Frank Norris was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1870. His father, Benjamin, was a self-made Chicago businessman and his mother, Gertrude Glorvina Doggett, had a stage career. In 1884 the family moved to San Francisco where Benjamin went into real estate. In 1887, after the death of his brother and a brief stay in London, young Norris went to Académie Julian in Paris where he studied painting for two years and was exposed to the naturalist novels of Émile Zola. Between 1890 and 1894 he attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he picked up the ideas of human evolution of Darwin and Spencer that are reflected in his later writings. His stories appeared in the undergraduate magazine at Berkeley and in the San Francisco Wave. After his parents' divorce he went east and spent a year in the English Department of Harvard University. There he came under the influence of Lewis E. Gates, who encouraged his writing. He worked as a news correspondent in South Africa (1895–96) for the San Francisco Chronicle, and then as editorial assistant on the San Francisco Wave (1896–97). He worked for McClure's Magazine as a war correspondent in Cuba during the Spanish–American War in 1898. He joined the New York City publishing firm of Doubleday & Page in 1899.
Charles Gilman Norris, the author's younger brother, became a well regarded novelist and editor. C.G. Norris was also the husband of the prolific novelist Kathleen Norris. The Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, houses the archives of all three writers.
Frank Norris's work often includes depictions of suffering caused by corrupt and greedy turn-of-the-century corporate monopolies. In The Octopus: A California Story, the Pacific and Southwest Railroad is implicated in the suffering and deaths of a number of ranchers in Southern California. At the end of the novel, after a bloody shootout between farmers and railroad agents at one of the ranches (named Los Muertos), readers are encouraged to take a "larger view" that sees that "through the welter of blood at the irrigating ditch ... the great harvest of Los Muertos rolled like a flood from the Sierras to the Himalayas to feed thousands of starving scarecrows on the barren plains of India". Though free-wheeling market capitalism causes the deaths of many of the characters in the novel, this "larger view always ... discovers the Truth that will, in the end, prevail, and all things, surely, inevitably, resistlessly work together for good".
Vandover and the Brute, written in the 1890s, but not published until after his death, is about three college friends, on their way to success, and the ruin of one through a degenerate lifestyle.
Norris has been characterized as an antisemitic writer. In the words of Richard Levy:
...literary scholars have overlooked the strenuous antisemitism in his most successful novels. Norris's derogation of Jews presented a more invasive and menacing image than Henry Adams's elite and snobbish eastern intellectual antisemitism or Ignatius Donnelly's derisive populist sketch of a Jewish money lender in Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century (1890). As villains in Norris's mug book, Zerko in McTeague (1899) and Behrman in The Octopus (1901) were toxic agents in nature itself, a death force brutalizing California's urban and agrarian scene. These brute devils, lurking in the nature of everyman and prepared to corrupt Anglo-Saxon Christian civilization, transcended the conventional Jewish stereotypes of Shylock and Christ killers.
Norris's novel The Pit was adapted for the theater by Channing Pollock in four acts. Produced by William A. Brady, the play premiered at New York's Lyric Theatre in February 10, 1904. A film adaptation of The Pit was produced in 1917, by William A. Brady's Picture Plays Inc.
An opera by William Bolcom, based loosely on his 1899 novel, McTeague, was premiered by Chicago's Lyric Opera in 1992. The work is in two acts, with libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Robert Altman. The Lyric Opera's presentation featured Ben Heppner in the title role and Catherine Malfitano as Trina, the dentist's wife.
In 2008, the Library of America selected Norris's newspaper article "Hunting Human Game" for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.
An alley-way in San Francisco bears his name (Frank Norris St.). It runs from Polk St. to Larkin St. and is located parallel to and in-between Pine St. and Bush St. in the city's Lower Nob Hill district.
(1892). Yvernelle, J. B. Lippincott Company.
(1898). Moran of the "Lady Letty": A Story of Adventure Off the California Coast, Doubleday & McClure Co.
(1899). McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, Doubleday & McClure Co.
^"Now it makes no difference when or where or how a writer stumbles upon the idea which is to serve as his central purpose. It may spring from his head at a moment's notice like Athena, full armored — as was the case with the late Frank Norris, who, as has often been told, came one morning to his publisher's office, pale and trembling all over with excitement, and gasping out, almost inarticulately, "I've got a big idea! A great big idea! The biggest idea ever!" It was the outlined scheme for his trilogy of the Epic of the Wheat — the trilogy which began with The Octopus and The Pit, and which poor Norris did not live to round out with The Wolf." — Cooper, Frederic Taber. "The Author's Purpose." In The Craftsmanship of Writing, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1920.
^Rothstein, Morton. "Frank Norris and Popular Perceptions of the Market," Agricultural History, Vol. 56, No. 1, 1982.
^Zayani, Mohamed. Reading the Symptom: Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and the Dynamics of Capitalism, Peter Lang (1999).
^Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and Gwendolyn Jones, "Introduction" to The Pit, Penguin Books, 1994.
^Levy, Richard S. Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, Vol. I, pp. 511–512. ISBN 978-1-85109-439-4
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Letizia, Louise M. Frank Norris: A Study in Contrasts and Contradictions (M.A. Thesis), University of Pittsburgh (1950).
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McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. and Crisler, Jesse S. Frank Norris: A Life, University of Illinois Press (2006) ISBN 0-252-03016-8 (the definitive biography of Norris)
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. and Crisler, Jesse S. Frank Norris Remembered, University of Alabama Press (2013).
McGinn, Richard Joseph. The Characterization of Women in the Novels of Frank Norris (M.A Thesis), Columbia University (1954).
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