Frank Norris and American Naturalism

Frank Norris and American Naturalism

by Donald Pizer


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'Frank Norris and American Naturalism' brings together in one volume Donald Pizer's lifelong exploration of Frank Norris's work, ranging from his 1955 discussion of point of view in 'The Octopus' to his 2010 essay on the thematic unity of that novel. The essays as a whole seek to demonstrate both the coherence of Norris's thought and his contribution toward the establishment of a specific form of naturalism in America. The collection's principal focus is Norris's most enduring works, the novels 'McTeague' and 'The Octopus', though his other fiction and literary criticism are also discussed.

Although Norris died at 32, his literary output during his brief career has played an important role in efforts to interpret the nature of American naturalism. He was one of the few naturalists to write literary criticism, a body of writing which casts much light on his self-conception as a naturalist, and his novels 'McTeague' and 'The Octopus' rely on two of the most distinctive forms of naturalistic fiction--the sensationalistic novel of violence and the panoramic novel of social protest. Furthermore, though he was deeply indebted to Zola's fiction, he broke free of Zolaesque themes in ways which are significant for most later American naturalists. Thus, despite the brevity of his career, Norris is a seminal figure in the history of American literary naturalism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783088027
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 05/30/2018
Series: Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series
Pages: 156
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Donald Pizer has had a distinguished career as a critic and editor of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature and as an interpreter of the history and nature of American literary naturalism. Among his most well-known works are Realism and Naturalism in Late Nineteenth Century American Literature and The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism. Pizer’s books about Frank Norris include a critical study The Novels of Frank Norris and editions of The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris and McTeague; he has also edited the Library of America volume, Frank Norris: Novels and Essays.

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Frank Norris's Definition of Naturalism

Frank Norris's definition of naturalism is important because an understanding of his use of the term may help to explain both his own practice of fiction and the more general American reaction to Zolaesque literary principles. My reason for reintroducing the much-debated question of Norris's definition is that I believe new light can be shed on the subject by the examination of not only his well-known "A Plea for Romantic Fiction," but also his less known "Zola as a Romantic Writer" and his relatively unknown "Weekly Letter" in the Chicago American of August 3, 1901.

Norris placed realism, romanticism and naturalism in a dialectic, in which realism and romanticism were opposing forces and naturalism was transcending synthesis. Realism, to Norris, was the literature of the normal and representative, "the smaller details of every-day life, things that are likely to happen between lunch and supper." Moreover, realism does not probe the inner reaches of life; it "notes only the surface of things." Howells is Norris's archetype of the realistic writer. Romanticism differs from realism both in its concern for "variations from the type of normal life," and in its desire to penetrate beneath the surface of experience and derive large generalizations on the nature of life. Romanticism explores "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." To Norris "the greatest of all modern romanticists" is Hugo.

Now what of naturalism? Although Norris at times called Zola a romanticist, it is clear that he intended in that designation to emphasize Zola's lack of affinity to Howellsian realism rather than to eliminate naturalism as a distinctive descriptive term. Naturalism, as conceived by Norris, resolved the conflict between realism and romanticism by selecting the best from these two modes and by adding one constituent ignored by both. In his "Weekly Letter" to the Chicago American of August 3, 1901, he partially described this synthesis. He began with a distinction between Accuracy and Truth. Accuracy is a fidelity to particular detail; Truth is fidelity to the generalization applicable to a large body of experience. Since a novel may therefore be accurate in its depiction of a segment of life and yet be untrue, Norris inquired, what is the source of truth in fiction if a literal transcription of life itself is inadequate? He began to find his way out of this dilemma when he asked:

Is it permissible to say that Accuracy is realism and Truth romanticism? I am not so sure, but I feel that we come close to a solution here. The divisions seem natural and intended. It is not difficult to be accurate, but it is monstrously difficult to be True; at best the romanticists can only aim at it, while on the other hand, mere accuracy as an easily obtainable result is for that reason less worthy.

Norris then asked:

Does Truth after all "lie in the middle?" And what school, then, is midway between the Realists and Romanticists, taking the best from each? It is not the school of Naturalism, which strives hard for accuracy and truth? The nigger is out of the fence at last, but must it not be admitted that the author of La Débâcle (not the author of La Terre and Fécondité) is up to the present stage of literary development the most adequate, the most satisfactory, the most just of them all?

Naturalism, in short, abstracts the best from realism and romanticism — detailed accuracy and philosophical depth. In addition, naturalism differs from both modes in one important characteristic of its subject matter. As Norris explained in his Wave essay on "Zola as a Romantic Writer": That Zola's work is not purely romantic as was Hugo's lies chiefly in the choice of Milieu. These great, terrible dramas no longer happen among the personnel of a feudal and Renaissance nobility, those who are in the fore-front of the marching world, but among the lower — almost the lowest-classes; those who have been thrust or wrenched from the ranks, who are falling by the roadway. This is not romanticism — this drama of the people, working itself out in blood and ordure. It is not realism. It is a school by itself, unique, somber, powerful beyond words. It is naturalism.

What is particularly absorbing in this definition is that it is limited entirely to subject matter and method. It does not mention materialistic determinism or any other philosophical idea, and thus differs from the philosophical orientation both of Zola's discussions of naturalism and of those by modern critics of the movement. Norris conceived of naturalism as a fictional mode that illustrated some fundamental truth of life within a detailed presentation of the sensational and low. Unlike Zola, however, he did not specify the exact nature of the truth to be depicted, and it is clear that he believed Hugo's "truth" as naturalistic as Zola's. With Norris's definition in mind, then, we can perhaps understand his remark to Isaac Marcosson that The Octopus was going to be a return to the "style" of McTeague — "straight naturalism." Although the early novel is consciously deterministic in its treatment of human action and the later one dramatizes a complex intermingling of free will and determinism, this contradiction is nonexistent within the philosophical vacuum of Norris's definition.

Norris's definition, however, is not only significant for his own fictional practice. It also clarifies some fundamental characteristics of the naturalistic movement in America. It suggests that for many Americans influenced by European naturalistic currents, the naturalistic mode involved primarily the contemporary, low, and sensational, which was elaborately documented within a large thematic framework. The writer might give his work a philosophical center — indeed, the naturalistic mode encouraged such a practice. But the core ideas or values present in particular works tended to be strikingly diverse from author to author, as each writer approached his material from an individual direction rather than from the direction of an ideological school. American naturalism, in other words, has been largely a movement characterized by similarities in material and method, not by philosophical coherence. And perhaps this very absence of a philosophical center to the movement has been one of the primary reasons for its continuing strength in this country, unlike its decline in Europe. For writers as different as Dreiser and Crane or Farrell and Faulkner have responded to the exciting possibilities of a combination of romantic grandiosity, detailed verisimilitude and didactic sensationalism, and yet, like Norris, have been able to shape these possibilities into works expressing, most of all, their own distinctive temperaments.


Frank Norris and the Frontier as Popular Idea in America

The American migration westward can of course be studied in various ways. It has been examined as social and political reality — the movement of population into new areas and the establishment of farms, towns and governments. And it has been studied as myth — how men thought and felt about the presence of a vast open space to the West and about the settlement of this space. In recent years this concern with the myth of the West has broadened to include the study of interpretations of the frontier by historians in order to discover what these interpretations can tell us about American beliefs and values at the moments these historians flourished. The assumption in this last endeavor is that except perhaps in their garrulousness historians are basically no different from other folk and that their ideas about the past can often tell us more about their own than about past times.

I would like to pursue this preoccupation with the mythic nature of historical interpretations of the West by concerning myself with the diffusion of professional historical notions about the frontier into the popular mind. An excellent opportunity for the study of this kind of transmission of ideas exists in Frank Norris's beliefs about the West. A Californian and one of the major young writers of the 1890s, Norris engaged himself with the subject of the West in his novel The Octopus, published in 190I, and in a series of essays written during 1901 and 1902, just before his death. Although Norris spent four years at a university, he nevertheless was a confirmed anti- intellectual. In most areas of thought of his time — religion, economics and politics, for example — he is more a guide to popular than "advanced" ideas. Norris's concept of the West therefore draws upon the theories ofprofessional historians of his own time — sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely — yet is above all a popular concept. That is, his ideas reveal the tendency in popular belief to blend opposing streams of thought into a single powerful unity in which paradoxes are ignored because of the emotional attraction of the emergent synthesis. Indeed, so powerful and pervasive was this synthesis in Norris's case that his view of the frontier continues as the popular view into our own day.

During the l890s the two principal ways of interpreting America as a westward movement of population were the established "germ" theory and the new frontier hypothesis. In one of the rare dramatic events permitted the historian of ideas, the two converged at Johns Hopkins University during the academic year of 1888 — 89. Johns Hopkins, of course, was one of the first centers of graduate study in America, and a good many of its history faculty had been awarded their doctorates at German universities during the l870s and 1880s. One of the most distinguished of these historians was the Massachusetts born and educated Herbert Baxter Adams. Adams, who had received his PhD at Heidelberg in 1876, had played an important role in the founding of the American Historical Association and was the principal proponent in America of the germ theory of the origin of American institutions. Also present at Hopkins that year as a graduate student in history was Frederick Jackson Turner. The youthful Turner, who had been born in Northwest Wisconsin and who had his BA from the University of Wisconsin, was on leave from his teaching position at Wisconsin to work toward a PhD. At the close of his year at Hopkins he was only four years away from his address on the significance of the frontier in American history.

In 1888, and for almost a decade afterward, the germ theory was the principal academic and popular interpretation of the origin of American political institutions — and also, therefore, to most historians — of American society and character. Following the lead of the noted English historian E. A. Freeman, who had interpreted English life largely in relation to its Germanic origins, Adams and others argued that American democracy had been racially transmitted through Anglo-Saxon immigration, first from northern Germany to England and then from England to America. The tribal councils of primitive German peoples were paralleled, it was believed, by the English folkmoot and by the New England town meeting. In each instance, the drive toward democratic participation in political power was not the result of a conscious modeling on precedent but rather of an instinctive expression of a racial heritage. Thus, as one of the historical clichés of the time had it, American democracy began not with a compact signed in the cabin of the Mayflower but in the forests of Germany.

The attraction of the germ or Anglo-Saxon interpretation of American life lay partly in its claims to scientific accuracy and partly in its appeal to popular sentiment. On the one hand, historians supporting the theory believed that their method was similar to that of scientists studying biological evolution, since their comparative examination of political institutions had led to an understanding of the transmission through heredity of specific social characteristics in a specific racial group. On the other hand, the interpretation appealed covertly to the Anglo-Saxon racial pride of the largely New England-bred historians who endorsed it and more openly to the nativist prejudices of the burgeoning anti-immigration movement of the day.

The germ theory had a number of popularizers who gave it the color and shape by which it was known to the public at large. John Fiske made it the center of his interpretation of the early history of America in his widely used histories. And Theodore Roosevelt had it play a major role in his account of American westward expansion. It was Roosevelt who expressed the germ theory in a way that most appealed to the popular imagination: he neglected its rather dry subject of institutional history and emphasized instead the romance of the "long march," of the constant pushing westward of the Anglo-Saxon race and the planting, at each stage of its conquest of new worlds, of a seed that would ultimately flower in American democratic society. In the first volume of his The Winning of the West, published in 1889, Roosevelt described the "long march" from the German forest to the American West with an appropriate rhetoric of triumphant conquest:

The warlike borderers who thronged across the Alleghenies, the restless and reckless hunters, the hard, dogged, frontier farmers, by dint of grim tenacity, overcame and displaced Indians, French, and Spaniards alike, exactly as, fourteen hundred years before, Saxon and Angle had overcome and displaced the Cymric and Gaelic Celts. ... In obedience to instincts working half blindly within their breasts, spurred ever onwards by the fierce desires of their eager hearts, they made in the wilderness homes for their children, and by so doing wrought out the destinies of a continental nation. ... They were doing their share of a work that began with the conquest of Britain, that entered on its second and wider period after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, that culminated in the marvelous growth of the United States.

Frederick Jackson Turner, however, did not believe that the winning of the West and the triumph of American democracy were the end results of a process begun hundreds of years earlier on another continent. To his mind the frontier was not the last flowering of a pure seed developed elsewhere but rather the soil that took the mixed seeds that fell upon it and transformed them into something new and distinctive, the American race. When Turner later wrote that "the forest clearings have been the seed plots of American character, he meant the forests of America rather than those of northern Germany. Of course, Turner was not alone in finding the Anglo-Saxonism he encountered at Hopkins and elsewhere inadequate. As Ray Billington has pointed out in his recent study of the genesis of Turner's frontier thesis, several characteristics in the interpretation of American life by Turner's contemporaries helped establish a climate propitious for the emergence of a new theory of American history. One such characteristic was a widespread discontent among western intellectuals with eastern domination of American cultural life and thus resentment toward a view of American history that stressed the importance of the New England town meeting and the racial purity of the earliest settlers of America. Another was the impatience of younger historians from all areas of the country with an interpretation of American life that was so severely limited to the hereditary factor and that concentrated almost exclusively on political institutions. To these historians, the study of the past could not neglect the shaping force of the environment and the nature and role of social and cultural factors in the forming of a people.

Turner responded to these and other influences and the result, of course, was his "Significance of the Frontier" lecture in 1893 and a lifetime devoted to the refinement and promulgation of his frontier thesis. Turner's 1893 paper, with its oft-quoted comment that historians of American life had paid too much attention to "German origins, too little to the American factors," is no doubt the most well-known statement of his thesis. But perhaps the most cogent and compressed expression of his position occurs in his essay "The Problem of the West," published in the Atlantic Monthly in September 1896. Turner wrote:

The West, at bottom, is a form of society, rather than an area. It is the term applied to the region whose social conditions result from the application of older institutions and ideas to the transforming influences of free land. By this application, a new environment is suddenly entered, freedom of opportunity is opened, the cake of custom is broken, and new activities, new lines of growth, new institutions and new ideals, are brought into existence. The wilderness disappears, the "West" proper passes on to a new frontier, and in the former area, a new society has emerged from its contact with the backwoods. Gradually this society loses its primitive conditions, and assimilates itself to the type of the older social conditions of the East; but it bears within it enduring and distinguishing survivals of its frontier experience. Decade after decade, West after West, this rebirth of American society has gone on, has left its traces behind it, and has reacted on the East. The history of our political institutions, our democracy, is not a history of imitation, of simple borrowing; it is a history of the evolution and adaptation of organs in response to changed environment, a history of the origin of new political species. In this sense, therefore, the West has been a constructive force of the highest significance in our life.


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Table of Contents

Preface; Editorial Note and Acknowledgments;

1. Criticism;

2. ‘Vandover and the Brute’ and ‘McTeague’;

3. The Popular Novels;

4. The Masculine-Feminine Ethic in Frank Norris’s Popular Novels;

5. ‘The Octopus’; Index.

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From the Publisher

“As a collection of Pizer’s most significant essays on Norris, Frank Norris and American Naturalism gathers in one place a cluster of essays that reminds us of why Norris is worth studying in the first place—and then goes on to demonstrate an admirably lucid and captivating approach to Norris’s major novels and literary criticism.”

—Keith Newlin, Professor, Department of English, University of North Carolina Wilmington, USA

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