Friday, September 6, 2013

The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896–1898. Volume 1: 1896–1897. Edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Douglas K. Burgess

The formative years of a literary giant
Though Frank Norris achieved his literary fame as a novelist, he got his start in the newspaper business, as a staff writer for the weekly periodical the San Francisco Wave. Norris contributed both fiction and nonfiction to the Wave, and was given wide latitude in his choice of subject matter. In The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, editors Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Douglas K. Burgess have compiled all of Norris’s writings from his two-year tenure at the Wave into two volumes, each about 350 pages in length. This first volume, published in 1996, covers the period from April 1896 to June 1897. Although a few of these pieces have been featured in previous collections, most of them haven’t seen print since they debuted in the Wave. This collection not only rescues some of Norris’s lesser known work from obscurity, but it also provides valuable insight into the development of the naturalistic style he employed in great novels like The Octopus and McTeague.

The introduction to this volume provides an excellent in-a-nutshell biography of Norris’s early years. As for his writings of this time, one surprising thing about Volume 1 is how little fiction it contains. Little more than a dozen of the items included are fiction, and most of them occur in the first 100 pages of the volume. The best of these are the “Man Proposes” series—five separate vignettes in which couples of various walks of life reach the decisive moment in their courtship. There are also a few insightful character studies of “Western types,” and unfortunately a few one-act plays which aren’t very good. The bulk of the book is nonfiction, and it’s in Norris’s depictions of San Francisco people, places, and events that we start to see the development of his mature style. Just a few of the high points are “On a Battleship” in which Norris likens the USS Oregon to a great beast; “Italy in California,” a travel piece in which he vividly describes the Italian-Swiss wine region of Asti; and “Inside an Organ,” in which he visits a giant electric pipe organ and beautifully exhibits his talent for sonic description. During his tenure at the Wave, Norris also interviewed actresses and artists, covered sporting events and military maneuvers, reviewed books and plays, translated stories from the French, and penned a few excellent literary essays in which he clarifies his concept of Naturalism.

The main problem with Volume 1 can be summed up in one word: football. It is almost all he wrote about in the Fall of 1896. Norris was a Harvard man, and his football articles often revolve around his assertion that “coastal” football is far inferior to the way the game was played back East. Though it’s interesting at first to read details of the way the game has changed over the past century, the football commentary gets monotonous after a while. Of Norris’s other journalistic writings, some are exceptional and some are forgettable, but at least the topics are sufficiently varied to keep your interest.

The editors have done a five-star job of compiling this volume, but Norris’s writing is all over the map in terms of quality. Probably the only people who are going to read this book are Norris scholars and his most diehard fans. To such an audience, the primary concern is not so much the quality of the work as it is how much these writings tell us about Norris’s literary development, and how these early pieces inform the renowned novels that would follow. This book is very successful on both counts, and Norris enthusiasts will find it a valuable addition to their collections.

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