The best work of Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. (1870-1902), American novelist and critic, achieves a raw force that has won him an important place in the history of American fiction.
Frank Norris was born in Chicago on Mar. 5, 1870, the son of a wealthy jeweler. When Frank was 14, the family moved into a mansion in San Francisco. This house would be the model for the mansion in Norris's novel The Pit (1903), which also presents a portrait of his mother in the character of Laura.
After a short time in high school, Norris left to study at the San Francisco Art Association. His family, even his no-nonsense father, encouraged him; in fact, they moved to London and then to Paris in 1887 so that he could study painting. Norris enjoyed painting, but after 2 years he returned to San Francisco and in 1890 entered the University of California. He remained for 4 years but did not take a degree. Meanwhile, his mother published his first book: Yvernelle: A Tale of Feudal France (1892), a verse romance.
In 1894 Norris's parents were divorced. His father continued to provide for the family financially. Frank, his mother, and his brother, Charles, soon traveled east, and Frank enrolled at Harvard in the creative writing class of Lewis Gates. Later, in a critical essay, Norris stated a conviction he had acquired from Gates: "The construction of a novel is as much of an exact science as the construction of a temple or a sonnet." He also learned that it is best for the novelist "to treat but one thing in one chapter, to keep to one time and one place as much as is possible, and to hold to but one theme from cover to cover." Literary critics are divided in assessing how closely Norris actually followed these precepts in his best novels, but another of Gates's lessons—the insistence that fiction plainly state the "facts of daily life"—is unquestionably reflected in Norris's finest work. Under Gates, Norris began work on McTeague and Vandover and the Brute, two novels many critics consider his most successful.
After a year at Harvard, Norris traveled to Africa to gather material for fiction and to write newspaper stories for the San Francisco Chronicle. However, victimized by a tropical fever and in trouble with the Boer authorities in southern Africa, he returned to San Francisco. There, on the magazine staff of the Wave (1896-1898), he contributed over 200 pieces: articles on football; reviews of books, plays, and stories; and a serialized novel. His book reviews reveal his deep appreciation of the pioneering naturalist in French fiction, Émile Zola, whose novels gave Norris "an impression of immensity, of vast, illimitable force, of a breadth of view and an enormity of imagination almost too great to be realized." Though Norris also praised America's leading realist writer, William Dean Howells, he clearly preferred Zola's scope and power and sought the same in his own work.
Meanwhile, Norris led a bohemian life among San Francisco artists and writers. In 1896 he finished McTeague. He soon met Jeanette Black, then 17; their courtship became the subject of Blix, the lightest, most romantic, and trivial of Norris's novels, but not the worst. The self-portrait contained in the chief character, Conde Rivers, is probably very revealing.
In 1898 Norris moved to New York City. He started working for McClure's Magazine but soon went off to cover the Spanish-American War. This venture was a fiasco, and his reports were not published. He succeeded in meeting two important literary men—Richard Harding Davis and Stephen Crane—but the former, whom he had long admired, proved unapproachable thereafter, and the latter's personal conduct repelled Norris. Finally, Norris contracted malaria and returned to San Francisco.
The early novels were McTeague and Vandover and the Brute. (Norris never completed Vandover; it was prepared for posthumous publication in 1914 by his brother, Charles, himself a novelist.) Vandover concerns a San Francisco artist who lets the brute in his nature dominate his actions, slipping steadily from ease to squalor. The novel is confused, but Moran of the Lady Letty, the story Norris serialized in the Wave in 1898, is even more so. Though this story was a piece of unredeemable brutality, it had won Norris the job at McClure's. Meanwhile, a friend introduced Norris to the influential William Dean Howells, who read McTeague and encouraged Norris to continue seeking a publisher. The novel finally appeared in 1899.
McTeague is flawed by Norris's inability to write convincing dialogue, but another of Norris's weaknesses became a positive strength in this novel. Norris could not create characters who behave rationally; his people are never fully developed human beings. But this is the philosophic point in McTeague, which concerns characters who are incapable of reasonable behavior. In physical strength McTeague is almost superhuman, but in self-understanding and self-control he is less than half a man. McTeague's wife is equally shallow, and her only emotion is greed. Both characters are impelled toward catastrophe by hidden forces; they are objects, not actors, in the human drama. Yet their story is dramatic and vivid: in 1924 Erich von Stroheim demonstrated how much drama the story contains when he adapted it into his silent-screen classic Greed.
Blix was published just after McTeague. Norris then returned to California to gather new material and to marry Jeanette Black in 1900. The couple settled in New York City, where Norris continued working on his fiction and served as a reader for Doubleday, Page, and Company. In the latter capacity he recommended the publication of Sister Carrie, a novel by an unknown writer, Theodore Dreiser which, today, is considered by some to be an American classic. Doubleday contracted to publish it but later attempted to break the contract, and, failing in that, published the book without trying to sell it. Dreiser realized $68.40 from the transaction.
The hero of Norris's The Octopus (1901) is a poet who identifies himself with the struggling wheat farmers of California against the octopus-tentacled Southern Pacific Railroad. His efforts to help the farmers go as far as bombing a railroad building, but nothing he or anyone else does can correct the injustice and brutality of the situation. The poet finally concludes that economic laws which men cannot alter determine the conditions under which they must live. Although the novel rises to power at moments, it is a strident, grandiose work, simplistic in its interpretation of human motivations. Norris planned it as the first of a trilogy called "The Epic of the Wheat"; the second novel takes its name, The Pit, from the Chicago grain exchange. It focuses on a self-made capitalist, his wife, and an artistic dilettante.
The scale of the action is smaller than in The Octopus, but the characters are much more convincing, probably because Norris was now writing of the economic class in which he had grown up. The Octopus could be called a bad major novel, The Pit a good minor one.
In 1902, shortly after the birth of their only child, a daughter, the Norrises moved to San Francisco. They planned a world cruise during which Norris would gather material for the third volume of his trilogy. However, Norris neglected an abdominal pain that proved to be appendicitis, and he died on Oct. 25, 1902. The Pit, serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, appeared as a book in 1903, the same year that saw the publication of A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories and a collection of his critical essays, The Responsibilities of a Novelist.
A reliable biography of Norris is Franklin Walker, Frank Norris (1932). Warren French, Frank Norris (1962), provides a biographical sketch and an analysis of his works. Donald Pizer, The Novels of Frank Norris (1966), is thorough and scholarly, and his edition of The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris (1964) presents valuable material not available elsewhere. There are excellent sections on Norris in Warner Berthoff, The Ferment of Realism (1965), and Larzer Ziff, The American 1890s (1966).
Norris, Charles Gilman, Frank Norris, 1870-1902: an intimate sketch of the man who was universally acclaimed the greatest American writer of his generation, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.