Moran of the Lady Letty, 1898
A Man’s Woman, 1900
The Octopus, 1901
The Pit, 1903
Vandover and the Brute, 1914
A Deal in Wheat, and Other Stories of the New and Old West, 1903
The Joyous Miracle, 1906
The Third Circle, 1909
Frank Norris of “The Wave,” 1931 (Oscar Lewis, editor)
Yvernelle: A Tale of Feudal France, 1892
Two Poems and “Kim” Reviewed, 1930
The Responsibilities of the Novelist, 1903
The Surrender of Santiago, 1917
The Letters of Frank Norris, 1956
The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris, 1964
The Complete Edition of Frank Norris, 1928
Frank Norris wrote in 1899: “Tell your yarn and let your style go to the devil. We don’t want literature, we want life.” However, the life he portrayed in his own novels was more naturalistic–emphasizing the brutality in humankind, the sordid in experience–than realistic.
The oldest son of a wealthy jewelry manufacturer and a doting mother, he was born in Chicago on March 5, 1870, and christened Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. When he was fourteen, his family moved to San Francisco. The bustling and varied life of that city, as well as his wide reading, stimulated his boyish imagination and turned him away from all thoughts of a business career.
Physically frail as a boy, Norris greatly admired his powerful, aggressive father but was rejected by him because of the boy’s obedience to his artistic, possessive mother. When his parents were divorced, Norris apparently suffered a form of psychological split; his brief career as a writer has been explained as an attempt to accomplish big things to please his father while traveling along the path of art which his mother had laid out for him. Encouraged by his mother, he began studying art and spent a year at the Atelier Julien in Paris.
In 1890 he entered the University of California, where he read Charles Darwin and Émile Zola. Unable to pass a required mathematics exam, Norris left Berkeley without a degree after four years and attended Harvard University for a year, taking French and a writing course taught by Lewis Gates. While at Harvard, Norris completed most of Vandover and the Brute and worked on drafts of McTeague.
During the Boer War, Norris worked as a correspondent in South Africa for the San Francisco Chronicle. From 1896 to 1898 he was on the staff of The Wave, a San Francisco magazine. After the successful serialization of his Moran of the Lady Letty in The Wave in early 1898, Norris went to New York in February, 1898, to work for Doubleday and McClure as an editorial assistant. In April, 1898, he reported on the Spanish-American War for McClure’s Magazine. While in Cuba, he met Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis. After returning to New York, Norris married Jeannette Black in 1900. As a publisher’s reader for Doubleday, Page, and Company, he discovered Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie (1900).
Norris never completed either of the two great trilogies he planned, yet his books gave promise of what he might have achieved as a writer of the naturalistic school. In his projected Epic of the Wheat, for example, he wished to express his indignation over, and his admiration for, the men who through organization and exploitation had taken over the economic and social control of the United States. The expansion of the railroads, for example, had produced vast outer conflicts and inner tensions, the latter principally because there was little frontier left to which the less aggressive and the ethical could flee. Norris wrote of both the aggressors and those in conflict with them.
In his emphasis on the business of social conflict rather than on character, in his preoccupation with the sordid, shocking, and depressing, and in his obsession with violence, he was frequently the traditional romantic in reverse. In addition, he mixed his literary styles, sometimes writing realistically and sometimes weaving into his work an almost mystic poetical quality. This fusion of the naturalistic and the poetic makes him a distinctive–and sometimes less than successful–writer.
Vandover and the Brute, the first written but last published of his novels, is a thinly disguised tale of Norris’s own attempt to find release from his unhappy relationship with his parents. McTeague, Norris’s major work, is superior in every way to the Nietzschean primitivism of Moran of the Lady Letty and the semiautobiographical Blix. McTeague presents the theme of indulgence and punishment. More objective in treatment than the other works, it is also more a work of the creative imagination in the manner of Zola. Melodramatic situations and exaggeration of the degree of brutality and avarice in American life mar but do not destroy the power of narrative in this story of a crude, brutal dentist and his wife’s corrupting passion for gold.
Norris was not to find another subject suited to his talents until he conceived his Epic of the Wheat. In The Octopus, the first novel of his proposed trilogy, he tells of the planting and harvesting of the wheat; the fertile land is presented as a symbol of force in a plot centering on conflict between the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley in California and the Southern Pacific Railroad, an industrial octopus with tentacles of steel. In this novel the human antagonists are doomed to defeat, but the prevailing mood of pessimism is in part redeemed by a conclusion which suggests the tradition of the sentimental novel in its assurance that everything has occurred for the best, that no matter how many lives are destroyed in the production of wheat, more lives are sustained by it as food.
The Pit continues the story of wheat through the speculation and exploitation of the Chicago grain market. The work suffers from the writer’s reversion to memories of his own family for some of his situations and scenes. The main protagonists are drawn after his father and mother, with the mother choosing the wrong lover (a businessman rather than an artist) to be her husband.
Norris had sketchily outlined a third novel, “The Wolf,” which would deal with the need for and the consumption of wheat abroad, but this book, like the trilogy he had planned on the battle of Gettysburg, was never written. Norris died in San Francisco on October 25, 1902, from postoperative complications of appendicitis.