By Jerome Loving
More than a century ago, on 25 October 1902, we lost a major novelist by the name of Frank Norris, author of McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899). Like Stephen Crane, he died in his prime, but not before writing at least one of the great American novels in the naturalist tradition of Thomas Hardy and Theodore Dreiser. The composition of McTeague began as a college assignment at Harvard, and Norris dedicated the finished product to his professor, L. E. Gates. It was long before “creative writing” was taught in universities, a time when struggling authors had to struggle and juggle their finances in the absence of an independent income. Young Norris wrote his novel for academic credit in an literature class at a time when the prevailing pedagogical theory sought to put the reader on the other side of the writing process. In other words, if you could put yourself in the place of the novelist or the poet, you would come to more fully comprehend and better appreciate the writer’s accomplishment.
Naturalism, as Norris defined it, went beyond realism and its “drama of the broken teacup,” to look at the individual as the victim of heredity and environment. Whereas the protagonist of a realistic novel, for example, the heroine of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881), emerges from material failure with her dignity intact, the main character, indeed nearly all the characters, in McTeague are destined to rise and fall according to identities forged in their generational past and conflicted present. The unlicensed San Francisco dentist is happy with his dull existence until his human cage has been shaken. When faced with personal catastrophe, he reverts to the genetic past of his father who “was a hard-working shift boss” in California’s gold mines for thirteen days out of each fortnight and “an irresponsible animal, a beast, a brute, crazy with alcohol” every other Sunday. In the face of trouble, Mac’s wife Trina reverts to her German-Swiss background in miserliness, thus triggering a violent and brutal clash with her unemployed husband. In fact, most of the characters in McTeague become the victims of their hereditary flaws and current crises. A Social Darwinist and a product of economic privilege, Frank Norris subscribed to the ideas of Cesare Lombroso, the Italian criminologist who believed in “natural born” killers, thus subscribing to the atavistic theory that certain types of individuals were potentially degenerate and subject to the beast within.
In Vandover and the Brute, also first drafted during his Harvard days but not published until 1914, Norris dramatizes how an economically privileged individual may squander his middle-class advantages by giving in to his baser instincts, or the “brute within.” Whereas McTeague and his fellows start from the bottom, so to speak, and end up at the bottom, Vandover forfeits his superior circumstances with drink and gambling, much in the way the young Frank Norris could have fooled away his economic opportunities as the son of a wealthy businessman. As a member of the white, Anglican-based, male middle-class, however, neither is subject to Darwin’s law of natural selection. Rather, as a member of a superior class, he is—according to Herbert Spencer’s ameliorative adaptation of Darwin—better able to survive the law of nature, or the jungle. This idea has come to be called Social Darwinism, which insisted on the role of morality and limited free will in the quest for the “survival of the fittest.”
It was probably this condescending attitude that made McTeague so successful in its day, because it reinforced current stereotypes. Readers at the end of the nineteenth century were allowed to view the Jew Zerkow as a dirty, money-grubbing killer; the Hispanic woman Maria as the hopelessly crazy “maid of all work”; Trina as the hopeless miser, and Mac, the dentist, who after his crime returns to the mining camps of his father with the instinctive accuracy of a “homing pigeon.” Unlike their social superiors, they are all flawed in their scramble to survive urban life and the lack of urbanity in their natures.
It’s a fast-moving story, but don’t try to give it to your dentist!
Jerome Loving, Distinguished Professor of English at Texas A&M University, is the editor of Oxford World Classics edition of Frank Norris’s McTeague and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. He is the author of a number of biographies, including Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. His Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War was published on October 13, 2013. He has previously written on Walt Whitman for OUPblog.
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Image Credit: Frank Norris from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection, Berkeley, Ca. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.