by Janice Albert
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.
Valley is the setting for the final scene of Norris's novel
numerals (MDCCCLXX-MCMII) blunt the awful fact that this prolific,
nationally recognized writer died at the age of 32.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
. 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
is not devoid of intelligence, but it is of a low kind, with foolish
cunning as its highest manifestation."
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.
Hahn's painting "Harvest Time" (1875) illustrates
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
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
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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