It’s the birthday of American novelist Frank Norris (books by this author), best known for his novels McTeague (1899) and The Octopus (1901), which explored the effects of greed and capitalism on the human psyche. Norris was born Benjamin Franklin Norris in Chicago (1870). He moved with his father to San Francisco when he was 14. They lived at 1822 Sacramento Street. His older brother died when Norris was 17. He decided to study painting in Paris for two years, where he discovered the novels of Émile Zola and began reading about Darwin’s theories of human evolution.
Norris was a bit of a mess for a few years: he gave up on painting, failed to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, and even worked as a news correspondent in South Africa, but became ill and had to return to the U.S. It was while working as a features writer in San Francisco for The Wave magazine that he was able to begin utilizing his ideas about class, capitalism, and the degradation of the human soul. Norris interviewed all walks of life for his stories, from tamale vendors to society matrons, and took meticulous notes on the toll and suffering that American greed caused.
His novel McTeague (1899) was a sensation. The story of a brutal, stupid dentist who harangues his wife and eventually kills her, only to die in Death Valley, the book galvanized readers and critics, some of whom called it “stomach-churning” and “vulgar.” Norris was determined to portray life in all its naturalistic fervor, including descriptions of urination and vomiting, which he had to rewrite for the English publication. His next novel, The Octopus (1901) — the first in a proposed trilogy about the struggle of California wheat growers against a monopolistic railway corporation — is considered his masterpiece.
Norris died at the age of 32 of a ruptured appendix, just when he was becoming successful. He’s a favorite son of San Francisco, with an alleyway named for him. Frank Norris Street runs from Polk Street to Larkin Street and is located parallel to and in between Pine Street and Bush Street in the city’s Lower Nob Hill district.