Frank Norris Revisited - Joseph R. McElrath Summary
The renown Frank Norris attained in his brief lifetime sprang from his compelling--and to many Americans startling--novels about people whose lives have escaped their control and have become grotesquely warped by the confluent forces of hereditary and environment. In the decades after his death in 1902, though, this broad appeal fossilized to some degree, and Norris's Naturalistic novels entered the domain of the literary historian, serving as benchmarks in the genre's evolution. Fortunately for this author of such masterpieces as McTeague (1899), The Octopus (1901), and The Pit (1903), a long-overdue critical interest in his writing materialized in the 1970s, since which time Norris has been regarded as not only an experimenter in many voices and types of writing, but also as a chronicler of a culture in flux. In "revisiting" Frank Norris--and appropriately so as America nears another fin de siecle and reflects on its sociocultural identity--Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., takes as a starting point Warren French's 1962 volume in this series and provides a complementary portrait of the artist. McElrath assesses the spate of relatively recent "historical reconstructions" of Norris's canon and finds a writer who, though at times transcendent in the Naturalistic vein, was pragmatic in his choice of subject matter and "not always grandly serious." It is in part the delight Norris took in parody, McElrath argues, that makes him still so readable. Norris is fittingly remembered as a Literary Naturalist, McElrath concedes, but only if this school of writing is understood as a continuum of the Humanist tradition, not a pseudoscientific aberration. McElrath contends that Norris's questioning of "Who are we?" and "Where are we going?" puts him in league with Thomas More, Erasmus, Rabelais, and Shakespeare--as well as with Emile Zola, whose novelistic trouncing of Victorian cultural values so influenced Norris's writing. McElrath concurs foremost with estimations of Norris as a touchstone of the changes in art and thought that made the 1890s such a paradoxical decade. Norris kept his finger on America's pulse, McElrath observes--from his luridly thrilling adventure-romance, Moran of the Lady Letty (1898); to Blix (1899), his partially autobiographical contribution to the period's love idylls, in which good young people triumph over adversities to know happiness; to his most widely read novel, McTeague, a frank, post-Darwinian portrait of greed, sexual arousal, brutal violence, and psychopathology among the denizens of society's underside. When Norris died at the age of 32, his contemporaries mourned the loss of, potentially, the Great American Novelist. In his insightful exploration of this complex writer, Joseph McElrath holds a mirror up to the world Norris depicted with such immediacy, and the images we see look much like the America of today.