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Frank Norris in Retrospect

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

The Writings of Frank Norm. Volumes I-II. The Octopus. With a Foreword by Irvin S. Cobb. Volume III. Mix; Moran of the Lady Lctty. With Introductions by Kathleen Norris and Rupert Hughes. Volume IV. The Third Circle; A Deal in Wheat. With an Introduction by Will Irwin. Volume V. Vandover and the Brute. With a Foreword by Charles G. Norris and an Introduction by H. L. Mencken. Volume VI. A Man’s Woman; Yvernclle. With a Foreword by Christopher Morley. Volume VII, The Responsibilities of the Novelist; The Joyous Miracle. With an Introduction by Charles Caldwell Dobie and a Foreword by Grant Overton. Volume VIII. McTcague. With an Introduction by Theodore Dreiser. Volume IX. The Pit. With a Foreword by Juliet Wilbor Tompkins. Volume X. Collected Writings. With an Introduction by Charles G. Norris. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc. $2.50 a volume, $25.00 the set.

A s the ten volumes which were all that Frank Nor-ris lived to write stand now at last side by side upon A v the shelf, bound in sombre black and stamped with a sheaf of golden wheat, one pauses to confront once more that bitterest and most perplexing of tragedies, the tragedy of an unfulfilled genius. He has waited long for a collected edition. More than twenty-five years have passed since appendicitis struck him down in 1902. One wonders just how much the readers of today know about him, how much they have savoured of the passion and idealism that he poured into his books.

Genius there was, beyond cavil, there. Nothing short could ever have won the victory over the many distressing defects and shortcomings writ large over even his best work. For Frank Norris was a writer of amazing contradictions. I, for one, fresh now from reading him and from re-reading, find myself quite unable to hazard what he might have done if he had lived. There was one whole side of him that was not artist, not novelist at all, but journalist, sociologist, reformer. It is even conceivable that fate was kind, that in the troublous days through which we have lived since, this side might have grown upon him, so that the publicist should at last have stifled the artist altogether. One hopes not. One clings to the faith that as time went on, as his understanding matured and his experience widened, he might have risen above his stereotyped descriptions, said good-bye to the “strong woman” whose ideal so strangely obsessed him, outgrown his “raw scenes,” sloughed off the bad melodrama and the bad writing that sometimes disfigure his finest conceptions, and somehow brought his varied rich endowments into a fine harmony. These things accomplished, he would surely have become our greatest American novelist.

It is not that one would have had him develop into a San Franciscan Henry James. Here is what makes Frank Norris such a fascinating problem: the weakest side of his work is, in a way, the strongest side of the man. His moral passion, his idealism, his desire to make fiction contribute somehow to the good of his country, and the needs of men— all this was intimately bound up with what we may call his journalism. It is for this reason that I think the publishers are right in choosing the sheaf of wheat as the symbol of his books. What this amounts to practically is a declaration that “The Octopus” is his greatest book. And it is, though several of the gentlemen who write the prefaces award the palm to “McTeague.” The error is not difficult to understand. “McTeague” is undoubtedly Norris’s most perfect novel, his finest work of art. But a writer’s most perfect book is not necessarily his greatest. “A Lost Lady” is Miss Cather’s most perfect book, yet compared to “My Antonia” or “Death Comes for the Archbishop” it is of no significance whatever. “The Octopus” is full of faults—clumsy machinery, rubber-stamp descriptions, pages and pages of extraneous material, melodramatic villains, and at least one melodramatic, “poetic justice” death—yet, for all that, it is a great book, and the heart-beat of a people vibrates in it. The development of Frank Norris into the great novelist he ought to have become could never have been achieved at the sacrifice of those elements of “The Octopus” which are not present in “McTeague.” The point is simply that in “The Octopus” they are not all assimilated properly, not yet perfectly subdued to the ends of art.

Frank Norris is generally thought of as a realist. Was he not a disciple of Zola?—witness the map at the beginning of “The Octopus”—and was he not one of the first American naturalists? Certainly naturalism would seem far more domesticated in the United States now than it was when he died, yet only a few years ago, when Erich von Stroheim achieved his extraordinarily faithful motion picture transcription of “McTeague,” one heard outcries on every hand that nothing so utterly realistic, so remorselessly brutal had ever been shown on the screen. And Norris went even beyond “McTeague” in sordidness and in brutality—compare, for example, the terrible close of “Vandover and the Brute” or the nauseating description of the shipwreck in the same book. But that is not the whole story, for if Norris was wise in the ways of the world, he was also a gallant knight. He had the enthusiasm of youth always and the glad faith that dreams do come true. He had fed his youthful imagination on Dickens and Walter Scott, and when he began to write he tried first to cast his compositions in the conventional romantic mode. So we have such pieces as “The Jongleur of Taillebois,” a Christ legend called “The Joyous Miracle,” and even a poem, “Yvernelle,” the material of which was afterwards worked over into a short story, a regular movie scenario called “The Riding of Felipe.” I am afraid none of these stories is very good. When he turned to the Norse saga material he fared rather better. Not only does “Grettir at Drangey” catch something of the spirit of real, rather than sham, romanticism, but the Scandinavian influence can be seen also in “Moran of the Lady Letty,” a gorgeous thing in so far as it savours of the sea, of the sagas, and of “Treasure Island,” ridiculous and ineffective only where it deals with love. But even at this stage Norris was developing. Be it noted he had sense enough not to permit Wilbur and Moran to marry.

Romance, then, was not always true to him — or he to her—; sometimes, even in his best work, she betrays him. Take, in “The Octopus,” the whole story of Vanamee and Angele. It is all a little iinconvincing, a little adolescent, in its final conclusion even a little distasteful, and certainly it has no business in such a book as the one in which it is placed. “McTeague” too has false romantic notes: the melodramatic tragedy of Maria and Zerkow, the courtship of Miss Baker and Grannis. The latter shows plainly the influence of Dickens, but it does not fit into a novel whose dominant mood is so alien to the spirit of Dickens. On the other hand, the romance of K. D. B. and the sea captain in “Blix,” which is in the same tradition, is quite delightful because the whole story in which it finds itself is shot through with a spirit of whimsy.

This whole discussion of the matter of romance and realism in fiction is, of course, vitiated to a large extent by the fact that neither term has ever been satisfactorily defined, and each critic, discussing the problem, is therefore free to make a definition to suit himself. Frank Norris, too, had his definition. “Romance, I take it, is that kind of fiction that takes cognizance of variations from the type of normal life. Realism is the kind of fiction that confines itself to the type of normal life.” We may accept the definition or not, as we choose. Yet it is clear, I think, that both elements must be present in all good writers. Scott is “The Great Romancer,” “The Wizard of the North,” yet who uses realistic methods of developing scene and character more consistently than Scott? On the other hand, there is plenty of romance in Ibsen, in Tolstoy, in Dostoyevsky—in any realist who is more than a photographer, who tries to go to the heart of things. Norris felt this also: he had no desire to be labelled realist, if this meant that he must confine himself to surface-matters. To my own way of thinking, it seems clear that romance is the life-giving element in fiction, while realism is, as it were, the verifying element. We ask of the story-teller two apparently contradictory things: that he should be true to life, and that his creations should exist in a world beyond life. Norris dreamed of an American epic, the epic of the frontier. Himself he set out to write an epic of a different sort, in the story of the wheat. He had the exuberant temper of romanticism; he had been profoundly moved by the ideals of Zola; he admired the chastened, decorous realism of William Dean Howells; and on the weak, immature, journalistic side of him, he suffered a bad attack of Richard Harding Davis! Is it any wonder that he was not able to resolve all these elements and to bring them to a harmonious adjustment by the time he was thirty-two?

When Norris is at his best, he uses details not for their own sake but for the significance there is bound up with them, as when Annixter and Hilma, returning home after their wedding, find waiting for them, casting, as it were, a dark shadow across their happiness, the case of Winchester rifles that Annixter and his fellow-ranchmen had ordered, to use against the railroad forces in case they attempted to dispossess them of their land. Or there is the canary bird which McTeague takes out into the desert with him, or the drug store with a case of live snakes in one of its windows, in “Vandover and the Brute.” Simple enough, this last touch, yet the whole spirit of the criminal world of the Imperial Cafe seems symbolized in it.

What else is there in Norris that many of our novelists today seem to lack? Is it not a certain moral robustness, a fundamental cleanness so often conspicuously lacking in the realism of the contemporary novel? Frank Norris died on the threshold of the Roosevelt era. We are just getting far enough away from those days to sneer at their enthusiasms, just as we have been sneering at the Victorian spirit so long. And they had their shortcomings and their shabbi-nesses, as all days have, but one thing they did have which we seem to be losing, the feeling of public responsibility for public trust. Norris felt this as strongly as any writer ever did. He was not satisfied simply to tell good stories, any more than Dickens was. If he had been, his problem would have been much simpler. The very, title he chose for his book of essays on the art of fiction is “The Responsibilities of the Novelist.” He was tremendously impressed by the fact that people were reading more than they had ever read before in the history of the world, and, as one of those who helped to provide their reading material, he felt himself personally responsible before the moral bar of the universe for the kind of stuff he gave them to read. Particularly did he feel the seriousness of the situation with regard to young people, and nothing in Frank Norris’s critical writing is more appealing than his plea for constructive reading material for “the Very Young Girl.” Remorselessly, he sweeps away the cant that the novelist’s personal morality does not affect his work. He urges young writers that if they would succeed they must be good men as well as good novelists.

It comes out, again and again, this fundamental decency, and sanity of Frank Norris—his desire to build not only good art but good life. Condy’s gambling in “Blix,” the explorer’s sacrifice of his manhood in the short story, “Top-pan,” the promising young writer’s surrender to faddism and insincerity in “Dying Fires”—it would be easy to multiply examples. Take “Vandover and the Brute,” that terrible study of degeneration. It moves from start to finish through the filth of a great city, yet it is one of the most moral books ever written, as moral as Daudet’s “Sapho,” as Eugene Walter’s “The Easiest Way.” When Vandover learns of the suicide of the girl he has debauched, he sees “his responsibility for her death and for the ruin of that something in her which was more than life.” That “something” Norris never forgot for long. Sometimes, to be sure—and here again the complicating element—his morality betrayed him. Notably, I should say, in “A Man’s Woman,” his only really bad book, which is hardly more than a series of grossly artificial settings for moral conflicts every bit as unconvincing and as hollow as the great “situations” in the old melodramas. But sometimes it led him on, too, to fine achievements, as in the study of the redemption of Annixter in “The Octopus.”

Here, of course, he was in deadly earnest, working out a kind of philosophy of social regeneration. The growing of the wheat in “The Octopus,” the marketing of the wheat in “The Pit”—these were to be followed by the third part, “The Wolf,” the part he never lived to write, which was to deal with the consumption of the wheat in Europe. Something of his conception may be seen in miniature in the short story, “A Deal in Wheat,” which is quite inferior as a piece of art, but tremendous in its implications. “The Pit” is not so good as “The Octopus,” but this is hardly Norris’s fault. Stock-market manipulations could hardly hope to rival in interest the actual growing of the wheat, and Laura Jad-win, in whose soul the battle is fought out, is less interesting and less vividly-realized than the ranchmen.

A word or two should be said of Norris’s short stories. Nearly a volume of them are now first collected. Naturally, they vaiy greatly in merit, but their variety is rather astonishing. There are stories, like “The Third Circle,” which have the O. Henry surprise ending, dashed with an element of horror strongly suggestive of Thomas Burke; stories of literary life, like “A Lost Story,” introducing again the theme of moral conflict; stories involving a sociological or medical interest, psychology and pseudo-psychology, like “A Case for Lombroso”; and ghost stories of one kind or another, of which one at least, “The Guest of Honor,” achieves considerable power. The short stories would make an interesting study in themselves.

This new edition of Frank Norris is not a superlatively fine piece of editing and publishing from any point of view, but it is competent and personable as an inexpensive edition, and it should make a comprehensive view of the man possible for many not hitherto familiar with his work. Of the many prefaces and introductions, the most valuable are those by Charles Caldwell Dobie and Juliet Wilbor Tompkins, who contribute biographical material of the first importance. Why nobody has ever undertaken a full-length biography of Frank Norris is something of a mystery. If it is not done soon, it will be too late. Of the critical articles, some, like Mr. Dreiser’s, are interesting, and some are worthless.


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