Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Surrender of Santiago by Frank Norris

The nascent novelist as war correspondent
Before achieving renown as one of America’s best novelists of the early 20th century, Frank Norris began his writing career as a journalist. He was sent to Cuba by McClure’s magazine as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American War. “The Surrender of Santiago” is a piece he wrote at that time, though it never saw publication during his lifetime. In 1917 it was resurrected and published in the form of a booklet, which explains why this very brief piece is now sold on Amazon as an individual ebook file. The article is a little over twenty pages long and amounts to about fifteen or twenty minutes of reading.

This is not a battle story, for at the opening of the piece the battle has already ended. Rather, the article presents Norris’s eyewitness view of the ceremony of July 17, 1898, at which the Cubans surrendered to the American military, thus ending the war in Cuba. As one expects of Norris, it contains beautiful passages of descriptive prose that capture the scene in all its vivid and gritty glory. Atypical of Norris, however, is the overwhelmingly gung ho patriotic rhetoric. There is a particularly fervent passage of Anglo-Saxon chest thumping in which he proclaims it was the racial destiny of the (white) Americans to conquer the Cubans. Such jingoism was common in the days of “Remember the Maine!” but comes across as a bit simplistic and xenophobic to readers over a century later. This blatant celebration of American pride, however, was no doubt the very reason the piece was reprinted as America was entering World War I.

Fans of Frank Norris will find this article interesting and worth their time, but it’s not one of his best pieces of work. For those curious about his early career as a journalist, I would suggest checking out the two volumes of The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, edited by Joseph R. McElrath and Douglas K. Burgess.

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