Part II: Reviews and Essays - Frank Norris
A new and a great book has been written. The name of it is “McTeague, a Story of San Francisco,” and the man who wrote it is Mr. Frank Norris. The great presses of the country go on year after year grinding out commonplace books, just as each generation goes on busily reproducing its own mediocrity. When in this enormous output of ink and paper, these thousands of volumes that are yearly rushed upon the shelves of the book stores, one appears which contains both power and promise, the reader may be pardoned some enthusiasm. Excellence always surprises: we are never quite prepared for it. In the case of “McTeague, a Story of San Francisco,” it is even more surprising than usual. In the first place the title is not alluring, and not until you have read the book, can you know that there is an admirable consistency in the stiff, uncompromising commonplaceness of that title. In the second place the name of the author is as yet comparatively unfamiliar, and finally the book is dedicated to a member of the Harvard faculty, suggesting that whether it be a story of San Francisco or Dawson City, it must necessarily be vaporous, introspective and chiefly concerned with “literary” impressions. Mr. Norris is, indeed, a “Harvard man,” but that he is a good many other kinds of a man is self-evident. His book is, in the language of Mr. Norman Hapgood, the work of “a large human being, with a firm stomach, who knows and loves the people.”
In a novel of such high merit as this, the subject matter is the least important consideration. Every newspaper contains the essential material for another “Comedie Humaine.” In this case “McTeague,” the central figure, happens to be a dentist practicing in a little side street of San Francisco. The novel opens with this description of him:
“It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductor’s coffee joint on Polk street. He had a thick, gray soup, heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate; two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of strong butter and sugar. Once in his office, or, as he called it on his sign-board, ‘Dental Parlors,’ he took off his coat and shoes, unbuttoned his vest, and, having crammed his little stove with coke, he lay back in his operating chair at the bay window, reading the paper, drinking steam beer, and smoking his huge porcelain pipe while his food digested; crop-full, stupid and warm.”
McTeague had grown up in a mining camp in the mountains. He remembered the years he had spent there trundling heavy cars of ore in and out of the tunnel under the direction of his father. For thirteen days out of each fortnight his father was a steady, hard-working shift-boss of the mine. Every other Sunday he became an irresponsible animal, a beast, a brute, crazed with alcohol. His mother cooked for the miners. Her one ambition was that her son should enter a profession. He was apprenticed to a traveling quack dentist and after a fashion, learned the business.
“Then one day at San Francisco had come the news of his mother’s death; she had left him some money—not much, but enough to set him up in business; so he had cut loose from the charlatan and had opened his ‘Dental Parlors’ on Polk street, an ‘accommodation street’ of small shops in the residence quarter of the town. Here he had slowly collected a clientele of butcher boys, shop girls, drug clerks and car conductors. He made but few acquaintances. Polk street called him the ‘doctor’ and spoke of his enormous strength. For McTeague was a young giant, carrying his huge shock of blonde hair six feet three inches from the ground; moving his immense limbs, heavy with ropes of muscle, slowly, ponderously. His hands were enormous, red, and covered with a fell of stiff yellow hair; they were as hard as wooden mallets, strong as vices, the hands of the old-time car boy. Often he dispensed with forceps and extracted a refractory tooth with his thumb and finger. His head was square-cut, angular; the jaw salient: like that of the carnivora.
“But for one thing McTeague would have been perfectly contented. Just outside his window was his signboard—a modest affair—that read: ‘Doctor McTeague. Dental Parlors. Gas Given;’ but that was all. It was his ambition, his dream, to have projecting from that corner window a huge gilded tooth, a molar with enormous prongs, something gorgeous and attractive. He would have it some day, but as yet it was far beyond his means.”
Then Mr. Norris launches into a description of the street in which “McTeague” lives. He presents that street as it is on Sunday, as it is on working days; as it is in the early dawn when the workmen are going out with pickaxes on their shoulders, as it is at ten o’clock when the women are out purchasing from the small shopkeepers, as it is at night when the shop girls are out with the soda-fountain tenders and the motor cars dash by full of theatre-goers, and the Salvationists sing before the saloon on the corner. In four pages he reproduces the life in a by-street of a great city, the little tragedy of the small shopkeeper. There are many ways of handling environment—most of them bad. When a young author has very little to say and no story worth telling, he resorts to environment. It is frequently used to disguise a weakness of structure, as ladies who paint landscapes put their cows knee-deep in water to conceal the defective drawing of the legs. But such description as one meets throughout Mr. Norris’ book is in itself convincing proof of power, imagination and literary skill. It is a positive and active force, stimulating the reader’s imagination, giving him an actual command, a realizing sense of this world into which he is suddenly transplanted. It gives to the book perspective, atmosphere, effects of time and distance, creates the illusion of life. This power of mature, and accurate and comprehensive description is very unusual among the younger American writers. Most of them observe the world through a temperament, and are more occupied with their medium than the objects they see. And temperament is a glass which distorts most astonishingly. But this young man sees with a clear eye, and reproduces with a touch firm and decisive, strong almost to brutalness. Yet this hand that can depict so powerfully the brute strength and brute passions of a “McTeague,” can deal very finely and adroitly with the feminine element of his story. This is his portrait of the little Swiss girl, “Trina,” whom the dentist marries:
“Trina was very small and prettily made. Her face was round and rather pale; her eyes long and narrow and blue, like the half-opened eyes of a baby; her lips and the lobes of her tiny ears were pale, a little suggestive of anaemia. But it was to her hair that one’s attention was most attracted. Heaps and heaps of blue-black coils and braids, a royal crown of swarthy bands, a veritable sable tiara, heavy, abundant and odorous. All the vitality that should have given color to her face seemed to have been absorbed by that marvelous hair: It was the coiffure of a queen that shadowed the temples of this little bourgeoise.”
The tragedy of the story dates from a chance, a seeming stroke of good fortune, one of those terrible gifts of the Danai. A few weeks before her marriage “Trina” drew $5 000 from a lottery ticket. From that moment her passion for hoarding money becomes the dominant theme of the story, takes command of the book and its characters. After their marriage the dentist is disbarred from practice. They move into a garret where she starves her husband and herself to save that precious hoard. She sells even his office furniture, everything but his concertina and his canary bird, with which he stubbornly refuses to part and which are destined to become very important accessories in the property room of the theatre where this drama is played. This removal from their first home is to this story what Gervaise’s removal from her shop is to L’Assommoir; it is the fatal episode of the third act, the sacrifice of self-respect, the beginning of the end. From that time the money stands between “Trina” and her husband. Outraged and humiliated, hating her for her meanness, demoralized by his idleness and despair, he begins to abuse her. The story becomes a careful and painful study of the disintegration of this union, a penetrating and searching analysis of the degeneration of these two souls, the woman’s corroded by greed, the man’s poisoned by disappointment and hate.
And all the while this same painful theme is placed in a lower key. Maria, the housemaid who took care of “McTeague’s” dental parlors in his better days, was a half-crazy girl from somewhere in Central America, she herself did not remember just where. But she had a wonderful story about her people owning a dinner service of pure gold with a punch bowl you could scarcely lift, which rang like a church bell when you struck it. On the strength of this story “Zercow,” the Jew junk man, marries her, and believing that she knows where this treasure is hidden, bullies and tortures her to force her to disclose her secret. At last “Maria” is found with her throat cut, and “Zercow” is picked up by the wharf with a sack full of rusty tin cans, which in his dementia he must have thought the fabled dinner service of gold.
From this it is a short step to “McTeague’s” crime. He kills his wife to get possession of her money, and escapes to the mountains. While he is on his way south, pushing toward Mexico, he is overtaken by his murdered wife’s cousin and former suitor. Both men are half mad with thirst, and there in the desert wastes of Death’s Valley, they spring to their last conflict. The cousin falls, but before he dies he slips a handcuff over “McTeague’s” arm, and so the author leaves his hero in the wastes of Death’s Valley, a hundred miles from water, with a dead man chained to his arm. As he stands there the canary bird, the survivor of his happier days, to which he had clung with stubborn affection, begins “chittering feebly in its little gilt prison.” It reminds one a little of Stevenson’s use of poor “Goddedaal’s” canary in “The Wrecker.” It is just such sharp, sure strokes that bring out the high lights in a story and separate excellence from the commonplace. They are at once dramatic and revelatory. Lacking them, a novel which may otherwise be a good one, lacks its chief reason for being. The fault with many worthy attempts at fiction lies not in what they are, but in what they are not.
Mr. Norris’ model, if he will admit that he has followed one, is clearly no less a person than M. Zola himself. Yet there is no discoverable trace of imitation in his book. He has simply taken a method which has been most successfully applied in the study of French life and applied it in studying American life, as one uses certain algebraic formulae to solve certain problems. It is perhaps the only truthful literary method of dealing with that part of society which environment and heredity hedge about like the walls of a prison. It is true that Mr. Norris now and then allows his “method” to become too prominent, that his restraint savors of constraint, yet he has written a true story of the people, courageous, dramatic, full of matter and warm with life. He has addressed himself seriously to art, and he seems to have no ambition to be clever. His horizon is wide, his invention vigorous and bold, his touch heavy and warm and human. This man is not limited by literary prejudices: he sees the people as they are, he is close to them and not afraid of their unloveliness. He has looked at truth in the depths, among men begrimed by toil and besotted by ignorance, and still found her fair. “McTeague” is an achievement for a young man. It may not win at once the success which it deserves, but Mr. Norris is one of those who can afford to wait.
The Courier, April 8, 1899
If you want to read a story that is all wheat and no chaff, read “Blix.” Last winter that brilliant young Californian, Mr. Norris, published a remarkable and gloomy novel, “McTeague,” a book deep in insight, rich in promise and splendid in execution, but entirely without charm and as disagreeable as only a great piece of work can be. And now this gentleman, who is not yet thirty, turns around and gives us an idyll that sings through one’s brain like a summer wind and makes one feel young enough to commit all manner of indiscretions. It may be that Mr. Norris is desirous of showing us his versatility and that he can follow any suit, or it may have been a process of reaction. I believe it was after M. Zola had completed one of his greatest and darkest novels of Parisian life that he went down to the seaside and wrote “La Reve,” a book that every girl should read when she is eighteen, and then again when she is eighty. Powerful and solidly built as “McTeague” is, one felt that there method was carried almost too far, that Mr. Norris was too consciously influenced by his French masters. But “Blix” belongs to no school whatever, and there is not a shadow of pedantry or pride of craft in it from cover to cover. “Blix” herself is the method, the motives and the aim of the book. The story is an exhalation of youth and spring; it is the work of a man who breaks loose and forgets himself. Mr. Norris was married only last summer, and the march from “Lohengrin” is simply sticking out all over “Blix.” It is the story of a San Francisco newspaper man and a girl. The newspaper man “came out” in fiction, so to speak, in the drawing room of Mr. Richard Harding Davis, and has languished under that gentleman’s chaperonage until he has come to be regarded as a fellow careful of nothing but his toilet and his dinner. Mr. Davis’ reporters all bathed regularly and all ate nice things, but beyond that their tastes were rather colorless. I am glad to see one red-blooded newspaper man, in the person of “Landy Rivers,” of San Francisco, break into fiction; a real live reporter with no sentimental loyalty for his “paper,” and no Byronic poses about his vices, and no astonishing taste about his clothes, and no money whatever, which is the natural and normal condition of all reporters. “Blix” herself was just a society girl, and “Landy” took her to theatres and parties and tried to make himself believe he was in love with her. But it wouldn’t work, for “Landy” couldn’t love a society girl, not though she were as beautiful as the morning and terrible as an army with banners, and had “round full arms,” and “the skin of her face was white and clean, except where it flushed into a most charming pink upon her smooth, cool cheeks.” For while “Landy Rivers” was at college he had been seized with the penchant for writing short stories, and had worshiped at the shrines of Maupassant and Kipling, and when a man is craft mad enough to worship Maupassant truly and know him well, when he has that tingling for technique in his fingers, not Aphrodite herself, new risen from the waves, could tempt him into any world where craft was not lord and king. So it happened that their real love affair never began until one morning when “Landy” had to go down to the wharf to write up a whaleback, and “Blix” went along, and an old sailor told them a story and “Blix” recognized the literary possibilities of it, and they had lunch in a Chinese restaurant, and “Landy” because he was a newspaper man and it was the end of the week, didn’t have any change about his clothes, and “Blix” had to pay the bill. And it was in that green old tea house that “Landy” read “Blix” one of his favorite yarns by Kipling, and she in a calm, off-handed way, recognized one of the fine, technical points in it, and “Landy” almost went to pieces for joy of her doing it. That scene in the Chinese restaurant is one of the prettiest bits of color you’ll find to rest your eyes upon, and mighty good writing it is. I wonder, though if when Mr. Norris adroitly mentioned the “clack and snarl” of the banjo “Landy” played, he remembered the “silver snarling trumpets” of Keats? After that, things went on as such things will, and “Blix” quit the society racket and went to queer places with “Landy,” and got interested in his work, and she broke him of wearing red neckties and playing poker, and she made him work, she did, for she grew to realize how much that meant to him, and she jacked him up when he didn’t work, and she suggested an ending for one of his stories that was better than his own; just this big, splendid girl, who had never gone to college to learn how to write novels. And so how, in the name of goodness, could he help loving her? So one morning down by the Pacific, with “Blix” and “The Seven Seas,” it all came over “Landy,” that “living was better than reading and life was better than literature.” And so it is; once, and only once, for each of us; and that is the tune that sings and sings through one’s head when one puts the book away.
The Courier, January 13, 1900
An Heir Apparent.
Last winter a young Californian, Mr. Frank Norris, published a novel with the unpretentious title, “McTeague: a Story of San Francisco.” It was a book that could not be ignored nor dismissed with a word. There was something very unusual about it, about its solidity and mass, the thoroughness and firmness of texture, and it came down like a blow from a sledge hammer among the slighter and more sprightly performances of the hour.
The most remarkable thing about the book was its maturity and compactness. It has none of the ear-marks of those entertaining “young writers” whom every season produces as inevitably as its debutantes, young men who surprise for an hour and then settle down to producing industriously for the class with which their peculiar trick of phrase has found favor. It was a book addressed to the American people and to the critics of the world, the work of a young man who had set himself to the art of authorship with an almighty seriousness, and who had no ambition to be clever. “McTeague” was not an experiment in style nor a pretty piece of romantic folly, it was a true story of the people—having about it, as M. Zola would say, “the smell of the people”—courageous, dramatic, full of matter and warm with life. It was realism of the most uncompromising kind. The theme was such that the author could not have expected sudden popularity for his book, such as sometimes overtakes monstrosities of style in these discouraging days when Knighthood is in Flower to the extent of a quarter of a million copies, nor could he have hoped for pressing commissions from the fire-side periodicals. The life story of a quack dentist who sometimes extracted molars with his fingers, who mistreated and finally murdered his wife, is not, in itself, attractive. But, after all, the theme counts for very little. Every newspaper contains the essential subject matter for another Comedie Humaine. The important point is that a man considerably under thirty could take up a subject so grim and unattractive, and that, for the mere love of doing things well, he was able to hold himself down to the task of developing it completely, that he was able to justify this quack’s existence in literature, to thrust this hairy, blonde dentist with the “salient jaw of the carnivora,” in amongst the immortals.
It was after M. Zola had completed one of the greatest and gloomiest of his novels of Parisian life, that he went down by the sea and wrote “La Reve,” that tender, adolescent story of love and purity and youth. So, almost simultaneously with “McTeague,” Mr. Norris published “Blix,” another San Francisco story, as short as “McTeague” was lengthy, as light as “McTeague” was heavy, as poetic and graceful as “McTeague” was somber and charmless. Here is a man worth waiting on; a man who is both realist and poet, a man who can teach
“Not only by a comet’s rush,
But by a rose’s birth.”
Yet unlike as they are, in both books the source of power is the same, and, for that matter, it was even the same in his first book, “Moran of the Lady Letty.” Mr. Norris has dispensed with the conventional symbols that have crept into art, with the trite, half-truths and circumlocutions, and got back to the physical basis of things. He has abjured tea-table psychology, and the analysis of figures in the carpet and subtile dissections of intellectual impotencies, and the diverting game of words and the whole literature of the nerves. He is big and warm and sometimes brutal, and the strength of the soil comes up to him with very little loss in the transmission. His art strikes deep down into the roots of life and the foundation of Things as They Are—not as we tell each other they are at the tea-table. But he is realistic art, not artistic realism. He is courageous, but he is without bravado.
He sees things freshly, as though they had not been seen before, and describes them with singular directness and vividness, not with morbid acuteness, with a large, wholesome joy of life. Nowhere is this more evident than in his insistent use of environment. I recall the passage in which he describes the street in which McTeague lives. He represents that street as it is on Sunday, as it is on working days, as it is in the early dawn when the workmen are going out with pickaxes on their shoulders, as it is at ten o’clock when the women are out marketing among the small shopkeepers, as it is at night when the shop girls are out with the soda fountain tenders and the motor cars dash by full of theater-goers, and the Salvationists sing before the saloon on the corner. In four pages he reproduces in detail the life in a by-street of a great city, the little tragedy of the small shopkeeper. There are many ways of handling environment—most of them bad. When a young author has very little to say and no story worth telling, he resorts to environment. It is frequently used to disguise a weakness of structure, as ladies who paint landscapes put their cows knee-deep in water to conceal the defective drawing of the legs. But such description as one meets throughout Mr. Norris’ book is in itself convincing proof of power, imagination and literary skill. It is a positive and active force, stimulating the reader’s imagination, giving him an actual command, a realizing sense of this world into which he is suddenly transported. It gives to the book perspective, atmosphere, effects of time and distance, creates the illusion of life. This power of mature and comprehensive description is very unusual among the younger American writers. Most of them observe the world through a temperament, and are more occupied with their medium than the objects they watch. And temperament is a glass which distorts most astonishingly. But this young man sees with a clear eye, and reproduces with a touch, firm and decisive, strong almost to brutalness.
Mr. Norris approaches things on their physical side; his characters are personalities of flesh before they are anything else, types before they are individuals. Especially is this true of his women. His Trina is “very small and prettily made. Her face was round and rather pale; her eyes long and narrow and blue, like the half-opened eyes of a baby; her lips and the lobes of her tiny ears were pale, a little suggestive of anaemia. But it was to her hair that one’s attention was most attracted. Heaps and heaps of blue-black coils and braids, a royal crown of swarthy bands, a veritable sable tiara, heavy, abundant and odorous. All the vitality that should have given color to her face seems to have been absorbed by that marvelous hair. It was the coiffure of a queen that shadowed the temples of this little bourgeoise.” Blix had “round, full arms,” and “the skin of her face was white and clean, except where it flushed into a most charming pink upon her smooth, cool cheeks.” In this grasp of the element of things, this keen, clean, frank pleasure at color and odor and warmth, this candid admission of the negative of beauty, which is co-existent with and inseparable from it, lie much of his power and promise. Here is a man catholic enough to include the extremes of physical and moral life, strong enough to handle the crudest colors and darkest shadows. Here is a man who has an appetite for the physical universe, who loves the rank smells of crowded alley-ways, or the odors of boudoirs, or the delicate perfume exhaled from a woman’s skin; who is not afraid of Pan, be he ever so shaggy, and redolent of the herd.
Structurally, where most young novelists are weak, Mr. Norris is very strong. He has studied the best French masters, and he has adopted their methods quite simply, as one selects an algebraic formula to solve his particular problem. As to his style, that is, as expression always is, just as vigorous as his thought compels it to be, just as vivid as his conception warrants. If God Almighty has given a man ideas, he will get himself a style from one source or another. Mr. Norris, fortunately, is not a conscious stylist. He has too much to say to be exquisitely vain about his medium. He has the kind of brain stuff that would vanquish difficulties in any profession, that might be put to building battleships, or solving problems of finance, or to devising colonial policies. Let us be thankful that he has put it to literature. Let us be thankful, moreover, that he is not introspective and that his intellect does not devour itself, but feeds upon the great race of man, and, above all, let us rejoice that he is not a “temperamental” artist, but something larger, for a great brain and an assertive temperament seldom dwell together.
There are clever men enough in the field of American letters, and the fault of most of them is merely one of magnitude; they are not large enough; they travel in small orbits, they play on muted strings. They sing neither of the combats of Atriedes nor the labors of Cadmus, but of the tea-table and the Odyssey of the Rialto. Flaubert said that a drop of water contained all the elements of the sea, save one—immensity. Mr. Norris is concerned only with serious things, he has only large ambitions. His brush is bold, his color is taken fresh from the kindly earth, his canvas is large enough to hold American life, the real life of the people. He has come into the court of the troubadours singing the song of Elys, the song of warm, full nature. He has struck the true note of the common life. He is what Mr. Norman Hapgood said the great American dramatist must be: “A large human being, with a firm stomach, who knows and loves the people.”
The Courier, April 7, 1900