Saturday, October 27, 2012

Frank Norris (1870-1902)

Artist, Journalist, War Correspondent, Editor, Short Story Writer, Novelist
Born March 5, 1870, Chicago, Illinois
Died October 25, 1902, San Francisco, California

Frank Norris is the last of the nineteenth century American authors from my list of many months ago, and I see that just a couple of days ago, October 25, 2012, was the 110th anniversary of his death. I guess I'm tardy on two counts, but I'll go on. Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. was born on March 5, 1870, in Chicago, Illinois, and moved with his family to San Francisco in 1884. Norris studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris and afterwards attended the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University. By that time he had already begun his career as a writer. The last few years of his very short life were busy: correspondent, South Africa (1895-1896); editorial assistant, San Francisco (1896-1897); war correspondent, Cuba (1898); on the staff of Doubleday and Page, New York (1899). 

Norris died of a ruptured appendix on October 25, 1902, in San Francisco. In an all-too-brief writing life, he wrote some very big books. I can list his credits here without taking up too much space:

  • Moran of the "Lady Letty": A Story of Adventure Off the California Coast (1898)
  • Blix (1899)
  • 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)

Norris is placed in the first rank of naturalistic authors along with Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser. Ambrose Bierce is also sometimes considered a naturalist. Norris' most well known novel, McTeague, was committed to film by Eric von Stroheim in a lost epic called Greed (1924). The surviving footage comprises only a fraction of von Stroheim's original high-reaching ambitions for the film. Although I have never seen Greed, I was reminded of descriptions of it when I saw There Will Be Blood in 2007. That film was based on Oil! by Upton Sinclair, a muckraker and naturalist himself. By the way, Frank Norris' brother, Charles Gilman Norris (1881-1945), and sister-in-law, Kathleen Norris (1880-1966), were also novelists.

Weird Tales reprinted just one Frank Norris story. It came in the Summer 1973 issue when Sam Moskowitz was trying to recapture some old stories for his updated version of the magazine. As Moskowitz noted, Norris wrote several stories of the supernatural, despite his naturalistic tendencies. They included "The Ship That Saw a Ghost," "Grittir at Thorhall-stead," and "The Guest of Honor," published in Everybody's Magazine in July-August 1902 and reprinted in the fiftieth anniversary issue of Weird Tales in 1973.

Frank Norris' Story in Weird Tales
"The Guest of Honor" (Summer 1973, originally in The Pilgrim Magazine, July/Aug. 1902)

I wrote above that McTeague is Frank Norris' most well known novel. That may take something away from The Octopus, which, despite title and imagery, has nothing to do with cephalopods. Instead, it's a story of farming and railroading in California.
The image was an effective one, however, in the era of monopolies. Here, the octopus represents the railroad monopoly.
Here, Standard Oil.
Here, it looks like industry in general. (It's hard to read some of those tentacles.) The octopus in this illustration looks a little Oriental, or, as people say in this politically correct age, Asian. In any case, take away the editorial slant in these pictures and they could all be from a story about giant monsters, like Godzilla or maybe--with all those tentacles--Cthulhu. That brings up a question: In any discussion of weird fiction, do all things lead to Lovecraft? 
Finally, an illustration that is a little more representative of the original story.
I'll close with a more pleasing image, a cover illustration for The Golden Book for  November 1926 with Frank Norris' byline on the left.
Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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