Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Novels and Essays by Frank Norris (Library of America)
The King of American Naturalism
Frank Norris could have been a household name, remembered by all as one of America’s greatest writers, had he not met with an untimely death at the age of 32. Stylistically, he was an outspoken advocate of naturalism, a literary movement founded by the French writer Emile Zola. Naturalism is generally considered a form of realism because the author seeks to reproduce the world in all its gritty, scientific authenticity. Norris argued, however, that naturalism was a form of romanticism because often, as in the works of Zola, extraordinary events take place within this ordinary reality. This excellent collection of Norris’s writings not only presents brilliant examples of his naturalistic fiction, but also a number of valuable nonfiction pieces which encapsulate his literary philosophy.
Three complete novels and an assortment of essays are included here. Of the novels, The Octopus is Norris’s best and most renowned work. Based on the Mussel Slough Tragedy of 1880, it tells the story of California wheat farmers struggling to defend their land and livelihood against the oppressive tactics of a corrupt railroad company. It is a masterpiece that definitely belongs on any list of the twenty best novels in American literature, if not the top ten. Norris’s other famous novel is McTeague, the story of a mild-mannered dentist and his wife whose lives are gradually destroyed by an all-consuming greed. Part suspenseful thriller, part insightful psychological study; it makes for a gripping read. As for the third novel, the obvious choice would have been to include The Pit, a sequel of sorts to The Octopus, and probably Norris’s third best-known work. Instead, the editor chose to include Vandover and the Brute, Norris’s first novel, which did not see publication until after his death. It depicts the descent of a young artist into a life of decadence and vice. In terms of quality, it’s not in the same league with the other two novels, but it reveals a promising stage in the development of his mature style, a glimmering of great things to come.
This volume includes 22 of Norris’s essays. All are about four or five pages long, all pertain to writers and writing, and all are excellent. In these essays Norris defines his conception of naturalism, outlines the responsibilities of the novelist, and reveals his vision of the future of American literature. He issues a call to arms to American writers to step up and create the great epic of the American West. Though adept at serious literary criticism, Norris also had a sense of humor, as evidenced by “Perverted Tales,” a hilarious piece in which he parodies the writing styles of Rudyard Kipling, Stephen Crane, Bret Harte, Richard Harding Davis, Ambrose Bierce, and Anthony Hope. The editor of this volume, Donald Pizer, has done an excellent job of selecting essays that give us a clear and thorough insight into the mind, personality, and literary thought of this great author.
I can’t say enough good things about the Library of America. Although I love my Kindle, when I really want to get to know an American author, I’m happy to leave the e-reader at home and lug around one of these big, beautiful hardcover volumes. The LOA produces books that are superbly edited, elegantly designed, and handsomely and durably constructed. They are cherished items on my book shelves, and I hope some day my grand kids will read them.
Works in this collection
Vandover and the Brute
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