Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Frank Norris, 1870–1902 by Charles Gilman Norris

A brother’s eulogy
Frank Norris
Prior to his untimely death at the age of 32, Frank Norris was hailed by some critics as one of America’s greatest novelists. Old Books by Dead Guys has already reviewed Norris’s complete works, but there are still a few pieces of Norrisiana out there that fans of this great author might find interesting, such as this booklet published by Doubleday circa 1914.

Norris’s brother Charles Gilman Norris was a successful novelist in his own right. Charles is best known for the novel Salt, which was highly praised by no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald. As stated on the first page of this booklet of roughly 30 pages, here Charles provides, “An intimate sketch of the man who was universally acclaimed the greatest American writer of his generation.” In addition to eulogizing his brother, Charles’s purpose for publishing this booklet was likely to draw attention to the posthumous publication in 1914 of Frank’s previously lost novel Vandover and the Brute

In this brief biographical sketch, Charles doesn’t just restate Frank’s literary accomplishments. He also provides personal recollections from the brothers’ youth. Those who know Frank as the king of American naturalism might be surprised at the extent to which he was once obsessed with Sir Walter Scott’s brand of medieval adventure. Charles shares fond memories of the two playing with lead soldiers. The younger Charles would marvel at the characters and stories his older brother Frank would construct with the tiny figures. Just as kids of my generation might have drawn superhero comics to share with each other, Frank would write out entire novels about knights and chivalry and give them to his brother to read.

Some interesting details on the writing of Frank’s published novels, in particular McTeague and The Octopus, are also revealed. In addition, Charles mentions a proposed trilogy on the battle of Gettysburg that Frank planned to write but never started. Little known details such as these make this booklet worth reading for Frank Norris fans, even though Charles’s essay is only 13 pages long. The narrative is interspersed with photographs, most of them dark and murky with age, and one drawing by Frank, who considered a career in art before turning to literature. The book closes with an admirably complete 10-page bibliography of Frank’s work, which includes all of his newspaper articles and short stories, almost all of which can be found in the two-volume collection The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896-1898, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Douglas K. Burgess.

If you want to read a complete biography of Frank Norris, turn to the comprehensive account Frank Norris: A Life by McElrath and Jesse S. Crisler. Even if you are well-versed in Frank’s life, or you just want the brief synopsis, this short work is worth a download from HathiTrust, or maybe a trip to your local university library. If you find this booklet useful, McElrath and Crisler have edited an entire volume of remembrances such as these, entitled Frank Norris Remembered, which will surely provide deeper insight into Norris’s life and work. 

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