California's adopted son

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.

When he fictionalized the criminal world of San Francisco in "McTeague" -- and with far less restraint than the prevailing norms expected -- he accomplished two important things: He launched his career as a novelist, and he moved western, and particularly California, fiction onto a higher plane nationally. Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, even Mark Twain had been pigeonholed as provincial: Harte was seen as a western regionalist, Twain as a humorist, Bierce as a mere purveyor of the misanthropic genre. Norris' depiction of his killer dentist acting out a grim, post-Darwinian destiny brought the young novelist out of the pack and into the glare of controversy and attention.

Norris called himself, not entirely in jest, "the boy Zola," and there's little doubt that he was the American novelist most closely identified with naturalism and the French writer who defined it. Norris himself became a transitional figure for writers like Jack London ("The Call of the Wild" was published a year after Norris' death) and John Steinbeck, who was born the year Norris died. His influence on another modern writer was even more direct: While working as a reader at Doubleday, Page & Co., he took note of Theodore Dreiser, and "Sister Carrie" found a publisher.

Norris loved California. It is no surprise that within California history he uncovered "an idea as big as all outdoors," as he described it to a friend in the spring of 1899. He determined to write about the Southern Pacific Railroad (in the novel it would be called the Pacific and Southwestern) and its stranglehold on the state's life and politics. That topic had already been trotted out in a few forgettable California novels by 1900 -- W.C. Morrow's "Blood-Money," C.C. Post's "Driven From Sea to Sea," "The Monarch Philanthropist" (anon.) -- but Norris had the skills, energy and vision to remake the genre. He researched railroad history, interviewed railroad executives (including Southern Pacific President Collis P. Huntington) and sketched out what was to be the first novel of a planned "Trilogy of the Epic of the Wheat."

"The Octopus" became an immediate bestseller. Its title, a reference to the grasping tentacles of the railroad that reached into the lives of Californians, had been around a while as an epithet directed at the Southern Pacific by its many antagonists. McElrath and Crisler are judicious in characterizing the novelist's aims; unlike many historians, who persist in labeling "The Octopus" as a novel of social, even socialist, reform, they point out that Norris wished instead to write the Great American Novel. Choosing sides was never his intention, although he was not blind to the railroad corporation's enormous power and ruthlessness.

What most literary critics and historians yet miss may be the novel's most important commentary on the railroad's pervasive influence: Its presence throughout the book is analogous to its ubiquity in California and the wider West. The tracks, the trains, the smoke, the whistles, the trestles, all of it -- the railroad as a technological intrusion upon a once-pastoral landscape is unavoidable in "The Octopus." By its very intrusiveness, the railroad reoriented time, space and geography. Norris got that exactly right.

Frank Norris died young, and there is something of an elegiac quality to this biography. But if McElrath and Crisler are perhaps a shade too enamored of their subject's short life and long talents, they have nonetheless produced an important book. Norris is a compelling figure in American letters -- youthful, ambitious, prolific, Californian -- and he merits just this kind of learned assessment. *

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