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Frank Norris Remembered

Frank Norris Remembered

by Jesse S. Crisler (Editor)

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Frank Norris Remembered is a collection of reminiscences by Norris’s contemporaries, friends, and family that illuminate the life of one of America’s most popular novelists.
Considering his undergraduate education spent studying art at Académie Julian in Paris and creative writing at Harvard and his journalism career


Frank Norris Remembered is a collection of reminiscences by Norris’s contemporaries, friends, and family that illuminate the life of one of America’s most popular novelists.
Considering his undergraduate education spent studying art at Académie Julian in Paris and creative writing at Harvard and his journalism career reporting from the far reaches of South Africa and Cuba, it is difficult to fathom how Frank Norris also found time to compose seven novels during the course of his brief life. But despite his adventures abroad, Norris turned out novels at a dizzying pace. He published Moran of the Lady Letty in 1898, McTeague early in 1899, Blix later that year, A Man’s Woman in February 1900, and The Octopus, the first in his ultimately unfinished “Epic of the Wheat” trilogy, in 1901. By informing his novels with his own experiences abroad, Norris composed works that were politically charged and culturally relevant and that made considerable contributions to the character of American literature in the twentieth century.
Frank Norris died at the age of thirty-two in 1902 from peritonitis resulting from a burst appendix, leaving behind a wife, a daughter, and an unfinished series of novels (two of which, The Pit and Vandover and the Brute, were published posthumously). The aim of Frank Norris Remembered, edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath Jr., is to re-create the short, spectacular life of this American author through the eyes of those who knew him best. The fifty reminiscences included in this book feature the voices of Frank N. Doubleday; William Dean Howells; Hamlin Garland; Norris’s wife, Jeannette; and many others who were lucky enough to form a relationship with this vital twentieth-century American author, artist, and adventurer.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"When I get one of Those Letters, or face another review that accuses me of being a vulgar lowbrow—which to some extent I am—I take comfort from the words of turn-of-the-century social realist Frank Norris, whose novels include The Octopus, The Pit, and McTeague, an authentically great book. Norris wrote about working-class guys on ranches, in city laboring jobs, in factories. McTeague, the main character of Norris's finest work, is an unschooled dentist. Norris's books provoked a good deal of public outrage, to which Norris responded coolly and disdainfully: 'What do I care for their opinions? I never truckled. I told them the truth.'" —Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“This book is a valuable contribution to Frank Norris studies and to the nature and study of biographical research and work. Crisler and McElrath are strongly, probably uniquely, qualified to create a book of this variety. They have already published respected works on Norris, have done the most recent and accurate, and therefore most helpful, biography of the man. At the time of Norris’s death, the press commented repeatedly about his being a writer whose early death blighted clear-cut great promise. Thus, many areas of Norris’s life were shadowy. In this book we get many of those ‘cobwebs’ and shadows cleared away to get a portrait of Norris as much more of a human being and writer than has previously been the case.”—Benjamin F. Fisher, author of Poe in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interview, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates and The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe

Frank Norris Remembered is a significant contribution to Norris studies and to the study of American literature more generally. As coauthors of the definitive Frank Norris, A Life (2006), Crisler and McElrath are well-positioned to draw upon their exhaustive research for that volume as well as to provide the contextual commentary that make volumes like this one successful.”
—Keith Newlin, author of Hamlin Garland: A Life and editor of The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Naturalism

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University of Alabama Press
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American Writers Remembered Series
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9.00(w) x 6.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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Frank Norris Remembered



Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1795-9



Philip King Brown

A native Californian, Philip King Brown (1869–1940) was a member of the first class to graduate in 1886 from Belmont School for Boys, which Frank Norris also attended for a short time in 1885. Belmont's founder, William Thomas Reid (1843–1922), a former teacher at Boys' High School in San Francisco, retired as president of the University of California and opened the semimilitary institution to prepare young men to gain admission to Harvard College. Located south of San Francisco on the former estate of banker and industrialist William Chapman Ralston (1826–1875), Belmont immediately attracted the interest of wealthy San Franciscans with aspirations for their male offspring. Fulfilling Reid's vision, Brown did matriculate at Harvard, where he received his MD in 1893, afterward becoming a progressive physician, specializing in treating diseases of the heart and lung. As is the case with other reminiscences, Brown's response to Franklin Walker indicates the impact Norris apparently had upon those he met, many of whom, like Brown, could recall in surprising detail their sometimes slight association with him not only after many years but often also after a fairly brief acquaintance.

Source: Philip King Brown to Franklin D. Walker, letter, October 7, 1930, Franklin Dickerson Walker Papers, BANC MSS C-H 79, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Dear Mr. Walker,

The Belmont School was founded by W. T. Reid, formerly president of the University of California, in 1885 & opened that fall at the old Ralston place at Belmont with about 25 scholars. Frank Norris didn't join till later & was not in my class as he was somewhat younger. The first class was made up of M. C. Sloss, Summit Louis Hecht, F. L. DeLong & myself. The next class was made up of A. L. Bancroft, Charles Adams & Frank Norris together with a few others whose names I do not now remember. There was thus 1 year's difference in preparation for Harvard & U.C. & all the first class went to Harvard.

Frank Norris broke his arm playing football & I brought him to town. He lived on Sacramento St., north side, between Van Ness & Franklin. His mother was a very brilliant woman & for years in her later life was the leader of the Browning Society. The father was a successful business man–a jeweler I think. Mrs. Norris, the mother, was a patient of mine for many years & until his death I kept up some relation to Frank. He was brilliant as was the mother, very quiet, full of dry humor & eccentric rather aiming to draw fire for the sake of arousing acute discussion. He was indifferent to all that did not interest him & gave the impression of being physically lazy. He had great charm & was popular. I was away most of the time after that first year till about 1896.

You could get some facts from Bruce Porter, Santa Barbara, & Gelett Burgess whose present whereabouts I do not know. J. O'Hara Cosgrave, Porter Garnett (Berkeley), Willis Polk (now dead) all belonged to the later group of literary lights who met occasionally at dinner. I think I could find a menu of a birthday dinner to Gelett Burgess ("Purple Cow," Goops, The Lark) served by the crowd. If I can uncover it I'll send it to you provided it is promptly returned.

Yours truly, Philip King Brown


Louis W. Neustadter

As a boy, Louis William Neustadter (1873–1968), whose family were wealthy members of San Francisco's Jewish community, lived at 1701 Van Ness Avenue, just around the corner from Norris's family. When he was only eighteen, Neustadter entered employment at his father's firm, Neustadter Brothers, purveyors of fine men's furnishings, and later became a prominent civic leader in the Bay Area.

Source: Louis William Neustadter to James D. Hart, letter, March 22, 1954, James D. Hart Papers, BANC MSS 81/107c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Dear Jim,

Yours of the 20th will, as are all your letters, be preserved for future generations when the name of Dr. James D. Hart will be listed with other greats of the literary world.

Now re the Norris era; I am not certain about a cable car on Polk Street when McTeague operated there, nor can I recall a gold tooth above the post office, the which was located on Polk, between Bush and Pine Streets, on the north west corner of Polk and Bush Streets was the Roberts Candy Store, presided over by a good looking brunette, she dispensed other dainties besides candy, but because she had a deformed right thumb, she did not appeal to me, I still think that a deformed thumb detracts from the sex appeal of any gal. Was there a "resort" a few doors below a drug store not far from the corner of Sutter and Kearney Sts.? I really do not know, my mother did not permit me to visit "resorts" at that time, the drug store was there, complete with live snakes the which were fed with live rats for the entertainment of those who enjoyed watching the said reptiles absorb the poor rodents.

The Norris family lived on Sacramento Street, a few doors from our ancestral home, Norris mère was a dragon like character who bossed Hell out of both her sons, Frank and Charles, the latter was called "Doc," don't ask me why, I don't know, I attended the Urban School with these Norris Boys, who were very much afraid of their Mamma, I would have bet on the old gal against a Grizzly bear.

As for the locale described by Frank Norris in his McTeague, his descriptions are accurate, the only discrepancy was the reference to Joe Frenna, who if my memory serves me correctly, was the owner of a barber shop; I can recall him very well, a dark, short guy, not at all handsome.

It might interest you to learn that Erich von Stroheim made a movie of McTeague, it was called Greed and had to be severely cut for American production, the entire film was sent to South America, Von Stroheim has a filthy mind, one of the scenes which were cut out was a toilet full of rats; the deleted American version was rather tame and not too much like the book.

When writing to you I recall so many authors now forgotten, F. Marion Crawford who wrote Saracinesca, followed by Don Orsino, etc. I also read his Mr. Isaacs with great interest, George Eliot in Adam Bede, etc., Thackeray and Dickens of course, Galsworthy and the long family sagas, now these all appear to be ancient history, their characters knew nothing of the blessings of H-bombs and other modern comforts; they dwelt in ignorance if not in bliss.

Speaking of drug store snakes, I remember Elsie Venner who was I believe a somewhat reptilian character; yet these ancient books hold a certain charm altogether absent in modern literature; perhaps I am getting old, my interest in women has become, as I formerly remarked, impurely academic; don't ever get old, it is one Hell of a mess.

Be good, it won't get you anywhere.

With love to you and Ruth, I am as ever, Louis


Charles G. Norris

The unexpected death from diphtheria of their brother, Albert Lester Norris (1877–1887), in part accounts for a closeness between Norris and his surviving brother, Charles Gilman Norris (1881–1945), that under more normal circumstance would most likely not have obtained: with eleven years between them the two surely had little in common. But Norris seems genuinely to have cared for Charles; the family journeyed to Europe soon after Lester's death to enroll Norris in the celebrated Académie Julian in Paris as an art student, and though B. F. returned to San Francisco fairly soon, Charles and Gertrude remained with Norris for nearly a year, during which time he entertained his brother by mounting elaborate campaigns with him of lead soldiers and regaling him with fabricated stories of one Gaston le Foix and his nephew, the latter predictably named Charles Gilman Norris. After Norris's untimely death, Charles became his de facto literary executor and maintained friendly relations with his sister-in-law, Jeannette Williamson Norris, for many years. Thus his recollections of his brother as a college student and subsequently as a successful writer were unequalled.

Source: Charles Gilman Norris to Jeannette Williamson Norris, letter, [August? 1903], Frank Norris Collection, BANC MSS C-H 80, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

My dearest sister,

I cannot exactly recall the date but I'm quite sure that it was about the time you will get this letter, that a year ago we celebrated all together your last birthday. I have hesitated about writing and reminding you but I am anxious that you should know I remembered and that on this birthday I was thinking of you and wishing with all the heart of me, that it were possible for you to be as happy again this year as you were last. Oh–it seems so very, very long ago and I seem to feel that we were all very different people. Surely we are not the same as those four happy persons that had dinner in the private room on that day in the Poodle Dog Restaurant. Thank God none of us could look forward and have seen ourselves as we are today and so blight the happiness of that one supreme night. Do you remember how afterwards we took Mama to the Sutter street cars and then the three of us went down town, again to see the sights? Some convention was there and later we went up to Café Zinkand. Oh, Jeannette dear, it all comes over me with a rush. It's so hard to go on and keep back the tears and try to forget. I can't forget. Would to God, he were here now and whispering to me–"good man." But my grief dwindles away to nothingness when I think of the emptiness and the bareness of what I know your life must be. Dear JB, would that I could suffer more and lessen your great grief or in some way fill the vacant place if only with my love. And may I presume to say that were he here today I know how proud he'd be of his wife. I can't tell you, Jeannette, how nobly I think you have acted and it's a comfort for me to know that he picked the one woman in the world who could bear his name, and bear it as she should.

If devotion, pride or love could send you with this letter some spark of happiness on your birthday, let my heart send it and believe me now and always until death reunites one of us with him that's gone, your devoted brother


Source: Charles Gilman Norris. Interview notes by Franklin D. Walker, May 16, 1930, Franklin Dickerson Walker Collection, BANC MSS C-H 79, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

As this was a luncheon engagement I failed to take notes on a considerable part of it. Says that he is very willing to cooperate in working out the book and will try to place it in New York. Has collected a considerable amount of material which he keeps in Saratoga. Believes a book of about 40,000 the best, with emphasis on the formative period. His letters were burned as well as the South African notebook and "Robert d'Artois." Wants me to come down to the ranch on Tuesday, May 27th, his secretary, Mr. McCollough to meet me at the train which reaches Palo Alto at noon.

He doesn't remember much about Frank before he was sixteen (1886) but has a good many things about childhood which he will be able to give.

When they went to Paris Frank would do everything he wasn't supposed to do. Absent-minded; poorly kempt; terrible complexion; took castor oil every day. Was speaking rotten French and mother used to read Fénelon's Télémaque every night to him. Ernest Peixotto a good friend.

He remembers "Robert d'Artois" as a simply impossible story. No good at all, from a promising writer. More later.

After Frank returned from Paris (thinks it was in the Spring of 1890) he began writing Yvernelle and had strong ambition to join state militia. Does so but does not get a horse. Later, when he was suspended from military in the University there was a grand blow-up and he dropped the militia. Get more on this.

University of California. Not many kind words for faculty. Hated Armes. Very fond of Le Conte and Paget. Never passed entrance math. When first in college stayed with somebody [Senger. See Samuels's letter, chapter 21 this volume]. Most of his time was spent with Wolf and Samuels, two Jews. When he was initiated into the frat the boys asked him first whether he was a Jew. Used to draw pictures on Haggerty's [sic] saloon. Suspended from military.

Harvard. Reason for going. Had been a plan before the separation of parents. Hence carried it out. Mother and Charles lived in Cambridge; he stayed in Grays. Course with Gates the only one which he took. Charles has some of his papers; he took a straight A. When Vandover was to be published he wrote to Gates for a foreword; the latter wrote back a most heated letter declaring that it should not be published. Thinks he has gone sour.

Vandover. Had to leave out some details which were too revolting. Added about five thousand words before it was in shape to publish.

Separation of parents. Father a most unusual man. A good Presbyterian; smoked only cigars, did not drink. Had a Sunday school class. Used to spend all of his evenings at home where his wife would read to him. All at once got a bug for travel and wanted to go around the world. Wife did not want to so he went alone. On the trip he met a woman, a widow (1893), and became enamored of her. On arriving in Chicago he filed suit for divorce, much to the astonishment of his wife. Mrs. N. filed counter-suit and won by default. His father, sixty years old, remarried and left his money to his second wife. He used to send Frank checks but Mrs. N. did not like to have him accept them; remembers him tearing one up. Probably started returning them while at Harvard.

Wave. The Wave was started in order to advertise the Del Monte Hotel, which was owned by the Southern Pacific, as well as the railroad to it. Cosgrave was bull-headed. Charles calls him nothing but a stuffed-shirt. He fired Frank once from The Wave because he said he could not write. Told him to go into the jewelry business. Later Frank got him his job with Everybody's. Ran into luck later.

At this time, women were always crazy about Frank. He was not a chaser. Remembers that he got in a mess over a girl named Viola Rodgers. Feels that when Jeannette went east, Frank was more in love with her than she was with him. He went up to the Big Dipper mine. Mardi Gras incident to be written up for The Wave.

McTeague. Is sure that he started it at U.C. Thinks that Dobie made up the murder in the kindergarten. Used to turn in some of McTeague at Harvard. See Waterhouse. Had no strong sympathy for working classes; cursed Russian revolutionists. Aristocrat at heart. Holbrook Blinn made it into a fine movie, Life's Whirlpool.

Militia. Love of horses. Admired Remington's horses a great deal. Put action in them.

Moran was not copyrighted. Hence no return on the movie.

Moulson helped a good deal with The Pit. Says that he rigged up the Bull and Bear game for them.

Interest in football in college intense. All broken up when Hunt broke his leg. He learned part of Jocasta (Creon?) for Oedipus in the Greek.

His nickname while young was Skinny Well-fed. (Used in Vandover.)

He considered Henry Lanier to have had a very bad influence on Frank. Interested in sales of his books. Was due to him that we have the triangle in The Pit. Frank would not have written it that way. Curse Lanier.

Of friends. Houston, Gibbs, Waterhouse. Believes artists knew him best; Porter, Burgess, Peixotto. Doesn't like Wright; apparently has had letter from him since I started writing book.

Jimmy White. Old football player. Was in house when Frank was there although he had graduated. Used to drink a great deal; suddenly stopped without another drop. Frank admired his strength; became close friends. Remembers seeing a letter which Frank wrote to Jimmy on all kinds of paper, including toilet paper.

Tells of how Haggerty came to see Charles while the latter was mowing lawn in front of Fiji house. Tears in his eyes. Talks of old spree together.

Formula for Maria Macapa an old one mother used to hear. Ask about this.

Source: Charles Gilman Norris. Interview notes by Franklin D. Walker, June 9, 1930, Franklin Dickerson Walker Papers, BANC MSS C-H 79, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

This was at Saratoga and a good deal of the time was spent in giving me the material which I brought away and showing me the pictures on the walls.

Belmont school; one of the charter members. Then under W. T. Reid, formerly president of University of California. Stayed only a part of a term when he broke his arm playing football. Returned home; sent to the Boys' High School (Lowell High School). Didn't like it and begged to get out. Folks took him out and sent him to the Virgil Williams Academy which later became the Mark Hopkins Acad.

The armor article for the Chronicle was sent to mother from Paris. Note date on notes at hand is June 20, 1889.

Excerpted from Frank Norris Remembered by JESSE S. CRISLER. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath Jr. are the coauthors of Frank Norris: A Life and the coeditors of An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932 and Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches (both with Robert C. Leitz III), among other works.

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