With Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris was one of a handful of unflinchingly perceptive social-realism novelists whose rigorously detached prose and gritty insights into the human condition helped usher American literature into the vigorous, violent 20th century. Born into wealth and schooled at UC Berkeley and Harvard, he settled in San Francisco at the birth of the Progressive Era and produced half a dozen raw, vivid novels. His masterpiece is the 1899 McTeague, a Story of San Francisco, a Darwin-esque study of a dull-witted, innately brutal Polk Street dentist and his slow, inevitable descent into greed and madness. “McTeague's San Francisco is the underworld of [an acquisitive] society,” lit critic Alfred Kazin wrote, “and the darkness of its tragedy, its pitilessness, its grotesque humor, is like the rumbling of hell.” Norris died in his hellhole of a city at 32 after his appendix burst. The street named for him, a drab Polk Gulch alley filled with fire escapes, chicken wire, and caged windows, is a fitting tribute to the man whose life's manifesto was, “We don't want literature; we want life.”
Link copied to clipboard!