Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Frank Norris Remembered, edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath

As friends and family knew him
Frank Norris Remembered, published in 2013, is part of the American Writers Remembered series from the University of Alabama Press. Each volume in the series collects posthumous remembrances from friends, family, and professional colleagues of the deceased author to create a sort of oral history of their lives. Frank Norris was one of America’s greatest novelists at the dawn of the twentieth century, but his career as a professional writer only lasted about seven years. He died at the age of 32. The world hardly knew him, or what he was capable of, which makes a volume like this all the more valuable for understanding the author and his life.

This book is edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath, the duo of literature professors who literally wrote the book on Norris’s life (Frank Norris: A Life, published in 2006). Here they demonstrate the same exhaustive thoroughness and meticulous attention to detail that they brought to that authoritative biography. Crisler and McElrath provide introductions and extensive notes to accompany each of the remembrances reprinted here. In all, fifty different individuals offer their personal memories of Norris, including Norris’s wife, his college fraternity brothers, and the editors and publishers with whom he worked. Outside the area of Frank Norris studies, the only readily recognizable names among this assortment of Norris intimates are like-minded authors Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells. The writings take various forms, including published eulogies, personal letters of condolence to the widow Norris, introductions to posthumous editions of Norris works, and interview notes taken by early biographers of Norris. The latter category, being choppy and haphazard in nature, are the least satisfying to read, but perhaps the most valuable inclusions because of their never having been previously published. In gathering together and reproducing documents from various archives around the country, this book serves as a valuable tool for Norris researchers, and the context provided by Crisler and McElrath’s contributions adds to that value considerably.

Not surprisingly, this is a book more for researchers than for readers, as the testimonies can get quite repetitive. Many of the same points are reiterated in several reminiscences, but the varying perspectives help to clarify and corroborate the details of Norris’s life and career. As one would expect, the text contains plenty of praise for the dead, whether for his literary prowess, his physical attractiveness, or his noble character. Such eulogizing goes beyond mere flattery, however, and often provides great insight into Norris’s personality and demeanor, which is what one would hope to get from a book like this. Only one of the interviewees, Bertha Rickoff, really didn’t care for Norris at all, and her contrarian opinion proves to be one of the collection’s most interesting entries.

Frank Norris Remembered is aimed at literary scholars, but an avid layman like myself can find much of interest here as well. As far as general readers go, this is only for diehard Norris fans. Those who haven’t already read Frank Norris: A Life should do so first, and if you still want to know more about this great American author, then Frank Norris Remembered makes a fine companion volume.
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