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Frank Norris

One of the strangest rags-to-riches stories in all of literature belongs to Frank Norris.  Born in Chicago on March 5, 1870, his father was a self-made jewelry store owner who became wealthy through his own hard work and foresight.  Norris grew up in a luxurious household where his mother read him poetry by Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson.  At the age of 14, he the family moved to San Francisco. 

 Norris traveled to Paris when he was seventeen to study drawing, although he had little artistic talent of his own.  He soon gave up the visual arts and became obsessed with Arthurian legend, writing long narrative poems about medieval knights.  Much of Norris' later writing would center around the city, filled with tales of moral ruin that fit well into the atmosphere of 1890s San Francisco, with its violent and depraved reputation on the heels of the California Gold Rush. 

"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." - Kevin Starr

Under pressure from his father, Norris enrolled at the University of California so that he could eventually take over the family jewelry business.  But he was a poor student and spent most of his time wooing debutants at parties.  After his parents divorced, he dropped out of school and moved to the East Coast, where he enrolled in Harvard as a special student. 

Norris had also been writing a series of gothic short stories, imitating Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, when a teacher at Harvard persuaded him to read novels by French writer Émile Zola.  Norris became a disciple of Zola and began to write fiction in the school of naturalism, which portrayed human beings as irrational animals driven by their own instincts. 

Following his studies, Norris went to South Africa where he attempted to establish himself as a travel writer.  He wrote about the Boer War for the San Francisco Chronicle but was deported from the country after being captured by the Boer Army. He subsequently joined the staff of another San Francisco publication, The Wave (1896-1898), a periodical founded by Southern Pacific to promote Monterey's new Hotel Del Monte.  He also joined a small group of San Francisco artists and Bohemians who called themselves Les Jaunes

Like Norris, the Les Jaunes were men from middle- and upper-middle class backgrounds who aligned themselves with functionalist taste against stereotypical Victorian elaboration.  They concerned themselves with popular culture as well as high art.  Norris's first published novel, Moran of the Lady Letty, was serialized in The Wave from January to April 1898.

Norris's knowledge of San Francisco developed in the years between 1891 and 1899 when he completed over 120 pieces for The Wave.  As a feature writer, he 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 the next four years, Norris devoted himself to writing long fiction, supplementing book royalties with more journalism (reporting on the Spanish-Cuban-American war for McClure's Magazine in 1898), editorial work for McClure, literary columns, articles and stories, and work as a special reader for the firm of Doubleday, Page, where he recommended Theodore Dreiser's debut novel, Sister Carrie, for publication. 

Norris' own first important novel was McTeague (1899), about a dentist who loses his job, murders his wife for her money, and runs away to Death Valley in California.  The author spent years trying to get his novel published while struggling to support himself as a journalist.  Most editors were disturbed by the novel's realistic descriptions of violence and squalor, but when it finally came out in 1899, it had a big influence on other gritty, realistic writers of the day, including Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis. 

Following the turn of the century, Norris began reflecting on questions of literary form, and he produced a series of essays from which a selection was published in 1903 as The Responsibilities of the Novelist and Other Literary Essays.

But Frank Norris never witnessed the publication; he died in 1902 from peritonitis following appendicitis.  He was 32 years of age.

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