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 his
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
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
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
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
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
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 war books?
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
9. Why is Norris characterized as a sociological novelist?