Monday, September 18, 2017

Frank Norris: A Descriptive Bibliography by Joseph R. McElrath Jr.

A treasure trove for Norris completists
Frank Norris is one of my favorite writers. I’d like to think that I’ve read his complete works, but that’s a tough accomplishment to claim. Norris is best known as a novelist, and when he died at age 32 he had only completed seven novels, one of which (Vandover and the Brute) was published posthumously. Two volumes of short stories, A Deal in Wheat and The Third Circle, were also published shortly after his death, as well as a collection of literary criticism and essays entitled The Responsibilities of the Novelist. In his brief career as a man of letters, however, Norris published literally hundreds of articles, short stories, essays, poems, and plays, scattered among publications like The Overland Monthly, The San Francisco Wave, and American Art and Literary Review. In his 1992 book Frank Norris: A Descriptive Bibliography, noted Norris scholar Joseph R. McElrath Jr. makes sense of Norris’s extensive and diverse body of work.

Prior to this book, the most authoritative bibliography of Norris was probably Kenneth A. Lohf and Eugene P. Sheehy’s Frank Norris: A Bibliography from 1959, which only ran about 100 pages. McElrath’s book, about thrice as long, goes into far greater detail and compiles a much more extensive list of Norris’s works. For the novels, McElrath not only provides the history of each edition but also gives physical descriptions of the books themselves, an invaluable resource for book collectors. McElrath then enumerates the first appearances in various publications of over 300 articles, stories, and other short pieces by Norris. The book also includes a list of over 500 articles that have previously been erroneously attributed to Norris. Finally, in a brief section on works about Norris, McElrath does not attempt a comprehensive list, but only highlights the “principal works” in the field. The exhaustive detail of McElrath’s research is staggering; the book could serve as a model of how bibliographic research should be conducted and presented.

This book was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press as part of their Pittsburgh Series in Bibliography. As far as I can tell, that series has been discontinued and all its volumes are out of print. This sort of detailed bibliographic research used to be a major component of literary scholarship. Look in any university library and you’ll find an entire section—the Z call letters—devoted to it. It seems this sort of research has fallen by the wayside in recent years, however, partly because scholars are more concerned with psychoanalyzing their literary subjects and partly because people just expect to find this sort of information on the Internet. To assume the latter would be a mistake. This type of detailed publication history is a major undertaking, one that only a scholar of McElrath’s caliber can pull off. This book is a valuable, authoritative reference for literary scholars and book collectors, and an interesting and educational volume for avid readers like myself to browse through. Because the conventions of bibliographic notation use a lot of abbreviations, it’s not always the most accessible text. Sometimes it appears as if the entries were written in code, and some knowledge of book manufacturing is required (I work for a publisher). The only fault that I can really find with the book, however, is that it was published back in 1992, so it doesn’t include more recent scholarship like McElrath’s own two-volume The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, or the biography he cowrote with Jesse S. Crisler, Frank Norris: A Life. Even after twenty-five years, however, this is still the most complete bibliography of Norris’s literary career ever published.

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