Friday, October 11, 2013

Frank Norris’s writings for The Overland Monthly

The good, the bad, and the masterpiece
Frank Norris
Technically this is not a book review, because no such book exists. The topic of this post is a group of stories that have never been brought together between the covers of any one volume. Early in his career, before he became a famous novelist, Frank Norris wrote several stories for The Overland Monthly, a literary journal published in San Francisco that was founded by the writer Bret Harte. Norris, who had studied art in Paris before deciding on a literary career, not only wrote these stories but also illustrated most of them. With one or two possible exceptions, these writings have never been published in book form. Today’s reader, however, can access them all for free online. The entire archives of The Overland Monthly have been digitized by the University of Michigan Libraries as part of their Making of America project. A search by author for Norris yields eight results.

Not all of the pieces included here are winners. “Crepusculum,” from the April 1892 issue, is a brief and forgettable poem contemplating life and death. “Travis Hallett’s Half-Back,” a short story from the January 1894 issue, is the tale of a young woman who falls in love with a football player. When the couple faces a potentially dangerous situation, her hero uses his gridiron skills to rescue her from imminent peril. Some of the descriptive passages show inklings of Norris’s burgeoning talent, but overall the plot is predictable and silly.

Five stories, published from March 1894 to February 1895, comprise a series entitled “Outward and Visible Signs”. I have no idea what the title refers to or even what the five pieces are supposed to have in common. They all deal in some way with a male/female relationship, but they are by no means traditional love stories. The first three pieces in the series are nothing to get excited about, but installments four and five are quite good. In “IV. After Strange Gods,” a sailor from Brittany and a flower seller from China meet at the World’s Fair and fall in love. Though the piece has the fanciful tone of a folk tale, it is unpredictable and surprisingly poignant. In “V. Thoroughbred,” two men, the complete opposite of one another, both court the same young woman. When their quiet afternoon tennis match is interrupted by a threat of violence, one gentleman exhibits behavior that sets him apart from his rival. Despite a message that is alarmingly classist, it is an entertaining and well-crafted story.

The longest story among this group is by far the best. “Lauth,” published in the March 1893 issue, is perhaps the best short story Norris ever wrote. In medieval Paris, a scholar participates in a mass riot in the streets. While fighting in a skirmish with a brigade of gendarmes, he is killed. A physician colleague of his reclaims the body and, after pondering the nature of life and death, decides to attempt to bring his old friend back to life. “Lauth” is a gripping tale that alternates between gritty action and lofty philosophical discourse, with elements of science fiction and horror. It combines the exceptional literary quality of one of Emile Zola’s better novels with the action and suspense of an adventure tale by Robert Louis Stevenson or Robert E. Howard. Despite its gothic undertones, “Lauth” is an early masterpiece in the development of American naturalism. Although the subject matter and setting are atypical of Norris’s work, it is a must read for fans of his work.

The stories Norris wrote for The Overland Monthly illustrate the preliminary stages on the road to the mature naturalistic writing style he would later employ in his famous novels. With the exception of “Lauth,” these early pieces are not necessarily his best work, but those who enjoy Norris’s excellent novels will certainly appreciate these long-lost stories.

Stories in this collection
Travis Hallett’s Half-Back 
Outward and Visible Signs: I. She and the Other Fellow 
Outward and Visible Signs: II. The Most Noble Conquest of Man 
Outward and Visible Signs: III. Outside the Zenana 
Outward and Visible Signs: IV. After Strange Gods 
Outward and Visible Signs: V. Thoroughbred 


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