An acknowledged classic in the U.S. literary canon, the 1899 novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco by Frank Norris (1870–1902) is also a touchstone for two important developments in American cultural history—one having to do with the impact of evolutionary theory by the late 1890s and the other with the demise of Victorian moral limitations on subject matter that could be frankly treated in fiction intended for a popular readership. Like Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets in 1893 and James Lane Allen's Summer in Arcady in 1896, McTeague broke with long-standing precedent by addressing what in his essay "A Plea for Romantic Fiction" (1901) Norris termed "the mystery of sex." It did so, however, in a more forthright, less genteel manner than seen in Crane's and Allen's novels. Not only is the sexual arousal of the hero, McTeague, given unmistakably clear description in chapter 2; but three chapters later so is that of the woman he will marry: "Suddenly he took her in his enormous arms, crushing down her struggle with his immense strength. Then Trina gave up, all in an instant, turning her head to his. They kissed each other, grossly, full in the mouth" (p. 84). Scenes of this kind prompted the book reviewers Edward and Madeline Vaughn Abbot to protest in the Literary World (1 April 1899) that "grossness for the sake of grossness is unpardonable"; and when McTeague appeared in England, the Spectator reviewer echoed the sentiment, terming Norris "simply an animal painter, who, while he entirely fails to touch the heart, is often completely successful in turning the stomach" ("Novels of the Week," p. 662). There was by 1899, however, a warrant in scientific thought for rendering the great "love scene" in this novel with imagery suggesting a barnyard encounter between a rooster and hen.
Four decades earlier with the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin (1809–1882) opened a new chapter in Western intellectual history by sounding the death knell for thinking and speaking about male-female relationships in solely idealistic or spiritual terms. Darwinism encouraged a reconception of humanity in light of its close kinship with lower life-forms and with parent species from which it descended over vast expanses of time. As with a bull and cow in rutting season, so are McTeague and Trina's responses to each other inextricably rooted in primal instinct. That is, the Spectator reviewer was correct: Norris was an "animal painter," picturing and interpreting the human animal in McTeague.
Only once, in an 8 February 1902 article for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle titled "Frank Norris Writes Cleverly about Child Fiction for Old Readers," did Norris comment cogently upon one of Darwin's publications, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). By the mid-1890s, though, Norris had come under the influence of the major literary Darwinist at work in Europe, the French novelist Émile Zola (1840–1902), known as the father of a literary school advancing the principles of naturalism in the arts. As did Darwin when excluding supernatural explanations of natural phenomena, Zola assumed that self-contained nature could be understood in terms of generalizable "laws" or conditions governing all life-forms. Thus from the late 1870s on he had set an example for Norris with his representations of the human animal. Indeed that was the very title of Zola's 1890 novel La Bête humaine. As a literary naturalist Norris did not deny the concept of free will, but he did dramatically qualify it by focusing upon the twin determinisms that Zola emphasized as working in everyone's life: the influences of his characters' heredity and both the shaping effects of environment upon personality and the consequences of proving either well adapted or maladapted to change when unpredictable or chance developments in the environment occur.
McTeague, however, is more than a grim survival-of-the-fittest study of how one's genes transmit particular traits that are beneficial or harmful as they become dominant because of conditions in which Norris's characters find themselves. As can be seen in several of the reviews of McTeague collected in Frank Norris: The Critical Reception, its author's broad vaudevillian sense of humor was appreciated in 1899. In fact the dominant tone in the first half of the novel is comic: in the main plot, it is not until chapter 15 (of 22 chapters) that the ill effects of "bad" heredity and unfortunate developments in their environment begin to carry the hero and heroine toward the homicidal outcome of their relationship. Along the way, two subplots further leaven the reading experience: an infusion of the silly is encountered in the geriatric love idyll featuring Old Grannis and Miss Baker; another "love story" of sorts is the bizarre tale of the delusional housekeeper Maria Miranda Macapa and her relationship with the similarly unhinged Zerkow, the archetypal miser and voyeur whose pornography is whatever figure anything made of gold assumes in his deranged imagination.
McTeague, as the 1899 reviews testify, is at once a naturalistic novel illustrating the degree to which humans, describable as normal or deviant, are governed by appetites, drives, and other forces beyond their control or even their comprehension; a realist's novel true in its local color to the urban landscape and to life among the lower middle class and the lowest socioeconomic stratum in 1890s San Francisco; a romance featuring the imaginative extravagances typical of the genre; a mock-romance satirizing the conventions of traditional love stories; and both a comic novel and a tragic one. Truly a period piece, it did not fare well through the mid-twentieth century at the hands of critics whose aesthetic values were those of modernism—as may be seen in Warren French's Frank Norris (pp. 62–75) and William B. Dillingham's Frank Norris: Instinct and Art (pp. 103–119). Chided for decades as rhetorically inflated, heavy-handed in its symbolism, and intellectually simplistic in both its pre-Freudian psychology and its deterministic philosophy, McTeague did not come into its own as the masterpiece in the Norris canon until the 1970s. Then, in a postmodernist cultural context, historical distance sufficient for the appreciation of its period characteristics was finally achieved and was manifested in more appreciative studies such as Barbara Hochman's The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller (1988, pp. 61–76) and Joseph R. McElrath Jr.'s Frank Norris Revisited (1992, pp. 35–53). Furthermore over the last three decades of the twentieth century the novel's reputation was not diminished by popularizations of the findings of geneticists regarding hereditary predispositions predictive of behavior. As Donald Pizer observes in "The Biological Determinism of McTeague in Our Time" (1997), such predispositions seen in McTeague, Trina, and other characters are no longer dismissed as a laughable pseudoscientific "bad seed" theory that enjoyed currency at the turn of the twentieth century. Rather than the oversimplification of the human condition described by John J. Conder in Naturalism inAmerican Fiction (pp. 69–85), McTeague is now recognized as an illumination of its sometimes bewildering complexities.
THE COMPOSITION AND PUBLICATION OF McTEAGUE
Norris himself never indicated that this was the case, but literary historians have inferred that the germ of McTeague is to be seen in 1893 San Francisco press reports concerning one Patrick Collins, an alcoholic brute who stabbed his wife to death when she refused to give him money for drink. How familiar Norris—then an undergraduate at the University of California in Berkeley—was with Zola's novels at this time also remains uncertain: his short stories seeing publication from 1890 through early 1895 do not reveal Zola's influence; and when he began to produce sketches of his Collins-like hero during 1894–1895, the year he spent as a special student at Harvard, moot is the degree to which he conceived of McTeague and Trina in Zolaesque terms. Several of these themes produced for a writing course and collected by James D. Hart in A Novelist in the Making (pp. 57–102) feature a violent drunkard and his battered wife. Lacking in the thematic essentials of a naturalistic work, however, the unsavory characterizations and lurid situations in the themes are reminiscent of portrayals of the victims of alcohol abuse seen in nineteenth-century temperance novels and plays. Even in one theme summarizing the novel Norris hoped to write, the plot outlined does not suggest a work like the ones for which Zola was notorious.
In 1896, when his essay "Zola as a Romantic Writer" and his review "Zola's Rome" were published in the San Francisco Wave, Norris finally made clear the depth to which he had read in the Zola canon. He wrote with intimate familiarity about no less than eight of the French writer's novels. By this time Norris had become a staff writer for that weekly magazine, and his short stories published therein increasingly displayed a naturalistic cast into the fall of 1897, when he completed the manuscript of McTeague.
How unconventional and "dirty" the novel then appeared is to be seen in the fact that even the publishing conglomerate in New York City by which he was employed in February 1898 declined to accept it for publication. It was not until after the S. S. McClure newspaper syndicate and the Doubleday and McClure book publishing company found Norris commercially viable as the author of an adventure romance, Moran of the Lady Letty (1898), that the latter decided to risk its reputation with a contract for McTeague. Less adventuresome was McTeague's English publisher, Grant Richards. Although not offended by explicitly sexual developments, graphic descriptions of violence, and the blatantly sadomasochistic aspects of the hero's relationship with his wife, he insisted that Norris rewrite a scene in chapter 6 of the first American printing that referred to the incontinence of the heroine's young brother. It was not until 1941 that this bowdlerization was effaced by a restoration of the original text in newly printed editions of McTeague. Still, with or without the pants-wetting scene, it was evident in 1899 on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean that an "American Zola" had made his debut in the literary world.
THE NATURALISTIC THEMES
Viewed from the concluding paragraphs of McTeague, the novel provides full verification of a hypothesis common among literary works describable as naturalistic. The premise fictionally developed may be phrased formulaically as x + y = z: x representing genetically inherited traits in an individual; y, a typically stressful change in the individual's environment that activates or makes dominant a particular trait, resulting in modified behavior; and z, an outcome that is either a beneficial adaptation or a maladaptation to the changed environment. Clarification of the human condition is the author's intent; illustrated as cause and effect are the determinants of both McTeague and Trina's maladaptive, self-destructive behaviors rendering them unfit to survive in what Darwin termed the ceaseless struggle for existence. Thus long before it becomes pertinent in the main plot, Norris informs his readers that his Irish American hero, whose history invokes the American Dream because of his rise from "car-boy at the Big Dipper Mine" to professional status as Dr. McTeague the Polk Street dentist, is the son of a binge drinker. "For thirteen days of each fortnight his father was a steady, hard-working shift-boss of the mine. Every other Sunday he became an irresponsible animal, a beast, a brute, crazy with alcohol," who eventually dies because of his addiction, "corroded with alcohol" (p. 2). This seems an irrelevant detail here at the beginning of the novel because for many chapters McTeague does not consume spirits. He is a moderate beer drinker, never becomes intoxicated, and seems to illustrate an essential tenet of American optimism—that one's destiny is wholly in one's own hands and ultimately a matter of deliberate choice.
It is not until nearly three hundred pages later that McTeague's heredity as the son of a rage-prone alcoholic begins to loom large, after he has been barred from practicing dentistry by authorities requiring that he be a graduate of a dental college. Unemployed, depressed not only by his loss of professional identity and income but also because his increasingly penurious wife denies him carfare and he has had to walk home through the rain from an unsuccessful job interview, he accepts the offer of whiskey from a friend. Immediately it becomes apparent why he has previously avoided hard liquor: like his father he becomes vicious, and thus begins his abuse of his source of drinking money, Trina. Thus also begins the rapid downward spiral of both, Trina accelerating their descent into worse and worse conditions because she too is proving maladaptive.
The daughter of German Swiss immigrants, her hereditary predisposition is, for a while, a good one resulting in a rise in the McTeagues' standard of living: "It soon became apparent that Trina would be an extraordinarily good housekeeper. Economy was her strong point." Positive are the consequences of the fact that a "good deal of peasant blood still ran undiluted in her veins, and she had all the instinct of a hardy and penurious mountain race—the instinct which saves without any thought, without idea of consequence—saving for the sake of saving, hoarding without knowing why" (p. 134). But this "instinct" proves her undoing later in the marriage because of two wholly unexpected developments. The first is her winning $5,000 in a lottery, a happenstance that gradually produces an unfortunate psychological consequence; now she has a fortune in 1899 dollars to lose, and the irresistible urge to preserve and then increase her nest egg becomes a veritable mania after the second development occurs: her none too bright and emotionally volatile cousin Marcus Schouler, who once considered Trina his fiancée, comes to the conclusion that he has been cheated out of the $5,000 that might have been his had he married her. Infuriated, this German Swiss relative with an acquisitive instinct as strong as Trina's exacts his vengeance by reporting McTeague to the dental practice licensing authorities, depriving Trina too of the income to which she is accustomed and dramatically exacerbating her already well advanced hoarding compulsion.
She steadily degenerates as her mania waxes, matching the gold-mad Zerkow in her miserliness. Living in the cheapest flat she can find and denying as best she can her rapidly degenerating husband the money he needs to continue drinking, Trina discovers one day that he has absconded with the portion of her assets that she keeps on hand. By this time having sunk to the debased level of one who enjoys an erotic relationship with her coins, she retrieves the larger portion of her nest egg, which she had invested in an uncle's business, thus restoring her perverse relationship with her sole source of security. When McTeague's drinking spree ends for want of cash, he returns to beg for more. She refuses him. He beats her to death with his fists, flees with her gold coins, and is tracked down by cousin Marcus in Death Valley. He kills Marcus there, and without water or means of escaping from the desert, he is himself expiring as the novel ends.
The naturalistic formula of x + y = z having been demonstrated as credibly as one finds it in Zolaesque fiction, one may still conclude that Norris has attempted to fob off a gross oversimplification, one too reductive of life's complexities. At least tempering such a criticism, however, is recognition of how the deterministic main theme is generated by both the plot and the kinds of characterizations fashioned by Norris. Much less sophisticated than the readers who have been aided by Norris in their understanding of what is transpiring, Trina, Marcus, and McTeague cannot discern how the formula works to effect their undoing any more than can the intellectually challenged Lenny Small in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937). Like Lenny, they are buffeted by unforeseeable events, bewildered by unexpected twists of experience, and governed by appetites and drives about which they are minimally conscious. They type at their low level of intelligence the confusion and ineffectuality displayed by their more quick-witted and astute peers later featured in the fiction of one of Norris's admirers, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
While Norris as commentator and his readers enjoy the analytic perspective made possible by detachment from the scenes pictured, McTeague and the other characters are immersed in the onrushing sequence of events sweeping them uncomprehendingly into the future—as readers of McTeague at least sometimes find themselves in their own lives. Norris, in short, undermines a gross oversimplification popularized in the early nineteenth century by idealists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson: that the shape one's life takes is solely a result of the exercise of free will and thus the choices that one freely makes, conscious of consequences. By the close of chapter 2, Norris had begun to demonstrate his modernity by scuttling that notion, not denying that free choices are possible but limiting their significance appropriately, in light of what Darwin and his successors had disclosed about nature in general and the human condition in particular.
Norris, Frank. "Frank Norris Writes Cleverly about Child Fiction for Old Readers." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 February 1902, 10.
Norris, Frank. McTeague: A Story of San Francisco. New York: Doubleday and McClure, 1899.
Norris, Frank. A Novelist in the Making: A Collection of Student Themes and the Novels "Blix" and "Vandover and the Brute." Edited by James D. Hart. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970.
Norris, Frank. "Zola as a Romantic Writer." Wave 15 (27 June 1896): 3.
Norris, Frank. "Zola's Rome: Modern Papacy as Seen by the Man of the Iron Pen." Wave 15 (6 June 1896): 8.
Abbot, Edward, and Madeline Vaughn Abbot. "McTeague." Literary World 30 (1 April 1899): 99.
Conder, John J. Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.
Dillingham, William B. Frank Norris: Instinct and Art. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.
French, Warren. Frank Norris. New York: Twayne, 1962.
Hochman, Barbara. The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. Frank Norris Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., and Katherine Knight, eds. Frank Norris: The Critical Reception. New York: Burt Franklin, 1981.
"Novels of the Week." Spectator 83 (4 November 1899): 662.
Pizer, Donald. "The Biological Determinism of McTeague in Our Time." American Literary Realism 29 (Winter 1997): 27–32.
Joseph R. McElrath Jr.
"McTeague." American History Through Literature 1870-1920. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/mcteague
"McTeague." American History Through Literature 1870-1920. . Retrieved May 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/mcteague