Friday, September 20, 2013

The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896–1898. Volume 2: 1897–1898. Edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Douglas K. Burgess

The aspiring novelist hones his craft
In the second volume of The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, editors Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and Douglas K. Burgess have collected all of Norris’s writings that were published in the San Francisco Wave from the end of June 1897 to late September of 1898. Although Volume 2 contains more fiction, it is a bit less satisfying than Volume 1. Part of this may be due to the fact that many of the pieces included here have already been published in other collections like The Third Circle or the Library of America volume Frank Norris: Novels and Essays. Nevertheless, for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the author and his writings, this collection encapsulates an important stage in his literary development. As was the case with Volume 1, the editors have done an excellent job with the material, even though the material itself in many cases is not Norris’s best work. McElrath and Burgess provide a very good introduction, though it does contain quite a few spoilers, so you may want to save it for the end.

While Volume 2 does not contain any of the sports writings that were so cumbersome in Volume 1, it does contain the annoying series “The Opinions of Leander,” consisting of five or six transcriptions of inane conversations between two country club chaps who feel it their duty to debate the proper behavior of a society girl. Even if the character of Leander is intended to be a buffoon, the series still amounts to Norris preaching to young women on how to conduct themselves. Some of the better selections in the book include “Miracle Joyeux,” an unconventional and irreverent story of Jesus; “Sanitary Reduction,” in which Norris the naturalistic journalist visits the San Francisco trash dump, and “Perverted Tales,” a delightful series of humorous stories in which Norris parodies the style and subject matter of Rudyard Kipling, Stephen Crane, Bret Harte, Richard Harding Davis, Ambrose Bierce, and Anthony Hope.

The nonfiction pieces do not have quite the enthusiasm and originality that marked Norris’s writing of the previous year. It’s as if he had something better to do than expend his time and energy on journalism. Fortunately, of course, that something better was writing novels, at which he would go on to become a master. The best thing about The Apprenticeship Writings Volume 2 is that it contains stories that serve as preliminary sketches for his later, greater novels. “From Field to Storehouse,” in which Norris discusses the California wheat harvest, reads like research for his great agricultural epic The Octopus. “Judy’s Service of Gold Plate” is the story of Maria Macapa and Zerkow from McTeague, under different names. “Fantaisie Printanière” is another scene lifted from McTeague, this time featuring the title character himself. “The End of the Beginning” is a condensed version of the excellent opening chapters of A Man’s Woman. “The Drowned Who Do Not Die,” the haunting and mysterious tale of a deep sea diver charged with recovering bodies from a shipwreck, is perhaps the best story in the collection. It was later incorporated into Norris’s novel Blix.

Casual fans of Norris would do best to stick to his novels, but for those wishing to delve deeper into the life and work of this great author, The Apprenticeship Writings provides a welcome window into his early literary career. Avid aficionados and scholars of Norris’s work will find much here that is familiar, but they will discover many pleasant surprises as well.

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