Monday, August 27, 2012

Frank Norris: A Life by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Jesse S. Crisler

An exhaustively researched biography of the “American Zola”
Frank Norris was one of the most important and influential American novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With the publication of this book in 2006, just over a century after his death, Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Jesse S. Crisler have finally provided Norris fans with the richly detailed and insightful biography this great writer deserves.

To be honest, the course of Norris’s life is not particularly fascinating in its own right. He was born into a life of privilege, so this is no rags-to-riches tale. Nor did he live the sort of exciting, adventurous life of a Jack London or a Herman Melville. Quite frankly, he comes across as a bit of a mama’s boy. For those who are lovers of his work, however, the value of this penetrating biography lies in the illumination of how the events of Norris’s life contributed to the creation of his exceptional novels. Norris originally studied painting at the Académie Julian in Paris. After abandoning that vocation, his life, for the most part, revolved entirely around writing—studying writing, practicing writing, making a living off his writing, and critiquing the writing of others. The first half of the book summarizes just about every short story and article Norris ever wrote, illustrating how each piece contributed to the making of his masterpiece McTeague. The second half of the book does the same for The Octopus and The Pit. In between, Norris makes a brief, disappointing visit to South Africa and spends three grueling months in Cuba as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American War.

If there’s such a thing as being too thorough, McElrath and Crisler may be guilty of it. At times Norris’s life story feels overshadowed by frequent digressions made for the purpose of establishing historical context, or by the painstaking analysis of every word he’s ever written. Between an error of excess and an error of omission, however, the former is the lesser of two evils. For readers who want to know everything there is to know about Frank Norris, and then some, this is the book for you.

Unfortunately, there's no way for scholars to write literary criticism without to some extent spoiling the author’s work for those who haven’t read it. Do not read this book unless you’ve already read McTeague, The Octopus, The Pit, and Vandover and the Brute. If you haven’t read them, not only will McElrath and Crisler ruin those books for you, but you won’t understand anything they’re talking about. The knowledge I’ve gained from reading this treatment of Norris’s life has contributed greatly to my enjoyment, appreciation, and understanding of his works. On the other hand, I have lost some enthusiasm for undertaking Norris’s lesser known novels—Moran of the Lady Letty, Blix, and A Man’s Woman—now that his biographers have already revealed the ultimate fate of each and every character contained therein.

Despite the fact that McElrath and Crisler have built their careers upon Norris and his work, this book is no mere exercise in hero worship. When Norris behaves like a racist, a coward, a liar, or just a bad writer, they’re not afraid to call him on it. This objectivity is invaluable in creating a clear, authentic portrait of the man in question. Frank Norris: A Life will likely remain the authoritative source on this literary master’s life for decades to come. Aficionados of his work will find in it much to enjoy.

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