Norris, Frank

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Frank Norris


Full name Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr.; born March 5, 1870, in Chicago, IL; died of appendicitis, October 25, 1902, in San Francisco, CA; son of Benjamin Franklin (a wholesale jeweler and real estate investor) and Gertrude G. (an actress; maiden name, Doggett) Norris; married Jeannette Williamson Black, January 12, 1900 (some sources say February 12, 1899); children: Jeannette Williamson Norris. Education: Studied painting at the Atelier Julien, 1887; attended University of California at Berkeley, 1890-94; attended Harvard University, 1894-95. Hobbies and other interests: Painting, illustration.


Novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, critic, and poet. San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, CA, foreign correspondent in South Africa, 1895-96; Wave, San Francisco, copywriter, 1896-98; S. S. McClure Syndicate, New York, NY, war correspondent in Cuba, 1898; Doubleday & McClure, New York, editorial reader, 1899-1900.



Moran of the Lady Letty: A Story of Adventure off the California Coast, Doubleday & McClure (New York, NY), 1898, published as Shanghaied, Richards (London, England), 1899.

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, Doubleday & McClure (New York, NY), 1899.

Blix, Doubleday & McClure (New York, NY), 1899.

A Man's Woman, Doubleday & McClure (New York, NY), 1900.

The Octopus: A Story of California, Doubleday, Page (New York, NY), 1901.

The Pit: A Story of Chicago, Doubleday, Page (New York, NY), 1903.

A Deal in Wheat, and Other Stories of the New and Old West (short stories), Doubleday, Page (New York, NY), 1903.

The Joyous Miracle (novel), Doubleday, Page (New York, NY), 1906.

The Third Circle (short stories), John Lane (New York, NY), 1909.

Vandover and the Brute (novel), Doubleday, Page (Garden City, NY), 1914.


Yvernelle: A Legend of Feudal France (poetry), Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1892.

The Responsibilities of the Novelist and Other Literary Essays, Doubleday, Page (New York, NY), 1903.

The Surrender of Santiago: An Account of the Historic Surrender of Santiago to General Shafter, July 17, 1898, Paul Elder (San Francisco, CA), 1917.

The Complete Works of Frank Norris, ten volumes, Doubleday, Doran (Garden City, NY), 1928.

Frank Norris of "The Wave": Stories and Sketches from the San Francisco Weekly, 1893 to 1897, edited by Oscar Lewis, Westgate Press (San Francisco, CA), 1931.

The Letters of Frank Norris, edited by Franklin Walker, Book Club of California (San Francisco, CA), 1956.

The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris, edited by Donald Pizer, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1964.

A Novelist in the Making: A Collection of Student Themes and the Novels "Blix" and "Vandover and the Brute," edited by James D. Hart, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1970.

Frank Norris: Collected Letters, edited by Jesse S. Crisler, Book Club of California (San Francisco, CA), 1986.

Novels and Essays, edited by Donald Pizer, Library of America (New York, NY), 1986.

The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896-1898, edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Douglas K. Burgess, American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1996.

Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Century, Critic, Harper's Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle, and Wave.


The Pit was adapted for the stage by Channing Pol-lock and debuted on Broadway, 1904; it was also adapted as the films A Corner in Wheat, directed by D. W. Griffith, Biograph, 1909; and The Pit, William Brady, 1914. McTeague was adapted as the films Desert Gold (also known as After the Storm), Kay-Bee/Thomas H. Ince, 1914; McTeague (also known as Life's Whirlpool), William Brady, 1916; and Greed, directed by Erich von Stroheim, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1925. Moran of the Lady Letty was adapted for film, Famous-Players/Lasky Corp., 1922. McTeague was made into an opera with music by William Bolcom and libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Robert Altman; it premiered at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 1992, and was broadcast by PBS-TV, 1992.


Although he died less than five years after publishing his first novel, Frank Norris stands as one of the key figures of early twentieth-century American literature. In novels such as McTeague: A Story of San Francisco and The Octopus: A Story of California, Norris pioneered the use of realistic settings, violent conflicts, and working-class characters who were often portrayed as victims of their environment. These elements placed him in the literary movement known as American naturalism, alongside such authors as Jack London, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser. What distinguished Norris, according to Warren French in his Frank Norris, was that "his inside knowledge of the leisure class.… made it possible for him to escape the effects of the kind of impoverished childhood suffered by many 'realistic' and 'naturalistic' novelists who could not speak without envy or rancor of conditions Norris took for granted. While many writers have studied this Society, few have been able to give an intimate insight into the raw, unsophisticated ruthlessness that motivated 'conspicuous consumption.'"

Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr., was born in 1870 to a wealthy Chicago family, the first child in five pregnancies to survive infancy. His father had been raised in rural Michigan, but left the family farm to become a jeweler. A self-made man, the elder Norris eventually rose to own a large wholesale jewelry business. His wife, Gertrude, was a former teacher and actress who encouraged the family in matters of culture and taste. She frequently gave dramatic poetry readings to Norris and his younger brothers, and was known for her involvement in public literary societies. The Norrises left the cold winters of the Midwest for California in 1884, eventually settling in San Francisco. There the elder Norris increased his wealth by investing heavily in real estate. At first young Norris attended a college preparatory school, but dropped out after breaking his arm playing football. Finding the study of business unappealing, he began training as a painter instead. His parents encouraged him to the point of moving the family to Europe so that young Frank could gain more professional instruction.

After a brief stay in London, the Norrises moved to Paris, where Frank entered the Académie Julian to study under Guillaume Bouguereau. His family remained with him for a year, but they returned to San Francisco in 1888, leaving the eighteen-year-old Norris to his own devices. Increasingly, his interests led him away from painting and into writing. A fascination with medieval armor led to his first article, which was published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1889. Popular legend has it that when Norris's father discovered Frank was neglecting his studies, he was summoned home immediately. Other accounts, however, suggest that the young writer returned home on his own initiative, having tired of painting. In any case, by 1890 Norris was back in California and attending the state university at Berkeley.

Because he lacked qualifications in math, Norris was only granted limited status at Berkeley. He showed little interest in classes that would have qualified him to join his father's business, but instead became heavily involved in campus magazines and theater productions, as well as the local chapter of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. While a sophomore, he combined his interest in the Middle Ages with the Romantic stories favored by his mother to produce the epic poem Yvernelle: A Legend of Feudal France. Subsidized by his mother's money, the book was published by Lippincott in 1892. A ballad in the vein of Sir Walter Scott, Yvernelle is the story of a knight who is cursed by his lover after breaking off their affair, and must find a way to recover his virtue and claim his true love. Although Norris later disowned Yvernelle—and would later parody such overly romanticized pieces of "fine writing"—the poem brought him some commercial success.

Meanwhile, Norris continued his studies at Berkeley, focusing on subjects that would prepare him for a career as a novelist. While studying French, he discovered the fiction of Émile Zola, the French writer who was the era's foremost proponent of Naturalism. Instead of presenting heroic characters engaged in morally uplifting deeds, Zola's fiction told realistic stories of human weakness without presuming to pass judgment. In particular, Zola emphasized how heredity and environment shaped people's thoughts and actions; his characters were either "born" to misbehave or were pressured into it by society. Norris found validation of Zola's theories in some of his zoology and anthropology classes at Berkeley, which similarly explored theories of human evolution and environment. He did not complete enough courses to please the university administration, however, and after four years he left Berkeley without a degree. That same year his parents divorced—a shocking event for 1894, but one that left Norris without any responsibility to take up his father's business. Instead, he moved across the country with his mother and entered Harvard University, again as a special student.

Riding the Wave to Publication

It was at Harvard that Norris finally found the inspiration he needed. He came under the tutelage of Lewis Gates, who believed that writing was a craft that could be honed and taught. Under Gates' direction, Norris wrote a series of sketches that later served as portions of the novels Blix, McTeague, and Vandover and the Brute. Confident that he was headed in the right direction, Norris left Harvard after a year in search of a broader experience. Although the young writer had begun to publish small pieces in newspapers and journals, he realized he would need a greater knowledge of the world before he could write the kind of meaningful fiction he aspired to create. In 1895 he set out for Africa, intending to travel from South Africa to Egypt; the San Francisco Chronicle was to publish his travelogues. Unfortunately, he was caught up in Jamieson Raid, an attempt by British colonists to overthrow the Boer government of South Africa's Transvaal region. He was deported from the country in a weakened state, having caught a tropical fever, and was shipped to England to recover. Despite having seen "real action" during an event that was of major interest to the English-speaking world, he only placed one article in a national magazine. He returned to San Francisco in 1896, having failed to gain either the experience or the renown he desired.

In San Francisco, however, Norris found his first regular job: as a copywriter and editorial assistant for The Wave, a small newspaper with limited circulation. During his years there he contributed short stories, reviews, literary essays, interviews, sketches of local life, and even a weekly column about football. In a 1903 Sunset article, Gelett Burgess noted that these early Wave writings are "nuggets [that] always have a crude, fierce, barbaric quality, not minted into artistic form. Yet in each of these tales is a character to remember, animated usually by some primitive instinct or passion, strikingly informed with reality." Several of these writings were published posthumously in the 1909 collection The Third Circle. An Athenaeum critic observed that despite being beginner's work, the sketches "contain imaginative touches, and interesting evidence of a writer's progress towards realization of his powers." A Bookman critic, however, noted that "there is enough of brilliant work in these pages to make a reputation, and even to add somewhat to a reputation that is already made." In his writing for the Wave, Norris "displayed considerable polish as an impressionist capable of vitalizing his subjects with a tone of awe and wonderment," Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. remarked in the Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography. The critic concluded that "his was the talent of making the ordinary seem extraordinary and thus interesting."

Despite the volume and increasing quality of Norris's work for the Wave, the paper's local circulation limited the author's exposure. Although by 1897 he had finished the manuscript of McTeague,the novel's brutal realism had scared away any prospective publishers. At twenty-seven, Norris continued to depend on his mother for financial support, and depression set in. Two people helped bolster his determination to find success, however: Jeannette Black, the young woman who would become his wife; and Joseph Hodgson, a Coast Guard captain whose tales of the ocean served as inspiration for the young writer. Realizing that adventure stories were in demand with the reading public, Norris began serializing Moran of the Lady Letty: A Story of Adventure off the California Coast, a sensational story of nautical intrigue and adventure. Ross Wilbur, a wealthy and coddled young San Franciscan, is kidnapped and taken aboard a salvage vessel to work. During the course of his adventures his crew finds the Lady Letty, an abandoned ship whose only occupant is Moran, a young shipwreck survivor with no experience with men. Although Wilbur "tames" this uncivilized girl by falling in love with her, the ending is not happy: Moran is killed by a Chinese crewman looking to steal valuables. French believed that this overwrought melodrama had little to recommend it, except for the unconventional ending, which foreshadowed Norris's future work: "Moran's murder by a debased creature seeking to steal a fortune is another denunciation of the corrupting influence of civilization," the critic remarked. American Writers contributor W. M. Frohock, however, noted that despite being filled with implausible events and nautical misinformation, "Moran has the distinction of being one of the best yarns about salt water and derring-do ever written by an author who knew nothing firsthand about either."

Whatever its faults, the installments of Moran caught the eye of the S. S. McClure Syndicate. Based on these chapters, the syndicate offered Norris a position with their company in New York, as well as a chance to publish Moran as a book. One of his first tasks for McClure was to cover the Spanish-American War in Cuba; his experiences there proved disheartening, however, and after contracting malaria he returned to San Francisco to recuperate. He continued his romance with Jeannette Black, a relationship that was to inspire his 1899 novel Blix. This semi-autobiographical tale details the growing friendship between Condy Rivers, an aspiring young writer, and a high-spirited society girl whom he nicknames "Blix." Blix has little patience for the conventions of San Francisco's high society and instead wishes to study medicine. Through her encouragement, Condy learns to stop squandering his time on gambling and other idle pursuits, and instead focus on his writing. When Blix finally heads off to medical school in New York, their separation forces the two friends to realize they are truly in love. It is only when Condy discovers that a rejected manuscript also contains a job offer in New York that the story ends happily. Although the least melodramatic of Norris's novels, it is still a minor work, of interest mainly for its autobiographical insight. While Blix "rejects hypocritical social conventions for the sake of more honest and thus more natural and ideal ways of living," McElrath explained, it nevertheless "fail[s] to dramatize modern questions and predicaments in universally relevant and engaging fashion."

The Streets of San Francisco

Shortly after moving to New York, Norris met William Dean Howells, one of the most noted novelists and critics of the day. Howells read the young author's McTeague and urged him to publish it, although previous attempts had met with rejection. Now, however, Norris had one novel to his credit as well as his position with McClure to recommend him, and McTeague was published in early 1899. Inspired by a real-life criminal case from 1893, McTeague traces the fall of an amateur dentist into debt, cruelty, and murder. McTeague (his first name is never given) has a successful if unlicensed dental practice in San Francisco until he falls in love with a patient named Trina. She chooses to marry him instead of her cousin Marcus, who feels he has been cheated when Trina wins a lottery of five thousand dollars. To take revenge, Marcus reports his rival to the authorities, thus ending McTeague's dentistry practice and leaving him without a job. Trina hoards all of her lottery winnings, infuriating her husband and leading to a downward spiral of poverty, alcoholism, and violence that ends with her murder at McTeague's hands. Finally in possession of his wife's gold, McTeague flees to the mining country of the Sierras with Marcus in pursuit. The two struggle and McTeague triumphs, but not before his rival manages to handcuff himself to McTeague. The novel concludes with McTeague shackled to a corpse in the searing climate of Death Valley, miles away from any water or rescue.

McTeague was a controversial work for the critics and readers of 1899. Instead of being the typical upper-or middle-class American hero who strives to improve his life, the lower-class McTeague degenerates into violence and brutality. Although Norris provided evocative descriptions of San Francisco's Polk Street neighborhood, some contemporary critics felt this did not excuse "grossness for the sake of grossness," as a Literary World writer described it. The critic continued: "That Mr. Norris has written an exceptionally strong and powerful novel we do not wish to deny, … [but] Mr. Norris has written pages for which there is absolutely no excuse, and his needless sins against good taste and delicacy are fatal spots upon his work." John D. Barry, however, observed in another Literary World review that "for those who do not go to fiction merely to be amused and diverted, and who believe that fiction may profitably be made an expression of life, McTeague will be a revelation." Barry explained that "I was astonished by its profound insight into character; its shrewd humor; its brilliant massing of significant detail, and by its dramatic force," and concluded that the novel "deserves a great success, and it ought to place Mr. Norris in the first rank among our writers." And while Howells had expressed reservations in an early review of McTeague because of its subject matter, in a 1902 North American Review article he noted that "I must own it greater than I have ever yet acknowledged it," and added that "I wish now to affirm my strong sense of [its artistic qualities], and to testify to the value which this extraordinary book has from its perfectly simple fidelity: from the truthfulness in which there is no self-doubt and no self-excuse."

Modern critics generally agree that McTeague is one of Norris's finest works, and displays his naturalist concerns with the new sciences of psychology and evolution and how they affect human behavior. "Norris believed that human behavior could largely be understood in terms of the impact of heredity, environment, and the pressure of circumstance, and that free will or the ability to make choices was limited," Karen F. Jacobson observed in Mosaic. "What also interested him, in turn, was how such beliefs might affect individuals and/or how such theories might be enlisted to account for the abnormal or pathological in human behavior." According to Jacobson, the characters of McTeague and Trina both display obsessive-compulsive traits: McTeague has a desperate need to control his wife's behavior, while Trina is unable to stop hoarding her gold—and in one notorious scene is even shown lying naked on a bed covered in coins. "In both style and content," Norris's method of revealing such abnormal behavior "shows the influence of contemporary social science," John Dudley similarly remarked in College Literature. The critic explained that Norris emphasized physical characteristics and scientifically objective language in his narrative, especially when portraying "'born criminals' whose ancestry and physical traits foretell the proclivity toward violent or anti-social behavior." Dudley and other modern critics have observed that these portrayals often have racist undertones, as reflected the disdainful thinking of the era's white, Anglo-Saxon ruling class towards immigrants of all races and nationalities. Nevertheless, the novel has interest for the modern reader; "the greatness of McTeague lies in the description of the Polk Street routine," French noted, for "the setting is not merely a group of back-drops against which the story unfolds; it shapes the story." The critic concluded: "What Norris has done in McTeague is to preserve the physical characteristics of an important era in human affairs—the period immediately before the electrification of the city established the distinctive quality of twentieth-century domestic life."

By the turn of the century, things were looking up for Norris. In less than two years he had published three widely different novels; although none was a great success, the versatility they displayed still marked the young writer as someone to watch. He brought out another serial adventure inspired by the naval adventures of Captain Hodgson, A Man's Woman. This improbable mix of arctic adventure, love story, and examination of gender roles was unconvincing, but nevertheless appeared in book form in 1900. In the meantime, the McClure syndicate had merged with the Doubleday publishing company, and Norris's new job as a reader meant that he had half the day free for his own writing—as well as enough income to finally marry Jeannette Black. During this time he came across the manuscript of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, a novel of success and failure in the naturalist vein of Norris's own McTeague. Norris was so enthusiastic about the novel that Doubleday bought the manuscript; legend has it, however, that one of the Doubleday family was so scandalized by the novel that they tried to buy out the contract. Dreiser refused to void the contract, and with Norris's patronage Sister Carrie was published in 1900, although with little support from its publisher. Despite Norris's efforts to promote the book, it sold few copies, but now it is recognized as one of the most important novels of the American naturalist movement.

Harvesting Literary Wheat

Norris had scarcely published his controversial novel McTeague when he announced his plans for an epic trilogy that would focus on the production, sale, and distribution of wheat. He left New York for California, where he began research into life on a wheat ranch. This first volume, The Octopus, was inspired by the real-life conflict between Southern California farmers and the Pacific Southern Rail-road—the far-reaching "Octopus" of the title. The railroad had secured land from the government at rock-bottom prices, and encouraged farmers to come develop the land by promising to sell it to them in the future at the same low rates. After the farmers improved the land, however, the railroad jacked up the prices of both the land and the cost of freight, causing the economic ruin of many farmers and leading to a violent revolt. While this could have led to a black-and-white tale of David vs. Goliath, Norris fashioned it into something more complex. As McElrath observed, "As a commentator [Norris] sought to shed some light on a lamentably junglelike society characterized mainly by rapacious interactions." Thus Magnus Derrick, the leader of the ranchers, comes to ruin by adopting the ruthless methods of his opponents; Shelgrim, the head of the railroad, gives an underperforming employee a raise so that he can support his children; and the final shootout is initiated by accident. "In a way, the heroine [of the novel] is the fecund American earth," Frohock noted in American Writers. "Norris' long descriptions of the sowing, germination, cultivation, and harvest are without parallel in American literature; one has to go to Tolstoi for anything to rival them."

Besides the main conflict between the ranchers and the railroad, The Octopus features various subplots which flesh out the author's portrait of the new American West. These feature the bad-tempered rancher Annixter and his unlikely romance; the poet Presley, who intends to write about the land's Spanish past but finally creates a protest poem against the railroad; and the shepherd Vanamee, whose spiritual nature stands in stark contrast to the greed of both the farmers and the railroad managers. The broad range of the novel led Howells to call it "epical, in being a strongly interwrought group of episodes"; the critic further concluded that The Octopus is "a novel unequalled for scope and for grasp in our fiction." In his study Frank Norris, however, French found several deficiencies in The Octopus—an overdependence on coincidences, a tendency to overemphasize the supposed "goodness" of nature, and characters who never have to face their own irresponsibility. Nevertheless, the critic stated that "the novel is a magnificent imaginative achievement, one of the few American novels to bring a significant episode from our history to life in such a way that the reader feels he is participating in the ponderous events." As Joseph McElrath, Jr. noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, in The Octopus "Norris was writing in a new vein. He was synthesizing historical detail … with events of the late 1890s and incorporating romantic legend from the period in which Spain controlled California with hard facts about 'Robber Barons' who are both urban and rural." The result, the critic concluded, was "a magnum opus on the West, the scope of which anticipated that of James Michener's [1974 novel] Centennial. "

Even before the publication of The Octopus, Norris had moved to Chicago in order to research the next volume of his trilogy. The Pit: A Story of Chicago was to explore the financial wheeling and dealing surrounding the futures market, where brokers made and lost fortunes by gambling on wheat production. Although Norris was not as familiar with the financial world of the Chicago area, his upwardly mobile characters were drawn straight from his high-society upbringing. Thus, while The Pit tells the story of Curtis Jadwin's attempt to corner the wheat market, it is also the story of Jadwin and his wife, Laura, a high-spirited and independently minded young woman who is won over by his insistent courting. When Jadwin's financial plans begin to obsess him, his neglect of Laura leads her to entertain the attentions of another man. It is only when Jadwin's financial speculation ends in ruin that the both of them acknowledge their selfish behavior and agree to make a new life for themselves out West. Several modern critics consider the novel a lesser achievement; Frohock called it a "disappointment" and added that "Norris did not know Chicago as he knew the land and people of California, and what he knew about trading in wheat futures was not enough to fill a book." French, however, felt that The Pit "is more carefully thought out than its predecessor and is, in fact, the only work in which Norris shows promise of achieving intellectual maturity." Because the author explored the human inclination to risk all for money and portrayed the complexities of a modern marriage, the critic explained, and "because the characters and events are convincingly human—drawn from observation rather than myth—The Pit is the only one of Norris' novels that can be read enjoyably today except as a period piece."

Having finished The Pit in 1902, Norris decided to leave New York for good and return to California with his wife and new baby daughter. He originally planned to begin a round-the-world cruise in order to gather research on the third volume of his Wheat trilogy, a book on the grain's distribution overseas which was to be titled The Wolf. The trip never materialized, however, as the author became involved in local events and the search for a country household. In the fall of 1902 he was by his wife's bedside as she recovered from an appendicitis operation. He ignored a pain in his own abdomen, however, and on October 25 he died of peritonitis caused by a perforated appendix. His previous illnesses, contracted while traveling, had left him in a weakened state that most likely contributed to his death. At only thirty-two, Norris had barely begun his literary career; his premature death prevented the completion of not only The Wolf, but also a planned trilogy on the Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg.

If you enjoy the works of Frank Norris

you might want to check out the following books:

Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy, 1925.

William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885.

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth, 1905.

Émile Zola, Germinal, 1885.

Norris's fame spread after his death, however. When The Pit was published in book form in 1903, it sold nearly one hundred thousand copies and inspired a 1904 play that ran on Broadway for almost eighty performances. His sole surviving sibling, Charles, became his literary executor and oversaw the publication of several works after Norris's death. One such work was the 1914 novel Vandover and the Brute, which was begun while Norris was at Harvard and was completed around 1900, shortly after McTeague. Like McTeague, the novel traces a man's fall from civilization; Vandover, however, is the son of a wealthy businessman whose self-indulgence and idleness lead to his ruin. His casual seduction of a young woman leads to her suicide, and the ensuing scandal kills Vandover's father. Illequipped to run a business, Vandover gambles away his wealth and ends up a cleaner in the slums he once owned, suffering from a condition which leaves him howling like an animal. Because Vandover's motivations are never fully explained, Frohock believed that "Vandover is thus a flawed book." He added, however, that "it is not an uninteresting one and has a charm unexpected in naturalist fiction," particularly in its descriptions of Vandover's time at Harvard and the society of the so-called "Gay Nineties." "In Vandover and the Brute Norris broadened his scope to picture San Francisco as representative of an entire society worthy of criticism," McElrath observed in Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography. The critic concluded: "With this city as a metaphor for modern life, Norris offered a more widely relevant conclusion than McTeague's. The theme is that late nineteenth-century American experience is fraught with social, moral and intellectual complexities not amenable to any available solutions or even traditional explanations."

Because of his pioneering use of lower-class characters and violence, as well as his many critical essays on the subject, Norris became strongly identified with the naturalist movement in the years after his death. Later critics, however, have pointed out a seeming inconsistency in the author's frequent use of melodrama, such as McTeague's final desert fight, or the evil railroad agent Behrman's death in a wheat chute in The Octopus. Norris, however, saw no such conflict in combining the improbable coincidences of melodrama with realistic settings and characters. In his essay "Zola as a Romantic Writer," the author articulated his vision of naturalism: "Terrible things must happen to the characters of the naturalistic tale. They must be twisted from the ordinary, wrenched from the quiet, uneventful round of every-day life, and flung into the throes of a vast and terrible drama that works itself out in unleashed passions, in blood, and in sudden death." For Norris, then, "naturalism" was "romanticism set in the milieu of actual social conditions," as McElrath described it. "And he allied himself with this school because it seemed the one most truth fully depicting the full 'drama of the people' in real life." This limited his fiction, according to Frohock, for "it was only when he could bring the techniques of melodrama to deal with a subject adapted to and tolerant of the limitation that he wrote enduring work." But these limitations, the critic explained, suited Norris's work to his time; "it opened the way not only for Dreiser but for all the novelists who, without professing the naturalist faith, have needed the freedom in choice and treatment of subject that the naturalists were the first to claim." As the critic concluded: "In spite of his penchant for melodrama, Norris' better novels played their part in substituting flesh and blood people for the myth-figures—the Sheriffs, Rangers, Cowboys, and such—in the literature of the American West. If we honor writers like Stephen Crane for their part in this achievement, we can hardly deny Norris the credit he, too, deserves."

Biographical and Critical Sources


American Writers, Volume 3, Scribner (New York, NY), 1974, pp. 314-336.

Boyd, Jennifer, Frank Norris: Spatial Form and Narrative Time, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1993.

Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Realism, Naturalism, and Local Color, 1865-1917, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.

Cooper, Frederic Taber, Some American Story Tellers, 1911, Books for Libraries Press (Freeport, NY), 1968.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 71: American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1880-1900, 1988, Volume 186: Nineteenth-Century American Western Writers, 1997.

French, Warren, Frank Norris, Twayne (New York, NY), 1962.

Graham, Don, The Fiction of Frank Norris: The Aesthetic Context, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1978.

Graham, Don, compiler, Critical Essays on Frank Norris, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1980.

Hicks, Granville, The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War, revised edition, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1935, pp. 164-206.

Hochman, Barbara, The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1988.

Hussman, Lawrence E., Harbingers of a Century: The Novels of Frank Norris, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1999.

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., Frank Norris and the Wave: a Bibliography, Garland (New York, NY), 1988.

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., Frank Norris: A Descriptive Bibliography, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1992.

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., Frank Norris Revisited, Twayne Publishers (New York, NY), 1992.

Novels for Students, Volume 12, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Pizer, Donald, The Novels of Frank Norris, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1966.

Short Story Criticism, Volume 28, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Verma, S. N., Frank Norris: A Literary Legend, Vikas (New Delhi, India), 1986.

Walcutt, Charles Child, American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1956, pp. 114-156.

Walker, Franklin, Frank Norris: A Biography, Russell & Russell (New York, NY), 1963.


American Literary Realism, winter, 1973, pp. 66-69; summer, 1974, Lee Ann Johnson, "Western Literary Realism: The California Tales of Norris and Austin," pp. 278-280; fall, 1993, Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., "Frank Norris' 'The Puppets and the Puppy': LeContean Idealism or Naturalistic Skepticism?," pp. 50-59.

Athenaeum, November 7, 1903, a review of A Deal in Wheat, p. 613; August 21, 1909, a review of The Third Circle, p. 206.

Bookman, November, 1903, Frederic Taber Cooper, "The Sustained Effort," pp. 311-312; October, 1909, a review of The Third Circle, p. 54.

Boston Transcript, April 22, 1914, p. 8.

College Literature, winter, 2002, John Dudley, "Inside and Outside the Ring: Manhood, Race, and Art in American Literary Naturalism," p. 530.

Literary World, March 18, 1899, John D. Barry, "New York Letter," pp. 88-89; April 1, 1899, review of McTeague, p. 99.

Mosaic, June, 1999, Karen F. Jacobson, "Who's the Boss? McTeague, Naturalism, and Obsessive-compulsive Disorder," p. 27.

Nation, April 16, 1914.

New York Times, May 29, 1909; April 12, 1914.

New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art, September 26, 1903, "Tales of Norris," p. 652.

North American Review, December, 1902, W. D. Howells, "Frank Norris," pp. 769-778.

Publishers Weekly, August 17, 1998, review of The Best Short Stories of Frank Norris, p. 47.

Saturday Review, August 28, 1909; June 20, 1914.

Sunset, January, 1903, Gelett Burgess, "One More Tribute to Frank Norris," p. 246.*

Norris, Frank

views updated May 17 2018

Norris, Frank (1870–1902) US novelist. Considered one of the most striking naturalistic writers, he first attracted attention with McTeague (1899). Norris is also noted for his trilogy about wheat: The Octopus (1901), The Pit (1903) and The Wolf (unfinished).