Happy birthday to Frank Norris (March 5, 1870-October 25, 1902)!
Reading through the reminiscences in Frank Norris Remembered, edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. (University of Alabama Press, 2013) has given me a different perspective from the more formal portrait than McElrath and Crisler provide in their comprehensive biography (University of Illinois Press, 2006). Some of these might be familiar to Norris fans, but seeing the original sources from Franklin Walker’s interviews (the source of his biography on Norris) makes them new again, especially the frivolous details that enlarge our perspective of him.
1. Norris was fascinated by medieval life, especially armaments and implements of war. His friend Ernest C. Peixotto, a professional illustrator who (six degrees of Edith Wharton alert!) also illustrated Wharton’s Italian Backgrounds, told Walker that Norris “started to paint a huge historical picture of the ‘Battle of Crécy'” (26).
2. Indeed, his first publication was Yvernelle (1892), “a long romantic poem à la Sir Walter Scott” (27). He was either proud of this effort or tried to gather all the copies and burn them, according to various accounts.
3. In Professor Joseph LeConte’s class at Berkeley, Norris wrote a “limerick on Geology” (82):
There once was an ichthyosaurus,
Who live[d] when the earth was all porous
When he first heard his name,
He fainted from shame,
And departed a long time before us.
4. Norris made jokes about his wife’s bad singing (which she shares with Travis Bessemer, the heroine of Blix): “Marriage. Returned to apartment for the honeymoon. They sang with banjo. He let her sing. Said he would let her sing as often as he got married” (144).
5. Norris was not a paragon of organization: “One of the Phi Gamma boys told me–when we were no longer freshmen–that Frank was pretty terrible about keeping appointments–so utterly undependable that it took a lot of patience not to blame him; but nobody ever did blame him, or resent it at all. He had no capacity for keeping money, so they just looked out for him and loaned it when necessary . . . . “(77).
6. Notoriously bad at mathematics, Norris had a friend rig up a game to teach him about the commodities market. As George D. Moulson remembers it, “I recall he came down to Wall street, met me and asked if I would be willing to assist him by coming up to his apartment while he was writing this book he intended to call The Pit dealing with a corner in wheat and help him get the details accurate. . . . We then rigged up a sort of thermometer arrangement on the steam heater, whereby the fluctuations, in cents, halves, quarters and eighths would be shown and we had the market fluctuating as it would during an active day in the pit” (186).
7. Norris was more intellectually than athletically inclined: “He was indisposed toward any violent exercise and not overly strong. [College friend Harry M. Wright] Remembers him in black tights in the gym; not much muscle on parallel bars, looked like a great spider. . . . Only sport was fencing and he was pretty good at it” (109).
8. As a writer, he was intense and focused, as his San Francisco friend Bruce Porter recalls: “He was a ‘tiger’ for names–a tiger crouched to spring. While he waited for an incident that, as he put it, ‘belonged to him.’ When you produced it, it set him on fire. He grasped the bone in his jaws, and retired with it into the lively solitude of his realistic imagination, built up the skeleton, clothed it with flesh, and the man walked, in that peculiar world of Frank’s brain, as a reality” (149).
9. He prized freshness over multiple revisions: [College roommate Seymour Waterhouse] “tried to advise him to revise his work a little more carefully but Frank maintained that that tended to kill the freshness of it” (101).
10. Norris’s early death resulted at least in part by his refusal to believe that he was seriously ill from appendicitis. His wife Jeannette had just had her appendix removed, and Norris, experiencing acute indigestion on October 20, apparently did not believe that lightning would strike twice in the same family, even though he knew that in cases of appendicitis, swift action is best. According the San Francisco Chronicle as related in McElrath & Crisler’s biography, Norris “refused to believe his ailment of so serious a nature as to warrant . . . radical treatment.” Feeling slightly better, he ignored his surgeon’s advice and decided to wait, with the result that peritonitis set in, “with gangrene and perforation of the appendix” (428-29). Norris died on Saturday morning, 25 October 1902, with his wife and his mother by his side. He was 32 years old.