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Frank Norris (1870-1902)
by Janice Albert

Frank Norris rests eternally in the deep shade of four Irish yew trees. His elegant monument, dedicated by his fraternity brothers at the University of California, is an eight-foot tablet in the Arts and Crafts style. It bears his writer's name, Frank, rather than his given name of Benjamin Franklin Norris, and is embellished with three blades of wheat, in tribute to his epic novel, "The Octopus," about wheat farming in the San Joaquin Valley.

Death Valley is the setting for the final scene of Norris's novel
" McTeague."

Roman numerals (MDCCCLXX-MCMII) blunt the awful fact that this prolific, nationally recognized writer died at the age of 32.

Norris' novels include Blix (1899), The Pit (1903), The Octopus (1901), and the memorable McTeague (1899). Of the writers who assembled in San Francisco's Bohemian Club along with Joaquin Miller and Jack London, young Norris was one of the most energetic, filled with ideas.

He was born in Chicago in 1870, but came to San Francisco at the age of fourteen to live with his father at 1822 Sacramento Street. From this base, he traveled to Paris where he studied art. Reading the novels of Emile Zola fueled his imagination and sharpened his sense of creative purpose.

Later, as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, he studied the philosophy of evolution in the natural history classes of Joseph LeConte. In 1895, he transferred to Harvard College to develop his writing under Lewis E. Gates. A study of his student work shows that McTeague was already in the making as a series of weekly themes.

Besides being a ripping good story with well-drawn characters and plenty of atmosphere, the novel McTeague was a well-received expression of the school of Naturalism, a literary development exemplified in the work of writers such as de Maupassant and Zola. Naturalists, along with Realists, share a belief that the lives of ordinary people are worthy of serious literary treatment. Naturalism goes a step further, according to Margaret Drabble, in calling for scrupulous attention to authenticity and accuracy of detail, "thus investing the novel with the value of social history." 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. Thus, as McTeague is denied the further practice of his profession, dentistry, (he had the strength for extraction), he becomes more and more brutal, while, in a parallel development, poverty brings his wife Trina to pathological depths of secrecy and hoarding.

Norris was writing a trilogy of San Francisco, of which McTeague was the middle piece, Blix the starting point, and Vandover the Brute, published posthumously in 1914, the conclusion.

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 writes,

By 1890 the city had a saloon for every 96 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-1880's onward, a system of kickbacks and payoffs which took its origins in the criminal underworld.

Norris's knowledge of San Francisco was developed in the years between 1891 and 1899 when he completed over 120 pieces for The Wave, a periodical founded by Southern Pacific originally to promote Monterey's 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. As the Tom Wolfe of his time, he took meticulous notes of life along Polk Street, reporting details so accurately that scholars have been able to trace the prototypes of all the shops and even the festivities recorded in the novel McTeague.

For example, Robert D. Lundy tells us that Norris named his failed dentist McTeague after hearing that the president of the local dental association was a Dr. Teague . The story of Trina and McTeague seems to have been based on an actual case reported in the San Francisco Examiner on October 14, 1893. In this story, Patrick Collins, who has just stabbed his wife at the kindergarten where she worked as a janitress, is described in these terms: "Collins is a young man in his early thirties, healthy and muscular…. The face is not degraded, but brutish. That is to say, he is not a man who has sunk, but one who was made an animal by nature to start with…. The jaw is heavy and cruel…. He is not devoid of intelligence, but it is of a low kind, with foolish cunning as its highest manifestation."

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.

William Hahn's painting "Harvest Time" (1875) illustrates the farming activity that was disrupted by the railroad in the San Joaquin Valley, the subject of Norris's novel "The Octopus."

Events of The Octopus are based on the struggle of the San Joaquin ranchers against the Southern Pacific monopoly, climaxing in the Mussel Slough massacre of 1880 in which five farmers were killed when they resisted the railroad's attempts to evict them. Norris' field work for this novel was conducted over a two-month period in Tulare County at Rancho Santa Anita near Hollister.

 

Norris and his wife Jeannette had hoped to live and write on a ranch he had purchased from the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson, ten miles west of Gilroy off Route 152, but his sudden death from appendicitis in 1902 ended everything. His cabin, though private, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Mountain View Cemetery, his burial place, is located at the foot of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, California. Norris' gravesite is Plot 12, Lot 105; Site 11 on the cemetery's map of "Graves of Noted Persons."

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