The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XI. The Later Novel: Howells
§ 31. Frank Norris
Norris had larger aims than Crane and on the whole achieved more, though no one of his books excels the Red Badge. He was one of the least sectional of American novelists, with a vision of his native land which attached him to the movement, then under discussion, to “continentalize” American literature by breaking up the parochial habits of the local colour school. He had a certain epic disposition, tended to vast plans, and conceived trilogies. His “Epic of the Wheat”—The Octopus (1901), The Pit (1903), and The Wolf (never written)—he thought of as the history of the cosmic spirit of wheat moving from the place of its production in California to the place of its consumption in Europe. Another trilogy to which he meant to give years of work would have centred about the battle of Gettysburg, one part for each day, and would have sought to present what Norris considered the American spirit as his Epic of the Wheat presented an impersonal force of nature. Such conceptions explain his grandiose manner and the passion of his naturalism, which he was even willing to call romanticism provided he could mean by it the search for truths deeper than the surface truths of orthodox realism. He had a strong vein of mysticism; he habitually occupied himself with “elemental” emotions. His heroes are nearly all violent men, wilful, passionate, combative; his heroines—thick-haired, large-armed women—are endowed with a rich and deep, if slow, vitality. Love, in Norris’s world is the mating of vikings and valkyries. Love, however, is not his sole concern. The Pacific and California novels, Moran of the Lady Letty (1898), Blix (1899), McTeague (1899), A Man’s Woman (1900), as well as The Octopus, are full of ardently detailed actualities; The Pit is a valuable representation of a “corner” on the Chicago Board of Trade. In all these his eagerness to be truthful gave Norris a large energy, particularly in scenes of action, but his speed and vividness are not matched by his body and meaning.