Frank Norris, novelist and critic, was one of the progressive writers of
his time whose works dealt with social problems and won the attention of
the reading public. His critical articles on literature and style did
much to turn young writers towards realism.
Born in Chicago in the family of a rich jeweller, Norris was able to get
a good education. When Frank was still a boy, his father moved to
California where he became a successful businessman.
At the age of seventeen Norris went to Paris and studied literature and
the arts for about two years. In 1890 he entered the University of
California, and later went to study at Harvard University. There he
began to write his first novel, “McTeague”, which was considered to be
one of the few naturalistic novels in America. The novel was written
under the influence of Zola in the style of the French naturalistic
writers. It was a portrayal of slum life in San Francisco. Unable to
find a publisher at the time, Norris applied for newspaper work. At the
outbreak of the Boer War he was sent to South Africa as a
war-correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. On his return to San
Francisco he became assistant editor for the paper The Wave, but all his
spare time he devoted to his career as a novelist. At heart a literary
critic as much as a writer, Norris kept a keen eye on everything fresh
and original in the creative work of other young writers. When Crane’s
first novel “Maggie” appeared, he wrote a review in favour of the book
and its gifted author. He was also the first critic to note young
Dreiser’s talent. Having read the manuscript of Dreiser’s novel “Sister
Carrie”, he recommended it for publication.
His work as a journalist at The Wave took him to various corners of
California. He witnessed an actual fight between the farmers and agents
of the South-Pacific Railroad Company in the struggle of the farmers to
defend their rights to the land they had cultivated. The fight made a
deep impression on the young writer. He knew that his thoughts on the
farmers’ movement would not be printed by the newspapers, so he saved
this material for a book which he later wrote, “The Epic on the Wheat”.
The Spanish-American War found Norris in Cuba as a correspondent for an
American magazine. He wrote many articles against the war, which were
not accepted by the editor because he characterized the war as a bloody
stain on the L’SA and stressed the fact that the American soldiers were
not at all enthusiastic about fighting for the imperialists. In Cuba he
fell ill with yellow fever and had to return home. He went to live in
New York where he began writing his novel “The Epic on the Wheat”. But
an operation for appendicitis stopped his creative work. He died in New
York in 1902.
NORRIS’S WORKS AND HIS VIEWS ON LITERATURE
In his first novel, “McTeague” (1899), Norris wanted to show the
corrupting influence of gold upon human nature, and how it breeds greed
and avarice in human beings. The story is set in a poor district in San
Francisco. Norris tried to depict the exact surroundings in great detail
with an observant rather than with a philosophical eye, that is to say,
he described life more from the outside.
McTeague is a dentist without a diploma. He is not a bad fellow,
generous by nature; but he is a narrow-minded philistine and, when
aroused, becomes a beast.
Soon after his engagement to Trina, a young and pretty neighbour, she
wins five thousand dollars in a lottery. This money brings unhappi-ness
to the couple. McTeague’s friend, Schouler [‘skaule], is envious of
their good fortune and regrets that he had not proposed to Trina
himself. He knows that McTeague has no official licence to work as a
dentist and informs the police. McTeague loses his practice. Trina, now
his wife who had been very good-natured, turns into a mean woman. She
grudges her husband the money she has won and refuses to give any of it
to him. In a fit of fury he tries to take the money by force, and
without meaning to do so kills Trina. He is compelled to run away from
San Francisco and hides from the police in the Californian desert, the
Death Valley, where he suffers cruelly from thirst. Schouler pursues him
into the Death Valley, captures him and chains him to his own body.
McTeague struggles to free himself and in a brutal fight kills Schouler.
Finally McTeague dies of thirst. He perishes chained to the dead body of
Norris gives dramatic unity to the whole story through the symbol of
gold: there is a golden canary cage in McTeague’s room; Trina’s
twenty-dollar gold pieces; McTeague’s birthday present from Trina: an
enormous tooth coated with French gilt to use as a dentist’s sign in the
bay-window of his establishment. There also appear secondary persons in
the novel, such as the rag-picker, whose eyes glitter at the sight of
gold” and who dreams of finding golden dinner plates and other gold
objects which he can sell and become rich.
Towards the end of the century Norris made a clean break with the
naturalistic method of writing. He wrote much about his views on realism
in his critical articles. A collection of these articles was published
posthumously in 1903 under the title “The Responsibilities of the
Novelist”. In these articles Norris writes about Leo Tolstoy. In his
estimation Tolstoy was one of the greatest of humanists because his
works were not merely pictures copied from life but were works written
about the people and addressed to the people.
Norris’s greatest work is his famous novel “The Epic on the Wheat”.
Norris had planned to write a vast trilogy, three separate novels on one
and the same theme: the first book, “The Octopus”, tells of the growing
of the wheat; the second book, “The Pit”, describes the marketing of the
wheat; and the third novel, “The Wolf”, was to be about the consumption
of the wheat. But Norris completed only the first two parts of the
trilogy, the stories of which take place in America. These were received
with great enthusiasm by the readers. The third book, which was to beset
in Europe, was never written because of the author’s untimely death.
As seer, by the novels of the trilogy, the writer dealt with his
subject-matter from a sociological and economic point of view. The epic
form which Norris chose for the work demanded large canvasses. Norris
showed man as part of society: the individual is swallowed in the
enormous mass of people and is swept along with them.
“The Octopus” is a story of farm life in California; The Pit” —a story
of the stock-market in Chicago. In both books Norris meant to expose the
crimes of the businessmen and show how difficult it was for the farmers
to struggle against the monopolies.
By the octopus Norris meant the new railroad that had been built across
the great Californian valley. The agents of the railroad are the
villains in the story. There is the local banker, Behrman, a land
speculator, and an agent of the railroad; there is a lawyer who is also
a politician, and other businessmen. They are a gang of robbers who
decide to make millions of dollars for themselves first by literally
stealing land from the farmers, and then by raising railroad tariffs on
the shipment of wheat. The farmers who till the soil in the valley along
the San Joaquin River are unable to pay for the shipment of their goods.
The railroad ruins the Californian farmers and finally they are to lose
their land. The farmers stick to their rights in armed defence, but it
is the railroad firm that is victorious.
The railroad grips the wheat growers in its cruel tentacles. It spares
neither man nor beast. The impact of the “octopus” is shown in one of
the first scenes of the novel when a locomotive roars, by filling the
air with the reek of hot oil, vomiting smoke and sparks; it destroys on
its way a flock of sheep that wandered upon the track. “It was a
slaughter, a massacre of innocents.” Norris symbolizes by it the
crushing of the men and women of the valley under the wheels of modern
industrialism. The novel gives a picture of actual life in California.
There is plowing, planting, harvesting, sheep-herding, merry-making,
rabbit-hunting, love, labour, birth and death.
Norris sympathizes with the farmers. Everything he hated in capitalist
America is concentrated in the land speculator Behrman. He is the great
boss, the unscrupulous dealer and money-lender. He is victorious, while
the farmers whose sweat and blood went into the land lose the fight.
They all meet with a tragic end.
Norris, the realist, does not make Behrman die in the fight with the
farmers, because he knows that there surely will be another Behrman of
the same kind, should this one be done away with. Norris sees the wheat
as the symbol of a mightier power than that of the masters of the
monopolies — the power of the toiling masses; therefore, at the end of
the novel, Norris has Behrman suffocated to death under the grain while
it is being loaded into the hold of the ship.
Questions and Tasks
1. How did the sociological novel develop in American literature?
I3escribe the new character that appeared in literature at the time.
2. What was the neo-romantic trend? Why was it easy for writers of this
trend to publish their novels?
3. Who were the European novelists whose works appeared in the English
translation in America towards the end of the century? How did they
influence American writers?
4. In what way did the French method of writing influence the American
writers, and why was the influence of the Russian writers greater?
5. Who were the progressive American writers of the nineties?
6. Describe Crane’s best work. How did it differ from the conventional
7. How did Norris and Crane regard imperialism when they saw the
Spanish-American War in Cuba?
8. What were Norris’s views on literature and style as explained by him
in his article “The Responsibilities of the Novelist”?
9. Why is Norris characterized as a sociological novelist?