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Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. (March 5, 1870 – October 25, 1902) was an American novelist, during the Progressive Era, writing predominantly in the naturalist genre. His notable works include McTeague (1899), The Octopus: A California Story (1901), and The Pit (1903).


Frank Norris was born in Chicagomarker, Illinoismarker in 1870. His father, Benjamin, was a self-made Chicago businessman and his mother, Gertrude, had a stage career. In 1884 the family moved to San Franciscomarker where Benjamin went into real estate. In 1887 after the death of his brother and brief and unsuccessful stay in Londonmarker young Norris went to Académie Julian in Parismarker where he studied painting for two years and was exposed to the naturalist novels of Emile Zola. He attended the University of California, Berkeleymarker between 1890 and 1894 where he picked up the ideas of human evolution of Darwin and Spencer, that are reflected in his future writings. His stories appeared in the undergraduate magazine at Berkeley and in the San Francisco Wave. After his parents' divorce he went east and spent a year at the English Department of Harvard Universitymarker. There he came under influence of Lewis E. Gates who encouraged his writing. He worked as a news correspondent in South Africa in 1895–96, and then an editorial assistant on the San Francisco Wave (1896–97). He worked for McClure's Magazine as a war correspondent in Cubamarker during the Spanish-American war in 1898. He joined the New York City publishing firm of Doubleday & Page in 1899.

During his time at the University of California, Berkeleymarker Norris was a brother in the Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta and was an originator of the Skull & Keys society. Because of his involvement with a prank during the Class Day Exercises in 1893 the annual alumni dinner held by each Phi Gamma Delta chapter still bears his name. In 1900 Frank Norris married Jeanette Black. They had a child in 1901. Norris died on October 25, 1902 of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix in San Franciscomarker. This left The Epic of Wheat trilogy unfinished. He was only 32. He is buried in Mountain View Cemeterymarker in Oakland, Californiamarker.

Charles Gilman Norris, the author's younger brother, became a well regarded novelist and editor. C.G. Norris was also the husband of the prolific novelist Kathleen Norris. The Bancroft Librarymarker of the University of California, Berkeleymarker houses the archives of all three writers.


Norris's work often includes depictions of suffering caused by corrupt and greedy turn-of-the-century corporate monopolies. In The Octopus: A California Story, the Pacific and Southwest Railroad is implicated in the suffering and deaths of a number of ranchers in Southern California. At the end of the novel, after a bloody shootout between farmers and railroad agents at one of the ranches (named Los Muertos), readers are encouraged to take a "larger view" that sees that "through the welter of blood at the irrigating ditch, [...] the great harvest of Los Muertos rolled like a flood from the Sierras to the Himalayas to feed thousands of starving scarecrows on the barren plains of India." Though free-wheeling market capitalism causes the deaths of many of the characters in the novel, this "larger view always [...] discovers the Truth that will, in the end, prevail, and all things, surely, inevitably, resistlessly work together for good." Vandover and the Brute, written in the 1890s, but not published until after his death, is about three college friends, on their way to success, and the ruin of one through a degenerate lifestyle.

Although he did not openly support socialism as a political system, his work nevertheless evinces a socialist mentality and influenced socialist/progressive writers such as Upton Sinclair. Like many of his contemporaries, he was profoundly affected by the advent of Darwinism, and Thomas Henry Huxley's philosophical defense of it. Norris was particularly influenced by an optimistic strand of Darwinist philosophy taught by Joseph LeConte, whom Norris studied under while at the University of California, Berkeleymarker. Through many of his novels, notably McTeague, runs a preoccupation with the notion of the civilized man overcoming the inner "brute," his animalistic tendencies. His peculiar, and often confused, brand of Social Darwinism also bears the influence of the early criminologist Cesare Lombroso and the French naturalist Emile Zola.


Norris's short story A Deal in Wheat (1903) and the novel The Pit were the basis for the 1909 D.W. Griffith film A Corner in Wheat. Norris' McTeague has been filmed repeatedly, most famously as a 1924 film called Greed by director Erich von Stroheim. An opera by William Bolcom, based loosely on this 1899 novel, was premiered by Chicago's Lyric Opera in 1992. The work is in two acts, with libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Robert Altman. The Lyric Opera's presentation featured Ben Heppner in the title role and Catherine Malfitano as Trina, the dentist's wife.


  • Moran of the "Lady Letty": A Story of Adventure Off the California Coast (1898)
  • McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899)
  • A Man's Woman (1900)
  • A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West
  • The Octopus: A Story of California (1901)
  • The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1902)
  • Vandover and the Brute (1914)



Further reading

  • Hochman, Barbara. The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller University of Missouri Press (1988) ISBN 0-8262-0663-8
  • McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. and Crisler, Jesse S. Frank Norris: A Life, University of Illinois Press (2006) ISBN 0-252-03016-8 (the definitive biography of Norris)

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