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During the late 1700s and early 1800s, romanticism was the dominant literary mode in Europe. With the likes of Washington Irving, Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe, romanticism stressed emotion, the imagination, and the subjectivity of approach. Until about 1870 romanticism influenced some major forms of American writing including transcendentalist writings, historical fiction, and sentimental fiction. By about the middle of the 1th century, new literary movements began to emerge. After the Civil War, writers like Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Frank Norris began to experiment with movements called realism and naturalism. Unlike romanticism, realism attempted to describe human behavior and surroundings or to represent figures and objects exactly as they act or appear in life. Naturalism was an extreme form of realism. It added a dimension of predetermined fate that rendered human will ultimately powerless and often had an outlook that was bleaker than that of realism.


According to the novelist Frank Norris, realism was the literature of the normal and the representative. “The smaller details of everyday life, things that are likely to happen between lunch and supper (Norris quoted from McElrath). On the other hand, he states that romanticism was concerned with variations from the type of normal life, and in its desire to penetrate beneath the surface of experience and derive large generalizations on the nature of life. It explores the unplumbed depths of the human heart, and the mystery of sex, and the problems of life, and the unsearched penetralia of the soul of man” (Norris quoted from McElrath).


Frank Norris was one of the first pioneers of American naturalism. Born in 1870 in Chicago, Frank ventured to San Francisco to live with his father at the age of fourteen. Norris was fascinated with the primitive life of the wild West, along with the adventurous tales of Stevenson and Kipling, both of whom were strong, early influences upon his literary tastes. Norris’ father was a man of wealth and decided to send him to study in France. It was in Paris where he discovered his biggest inspiration. Norris began reading the works of the French novelist Ăˆmile Zola who attempted to apply methods of scientific observation to describe social ills and human pathological behavior. Zola’s use of naturalism was relatively unheard of at that time but his novels managed to fuel Norris’ imagination and sharpen his sense of creative purpose. Later, as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, Norris studied the philosophy of evolution in the natural history classes of Joseph LeConte. In 185, he transferred to Harvard College to develop his writing under Lewis E. Gates. A study of his student work shows that his novel McTeague was already in the making as a series of weekly themes.


Norris found work at several eastern magazines mostly covering the various world conflicts of the time. He was sent to Cuba, along with Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis to cover the Spanish American War in 188. When he returned, Norris seemed scarred by the traumatic experience and decided that California was the only thing that could heal him. In a letter to a friend, Norris wrote, “I want to get these things out of my mind [in particular the rape and murder of a fifteen-year-old girl he had witnessed] and the fever out of my blood and so if my lucks holds, I am going back to the old place for three weeks and for the biggest part of the time I hope to wallow and grovel in the longest grass I can find in the Presidio Reservation on the cliffs overlooking the Ocean and absorb ozone and smell smells that dont [sic] come from rotting and scorched vegetation, dead horses, and bad winter” (The Letters of Frank Norris ).


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After recovering from the Cuba ordeal, Norris proceeded east to pursue his career as a novelist. Moran of the Lady Letty, McTeague, and A Man’s Woman all appeared in rapid succession between the years 188-100. Norris, now married and a father, seemed to be comfortable in his role as a professional writer living in New York City, the literary capital of the United States. But by the time he returned to San Francisco in 100 to gather background information for his next novel The Octopus, he knew that the West was where he wanted to live.


Norris was writing a trilogy of San Francisco, of which McTeague was the second piece, Blix the starting point, and Vandover the Brute, the conclusion, which was published after his death in 114. He is believed to have chosen San Francisco for these tales of moral ruin because of the violent and depraved reputation of the city after the Gold Rush. Kevin Starr, a journalist and historian writes, “By 180 the city had a saloon for every 6 citizens. Vice thrived in its most sordid and elegant forms, from squalid opium dens and off-the-street brothels… to the decorum and plush luxuriance of the so-called French restaurants. A stranglehold of graft and political corruption gripped the city from the mid-1880s onward, a system of kickbacks and payoffs which took its origins in the criminal underworld” (Frank Norris Home Page at the Howell’s Society Site).


Norris’ best-known work was probably McTeague, a powerful story of the tragedy caused by greed in the lives of ordinary people. In this novel, Norris naturalist style was largely driven by the belief that civilized men still contain a brute animal force important to survival. McTeague also serves as a view of societal factions of his time period. Norris illustrates the stratification of society in a San Francisco community by using the concept of social Darwinism. He gives detailed accounts of the inner workings of society along with the emotions of the time. Through his characters, Norris shows the separation of classes and the greed that grew abundantly rampant during the late 1th century. He also gives a grim picture of survival in his depiction of the theory of natural selection. It was common for naturalistic writers like Norris to regard human behavior as controlled by instinct, emotion, or social and economic conditions, and rejected free will, adopting instead, in large measure, the biological determinism of Charles Darwin and the economic determinism of Karl Marx.


McTeague was a well-received expression of the school of naturalism, a literary development exemplified in the work of writers such as Guy de Maupassant and Zola. Naturalists, along with the realists, share a belief that the lives of ordinary people are worthy of serious literary treatment. Naturalism goes a step further in calling for scrupulous attention to authenticity and accuracy of detail. Naturalist writers counted physical and hereditary factors in the formation of character and temperament, and they considered both wealth and poverty to have a great influence on character.


Norris knowledge of San Francisco was developed in the years between 181 and 18 when he completed over 10 pieces for The Wave, a periodical founded by Southern Pacific originally to promote Montereys new Hotel Del Monte. As a feature writer, Norris interviewed residents of all classes, from tamale vendors to society matrons and the crews of visiting battle ships. He took meticulous notes of life along Polk Street, the setting of his novel in McTeague, reporting details so accurately that scholars have been able to trace the prototypes of all the shops and even the festivities recorded in McTeague.


Norris planned a second trilogy on the Epic of the Wheat to record the drama of this industry from seed to sale. The Octopus and The Pit were completed before his death. Events of The Octopus are based on the struggle of the San Joaquin ranchers against the Southern Pacific railroad monopoly, climaxing in the Mussel Slough massacre of 1880 in which five farmers were killed when they resisted the railroads attempts to evict them.


Norris and his wife Jeannette had hoped to live and write on a ranch they had purchased from the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson, but in 10 Norris’ sudden and untimely death from appendicitis halted their dreams.


In Norris’ short life, he greatly influenced the direction of American writing. He was one of the first exponents of American naturalism and his work influenced the likes of Upton Sinclair and Jack London. More than any other figure of his era, Norris was the literary trailblazer of his time.





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