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California's adopted son

Frank Norris A Life Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Jesse S. Crisler University of Illinois Press: 494 pp., $38

January 22, 2006|William Deverell | William Deverell is a professor of history at USC and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

FRANK NORRIS published fiction like a house afire. He wrote dozens of short stories and seven novels, finishing most well before he turned 30. In 1899, he published what many consider his masterpiece, "McTeague," and finished two lesser novels. Two years later, he published "The Octopus," the work that catapulted him to literary importance. A ruptured appendix killed Norris in 1902 at the age of 32. His posthumous novel "The Pit" was published in 1903 to great acclaim, amid eulogies mourning his tragic death and speculating as to his certain, lasting fame had he lived.

Norris has remained important in the intervening century, though his is a slightly odd place in the American literary canon.

For one thing, as Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Jesse S. Crisler point out in "Frank Norris: A Life," the significance of Norris' work has been hard to pin down. Contemporaries considered "The Pit" -- a dark tale of greed and manipulations in wheat at the Chicago Board of Trade -- his greatest work. The literary criticism of recent generations has instead fastened upon "McTeague," a drawn-from-life novel about a murderous San Francisco dentist, as his most significant novel. What repulsed those of Norris' time -- "McTeague's" naturalistic portrayals of human lust ("The male virile desire in him tardily awakened, aroused itself, strong and brutal") and degradation (including a pants-wetting scene) -- are precisely what makes that innovative novel important a century later. Yet "The Octopus," Norris' fictional attempt to, as he put it, "Get at it from every point of view, the social, agricultural, political. -- Just say the last word [on the railroad] question in California," remains his best-known work.

Biographical treatments of Norris are few. The great California literary critic Franklin Walker published a fine biography in the 1930s, a book that McElrath and Crisler unfairly dismiss as "relatively brief and ... breezy." "Frank Norris: A Life" is decidedly neither. Longtime Norris scholars and collaborators, these two English professors have been thinking hard about Frank Norris for more years than the novelist lived. Little Norris material has come to light since Walker's 1932 treatment, and Walker had the advantage of being able to interview many of Norris' friends, relatives and confidants. What distinguishes this new life of Norris is also what makes it somewhat slow going; the authors tell Norris' story, much as Walker did, but they do so with the addition of several generations' worth of Norris criticism.

McElrath and Crisler are deeply engrossed in the puzzles of their subject's career and place in our literary and cultural history. That goes without saying. But these literary critics really like Frank Norris, too. They like what he wrote; they like his "inextinguishable joie de vivre"; they like the way he carried himself throughout his brief life. Their affection shows here, sometimes perhaps more than it ought. While admitting that "[o]ne never knows for certain, of course," the authors all but canonize him at the outset: "Kind, considerate, loyal to his friends, and devoid of the egotism that some may associate with the personalities of artistes, Norris appears to have modeled human nature at its best" -- which sets the bar awfully high and threatens to prevent a more complex portrait from emerging.

There's no doubt that Norris is an attractive subject. Chicago-born but raised in the Bay Area, Benjamin Franklin Norris Jr. came of age within the culturally sophisticated milieu of well-to-do Gilded Age San Francisco. His early plans were to be an artist; he studied painting in Paris before matriculating at the University of California in 1890. But increasingly, writing took up his time and attention, and Norris began to imagine a career as a writer. Unable to satisfy the degree requirements in mathematics, he wandered east, where he became a special student at Harvard. The distance from California appears to have done him (or at least his fiction) some good. Bits and pieces of his novels were sketched out, drafted or imagined in the themes he prepared at Harvard.

By the mid-1890s, Norris had earned recognition as a young journalist of note. He wrote pieces for Bay Area newspapers and literary journals, including dispatches from South Africa, where he had scurried to get a taste of the Boer War. He also raced down to Key West and Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War for McClure's Magazine and contracted malaria for his troubles.

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