- The "Octopus" in McTeague:Frank Norris and Professionalism
Three Times Within the First Two Pages of McTeague (1899), Frank Norris describes his protagonist as "stupid." The novelist is merely working up steam, however, for his full-scale assault, in Chapter Two, on "[t]his poor crude dentist of Polk Street, stupid, ignorant, vulgar, with his sham education and plebeian tastes" (282).1 With surprising understatement, critics once regretted the "condescension" of such passages, citing them as examples of Norris's "weaknesses of style or tone" (Pizer, Novels 83).2 Only more recently have students of Norris begun questioning whether it is appropriate to judge him by the canons of high art, and with the relaxing of aesthetic standards has come a readiness to explain rather than protest the strangeness of his rhetoric (Cain 201, 206, 208). It can easily be imagined that Norris uses such blunt language to assert mastery over "the evil instincts that in [McTeague] were so close to the surface" (283)—instincts that Norris believed formed part of human nature, hence a threatening part of himself (Hart 52). Although this naturalist dread undoubtedly affords a partial motivation for Norris's blatant [End Page 677] loathing, there is another explanation that looks less to questions of human nature and more to the arrangements by which people make a living in American society. McTeague, according to Norris, is not just a dumb brute but, more specifically, a bad dentist. If he doesn't actually get around to beating one's brains in, he can at least inflict serious problems and pain on one's mouth. McTeague's particular social role raises the issue of professionalism in this novel and in Norris's self-image as an author. At the same time, however, that professionalism is involved in the cultural work of McTeague at the turn of the century, it also by its nature shapes the lives of persons today, thus denying historical criticism its pretense of telling a story about impersonal forces alone, and instead bringing into play the personal experiences and desires of the storyteller.3
In Burton Bledstein's analysis, professionalism is a middle-class culture that developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Members of a profession thought of themselves as offering a special service to society while cultivating their own interests, abilities, and self-esteem. By choosing to master a particular segment of experience, professionals acquired an expertise and wielded an authority that gave them a unique standing among their peers. Their inevitable appeal to science for that authority, combined with the impressive technology of the instruments they employed, enhanced the image of a group of specialists whose knowledge was unassailably pure (80-128).4 For example, a plumber speaking before the American Public Health Association in 1891 viewed his work as being
clothed with the responsibility of the learned professions and the dignity of the sciences. . . . This being the nature of plumbing today, it becomes the duty of the plumber to maintain in every way the dignity of his calling. It should be his special care to have the profession as free as possible from the deleterious effects of the incompetent and unscrupulous.
The purity of a profession, and with it the public's trust, thus came to depend on strictly administered training programs and certification procedures. Skill, if it were to be trustworthy, had to become institutionalized knowledge. [End Page 678]
Norris could hardly have chosen more fitting work than dentistry for a character who aspires to professional status. By 1900, thirty-five states required dentists to be licensed, and between 1876 and 1900 the number of professional schools of dentistry rose sharply (Bledstein 39, 84). Norris has McTeague's mother embody the ambitions of the period, remarking that she was "filled with the one idea of having her son rise in life and enter a profession" (264). At the first opportunity she attaches McTeague to a "travelling dentist" as an informal apprentice.
But Norris is not interested in merely registering a prominent tendency in American society. He immediately goes about venting his feelings toward the sort of professional that McTeague represents...