The Meteoric Career of Berkeley’s First Great Novelist By PHIL McARDLE Special to the Planet

Friday May 13, 2005

In 1900 the principal American novelists were Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and young Frank Norris. A glowing portrait of him in the early days of his success was written by Hamlin Garland, who called him, “a stunning fellow—an author who does not personally disappoint his admirers. He is handsome, tall and straight, with keen brown eyes and beautifully modeled features... a poet in appearance, but a close observer and a realist in fiction.”  

Norris’s star rose meteorically (three novels published in little more than a year—two potboilers, one classic) and offers an exceptional study of a genius overcoming obstacles to find himself. 

Frank Norris was born in Chicago in 1870. When his family moved to California, they lived in Oakland before settling in San Francisco. His father, a self-made millionaire, and his mother, a former actress, were accomplished people. Kenneth Rexroth has described Norris as “a California aristocrat if there ever was one.”  

In his teenage years, Norris wanted to become an artist, and his drawing and painting showed such promise that his parents decided he should study art in Europe. They sent him to London, to a school under the influence of Frederick Leighton, and then to Paris where he spent three years (1886 to 1889) as a pupil of Adolphe William Bouguereau, at the Atelier Julien. Bouguereau’s academy was as highly respected as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan studied. A few of his pictures still adorn the walls of old homes in Berkeley.  

The student world Norris experienced in Paris has been preserved in Trilby, a novel by George Du Maurier (filmed by John Barrymore as Svengali). Du Maurier portrays the Parisian art schools as a rowdy Victorian bohemia. Norris was delighted when he saw the stage version of Trilby by how it captured the flavor of “his” Paris. He told friends of seeing a Svengali-like character hypnotize a model, causing her to fall off the stand where she was posing. 

Hijinks aside, the academy students were absorbing serious professional attitudes. Bouguereau emphasized close observation, attention to detail, accuracy of line, and the need for hard work. He taught, as William Dillingham wrote, that a painter “who does not keep at his easel [is] in danger of losing not only his ability, but also his soul.” Bouguereau taught Norris a severe standard of self-discipline, one he lived by. 

Every student’s ambition was to paint a picture that would be admitted to an important salon, where success would make his name. As the subject for his salon picture, the masterwork which would end his apprenticeship, Norris chose “The Battle of Crecy.” It was to be a large genre piece, a panoramic picture of a battle fought in 1346. He did a huge amount of research in preparation, immersing himself in Froissart’s Chronicles, spending days in museums studying medieval armor and weapons, and making endless sketches. But when it came time to actually begin the picture, he discovered that what he had in mind exceeded his ability. It must have been terribly hard to accept that he could not do it. 

In the overheated atmosphere of the Parisian academies, such failure could be life-ruining. It drove some students to suicide. But Norris survived it. He resolved to abandon painting, gave the canvas on which he had intended to paint “The Battle of Crecy” to some of his friends, and made up his mind to find another career. 

In 1890 he entered the University of California at Berkeley as a freshman with the intention of becoming a professional writer of fiction. He approached the university as though it were another Atelier Julien, a studio for teaching the art of writing.  

This was precisely not how the English Department saw itself. The head of the department, Charles Mills Gayley (for whom Gayley Road is named), said its purpose was to educate students and to expand knowledge by professional research. “Academic scholarship,” he wrote, “does not look with favor upon the attempt to stimulate or foster creative production.”  

Norris studied at Berkeley for four years, but there was never a meeting of minds between the man and the institution. According to his brother Charles, “Frank often asserted, and with considerable feeling, that in the English courses he took at the University of California—and he majored in English and French—he received no word of recognition, neither guidance nor helpful criticism. The years he spent there in attempting to equip himself for a literary career, he considered practically wasted.” The university might have damaged him as deeply as “impersonal forces” did some of the characters in the fiction he wrote later. 

Applying lessons from Paris, Norris decided, “The best way to study literature is to try to produce literature.” This he did, and working as hard as he had for Bougereau, he contributed stories and essays to student publications. Turning to the freelance market, he sold 12 stories to The Argonaut, The Overland Monthly and The Wave. On top of that, he began work on a novel, McTeague.  

The university environment did widen Norris’s knowledge. In Berkeley he discovered the writing of Richard Harding Davis, Kipling, and Emile Zola. Classes with Joseph Le Conte (another professor for whom Berkeley has named a street) introduced him to Darwinism. Zola’s “scientific” realism and Le Conte’s notions on evolution had a major impact on him. 

Norris left Berkeley in 1894, and after a detour to Harvard and a short trip to Africa, spent three years working as a journalist at The Wave, a small weekly magazine in San Francisco. This was his real apprenticeship. The editor gave him the freedom to test his powers and he responded by writing 120 articles and stories, as well as the 13-part serial, which became his first published novel, Moran of the Lady Letty. 


Moran (1898) 

Moran is a melodrama and employs all the clichés of the form, including huge reversals of fortune and cliff-hanging chapter endings. Its characters are cardboard, and its ramshackle plot seems to have been improvised from week to week. (The opening sentence suggests as much: “This is to be a story of a battle, at least one murder, and several sudden deaths”). It seems to have been written in the front part of Norris’s brain, far away from his deepest feelings and concerns.  

Ross Wilbur is shanghaied on the waterfront. A few days out from San Francisco, he helps rescue Moran Sternersen from a derelict vessel, the Lady Letty. She is described in Wagnerian terms as a “sea rover and the daughter of an hundred Vikings.” They fall in love. During their adventures, Wilbur rediscovers his Anglo-Saxon warrior ancestry. The principal villains are “wicked malevolent Cantonese.” The story ends with Moran’s death; on another derelict ship, she drifts through the Golden Gate and out of sight, presumably en route to a Viking funeral.  

Like The Perils of Pauline, Moran is sometimes inadvertently comic. Readers should be advised it employs language with racial overtones they may find offensive.  

In 1922, however, Hollywood resuscitated Moran as a vehicle for Rudolph Valentino, and the Wagnerian rhetoric was cast overboard. Ross Wilbur underwent a change of name and race, becoming “Ramon Laredo.” And Dorothy Dalton, the actress who played Moran, could never be mistaken for a Valkyrie. The film has wonderful stunts and lots of footage shot on the old San Francisco waterfront. 


Blix (1899) 

Blix is something completely different—an urban pastoral, a version of Norris’s own courtship of Jeannette Black. This material was close to his heart, and so the writing is truer and more readable than Moran. Condy Rivers, a journalist, courts Travis Bessimer (“Blix”). They roam San Francisco together, exploring the city, and falling in love. Condy dotes on Blix, enraptured by her cleverness and her physical being. She was a girl who “radiated health...and there was that cleanliness about her, that freshness, that suggested a recent plunge in the surf and a ‘constitutional’ along the beach...She was as trig and trim and crisp as a crack yacht: not a pin was loose, not a seam that did not fall in its precise right line...” 

Norris gave his painter’s eye free range. San Francisco has never been described with such appreciation. We are given lyrical panoramas and fine miniatures, such as this picture of the waterfront: “Ships innumerable nuzzled at the endless line of docks, mast overspiring mast, and bowsprit overlapping bowsprit, till the eye was bewildered, as if by the confusion of branches in a leafless forest.” 

But this is not a perfect novel. It has a major cringe factor—too many of the conversations between Condy and Blix vacillate between insipidity and foolishness. They are embarrassing. Nevertheless, Blix established San Francisco as a great city for romance. 

Reader, he married her. 


McTeague (1899) 

McTeague is, as it were, Norris’s written salon piece—the book that marked the end of his literary apprenticeship. It was promptly recognized by his peers and William Dean Howells called it “a solid contribution to American literature.” But it is a singular kind of classic, almost unrelievedly grim and harsh.  

The arc of the story is simple: we follow the life of McTeague, an American Everyman, living on Polk Street in San Francisco, from his days of prosperity to his bitter end, as a criminal lost in Death Valley, soon to die of thirst. As we follow McTeague’s downfall, we see his wife, Trina, deranged by avarice, and his one-time friend, Marcus Schouler, consumed by hatred of him. We see how McTeague comes to murder each of them.  

These events unfold in clear, economical prose which has a firm narrative movement. The writing is not in the least sentimental; emotional passages suit their occasions. Everything is in perfect proportion. Dialogue is lifelike and convincing; dialect speech sounds right in the reader’s ear. Descriptions bring places alive in the mind’s eye. The artistry is superb, but under Zola’s influence, it is also merciless.  

McTeague shocked many of its readers. The first novel set in California which was not an optimistic romance, it looked at violence in our slums without blinking: “Trina lay unconscious, just as she had fallen under the last of McTeague’s blows, her body twitching with an occasional hiccup that stirred the pool of blood in which she lay face downward. Toward morning she died with a rapid series of hiccups that sounded like a piece of clockwork running down.” This style of honesty led Erich von Stroheim to make the film version, Greed, in 1923. 

It is astonishing that Norris should have published three novels of such different quality in little more than a year. To achieve this, he had to overcome his failure in Paris, the philistinism at Cal, and killing deadlines at The Wave. He “kept to his easel” and saved his soul. He had reason, as Hamlin Garland remarked when they met, to feel “confident of the future.”  

He went on to write two more masterpieces before his premature death in 1902. In The Octopus, he gave us an archetypal story of the West in which railroad interests attempt to subjugate wheat farmers economically (think Microsoft and small software companies). In The Pit he presented an unprecedented view of stockmarket speculation and introduced us to the trophy wife. 

Norris died at the age of 32, following an appendix operation, before writing The Wolf, the last novel in his planned “trilogy of wheat.”