; passing the half of each day's life in the performance of animal functions?" That such is indeed the case was for Norris the warrant to produce art that frankly acknowledged as natural the condition in which mankind finds itself.

Great American novels such as Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and merely noteworthy ones such as Charles W. Chesnutt's The House behind the Cedars (1900) did not reflect agreement with Norris. They featured lovers who are, so to speak, neutered. In 1893, even so irreverent and daring a writer as Stephen Crane proceeds by implication when describing his heroine's seduction, rejection by her lover, and descent into prostitution in Maggie; and reference to her surrender to the bartender Pete occurs euphemistically only after the event is history. Two years later, in Rose of Dutcher's Coolly, Hamlin Garland repeatedly alludes to the dangers of sexual experience his chaste heroine faces, illustrating his point only briefly in the harassment of this unchaperoned country girl by a conductor and equally ill-mannered brakeman during a train ride. She is not only unresponsive to their crude advances; she herself never knows randiness in any scene in this novel-not even when with the man who wins her heart and then her hand in marriage. Readers of Theodore Dreiser's 1900 novel Sister Carrie had to infer Carrie Meeber's means of becoming the "kept woman" of Drouet and Hurstwood. Further, is Carrie ever subject to erotic impulses? One cannot tell. In McTeague, however, male and female sexual arousal is treated frankly. And Norris goes well beyond the one American predecessor in this respect of whom he was aware: James Lane Allen in 1896 belied his reputation as a genteel romance writer in Summer in Arcady by confessing the truth of the matter. He was considerably more reticent than Norris, however, as he dreamily rhapsodizes in the work originally entitled "Butterflies" about the way in which Nature draws males and females together to accomplish procreation. That a mainstream commercial firm in New York City decided to publish McTeague in 1899 is nothing less than startling. That Norris's more candid study of sexuality in real life, Vandover and the Brute, could not appear in print until 1914 is less surprising.

* * *

Norris's penchant for exposing the "whole truth, and nothing but," as he saw it, found a broader scope than this. To the best kind of modern literature, he explained in 1901, "belongs the wide world for range, and the unplumbed depths of the human heart, and the mystery of sex, and the problems of life, and the black, unsearched penetralia of the soul of man." Not only individuals but the aggregate that is society fell within his ken, as is seen in the full title he gave Vandover in manuscript. When Charles G. Norris arranged for the novel's posthumous publication in 1914, he ignored the subtitle; but his brother composed Vandover as "A Study of Life and Manners in an American City at the End of the Nineteenth Century." Like Balzac and his successor in this respect, Zola, Norris was sociologically oriented at a time when sociology was only beginning to assume its present definition as a discipline. As had Harold Frederic in The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), he focused on the manners and mores of representative Americans, observing the stresses felt by those in the midst of an increasingly pluralistic society undergoing rapid transformations that called into question the values, truths, and ultimate certainties with which they had been reared.

Norris was born in March 1870, as Americans were attempting to put the Civil War behind them and to restore the conditions of normalcy that they knew prior to 1861. Many invested considerable energy in turning back the clock, particularly in the South through the 1880s and 1890s, as may be seen in the short stories and novels of Thomas Nelson Page and even after the turn of the century in the works of Thomas Dixon Jr. Returning to the good old days "befo' the wah," known by Norris's maternal grandmother in Charleston, South Carolina, was not easy. The southern economy was in ruin. Washington, D.C., dictated a forced modification of the political order-and, in consequence, the social order-until shortly after Rutherford B. Hayes's election to the U.S. presidency in 1876. The Reconstruction era was a period of confusion: deconstruction of the Old South was the plan of the congressmen known as Radical Republicans; what was being reconstructed other than the prewar union of states was therefore not clear; and if the intent was not merely to punish but to make the South conform to what was prevalent in the righteous North, that too was problematic. How was the South to mimic a region that was itself undergoing constant redefinition in the decades after the war? The protean character and inventive dynamism of the North invited a study in contrasts with the relative stasis observable across most of the South. Birmingham, Alabama, for all of its industrial development, was not the Pittsburgh of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. Atlanta diligently attempted to recover from General William Tecumseh Sherman's torch; but it was not the city of Norris's birth vigorously effacing all signs of Mrs. O'Leary's legendary cow's having kicked over a lantern.


Excerpted from FRANK NORRIS by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. Jesse S. Crisler Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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