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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Frank Norris (1870–1902)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Carl Van Doren (1885–1950)
THE CAREER of Frank Norris opened with so much promise and was cut off so prematurely that his fame has from the first been colored by expectations of what he might have become had he lived to realize them. He seemed, indeed, as the new century opened, to be a singularly authentic and prophetic voice. Of the three great American novelists then living, Mark Twain by most readers was hardly thought of as a novelist at all, William Dean Howells had already come to his subdued later manner, and Henry James had long been separated from his own country by persistent foreign residence and from the world at large by the intricacy of his language and the subtlety of his concerns. American fiction in general had been devoted for thirty years to the recording of sectional singularities and had been gradually worn down to a low tone from which the very recent rage for historical romance had not quite lifted it. Into this staid tradition Frank Norris, barely preceded by Harold Frederic and Stephen Crane, broke with a disturbing voice.  1
  He was one of the least sectional of American novelists. Born in Chicago, where he passed his boyhood, in 1870, a student of art in Paris for two years, student for four years at the University of California and for one graduate year at Harvard, newspaper correspondent in South Africa at the time of the Jameson raid and in Cuba during the Santiago campaign, and journalist in San Francisco, Norris had a vision of his native land which set him with the movement, already feebly under way, to “continentalize” American literature. He was not a victim of that movement, which led some good men to an arid cosmopolitanism, but Zola, his chief teacher, and Kipling had taught Norris how much the strength of realism depends upon facts observed in their native places. And though one of his earliest passions was Froissart, and his first book, ‘Yvernelle’ (1892), was a verse romance upon a mediæval French theme, his mature plots were laid almost entirely in settings with which he was familiar. That so many of them are Californian must be ascribed to his early death; he meant later to turn to other regions.  2
  What gave Norris this large “continental” view of his materials was a certain epic disposition which he had. He tended to vast plans and conceived trilogies. His “Epic of the Wheat”—‘The Octopus’ (1901), which deals with the production of wheat in California, ‘The Pit’ (1903), which deals with the distribution of wheat in the Chicago Board of Trade, and ‘The Wolf,’ which was to have dealt with the relieving of a famine in Europe by American wheat—he thought of as three distinct novels, bound together only by the cosmic spirit of the wheat which comes up from the abundant earth and moves irresistibly to its appointed purpose, guided, of course, by men, and fought and played over by them, but always mightier than they and actually their master. Another trilogy to which he meant to give years of work would have centered about the battle of Gettysburg, one part for each day, and would have sought to present what Norris considered the American spirit as his “Epic of the Wheat” sought to present an impersonal force of nature. Such conceptions explain the grandiose manner which Norris never lost, and they serve to explain the passion of his realism.  3
  This passion, a kind of fiery zeal for the truth, was the quality which marked Norris and his kind off from the older realists. Zola had had it, and Norris, who called Zola “the very head of the Romanticists,” was even willing to name his own form of realism romantic if he could thus argue for the use in fiction of deeper truths than the minute and surface matters which, in his judgment, were the chief stock of realism. Perhaps the most obvious instance in his work of this romantic tendency is the story of Vanamee, the sheep-herder in ‘The Octopus,’ who has mystical communings with the spirit of his dead mistress. But equally romantic, in fact, was Norris’s constant preoccupation with “elemental” emotions. His heroes are nearly all violent men, willful, passionate, combative; his heroines—thick-haired, large-armed women, almost all of a single physical type—are endowed with a rich and deep, if slow, vitality. Love, in Norris’s world, is the mating of vikings and valkyries. A plain case of such heroic passions may be found in ‘Moran of the Lady Letty’ (1898), the story of Ross Wilbur, a civilized young San Franciscan who is shanghaied upon a Pacific fishing boat and, among many adventures, meets and loves Moran Sternersen, a splendid Norse savage, whom he wins with the valor bred in him by a primitive life. Condy Rivers and Travis Bessemer in ‘Blix’ (1899), Ward Bennett and Lloyd Searight in ‘A Man’s Woman’ (1900), Annixter and Hilma Tree in ‘The Octopus,’ Curtis Jadwin and Laura Dearborn in ‘The Pit,’ are actually the same pair of lovers repeated, though Rivers is a novelist, Bennett an arctic explorer, Annixter a ranchman, Jadwin a grain speculator, and the women may be daughters of leisure, like Travis, or dairy girls, like Hilma. In ‘McTeague’ (1899), the protagonist, married to a woman who is not his match, finally murders her. Love, however, is by no means the chief concern of these novels, which are full of ardently detailed phases of life which had not yet appeared, or at least had not yet become common, in fiction: shark-fishing and beach-combing off the California coast; the minute doings of vulgar people in San Francisco, and the city’s Bohemian aspects; the deadly perils of arctic exploration; the ploughing, planting, harvesting, sheep-herding, merry-making, rabbit-killing of California ranchmen; their struggle with the railroad—the octopus—for the possession of the land they have tilled; the enormous conflicts of trading in the Chicago wheat pit and its effect upon all who come within its reach; the sordid dissipations of undergraduates, as presented in the posthumous but early ‘Vandover and the Brute’ (1914). In all these Norris sought to find the basic elements of human nature and to present them with ruthless accuracy. His eagerness to be truthful gave him a large energy, particularly in scenes of action, which not many novelists have equalled, but the same eagerness, along with a journalist’s speed and a journalist’s vividness, gave him also too often a journalist’s lack of body and meaning. That Norris’s opinions were never very important is made plain by his volume of essays, ‘The Responsibilities of the Novelist’ (1903). And as he died at thirty-two he must remain notable not for the depth which age might have brought but for the fire and strength which he had from his youth.  4

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