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J A M E S R. G I L E S North Texas State University Beneficial Atavism in Frank Norris and Jack London Certain aspects of the literary kinship between Frank Norris and Jack London are well-known. They were both Californians; they both divided their literary output between “serious” sociolog­ ical fiction and escapist writing; and they were, of course, two of the leading figures in the American naturalistic movement of the turn of the century. However, another common element in their fiction is not so well known. Both Norris and London feared the growth of industrialism and the city, and they expressed this fear primarily through the concept of atavism (the evolution-related belief that behind the civilized man lurks the primitive AngloSaxon brute which may come to the surface in times of stress.) Furthermore, both writers made a distinction between beneficial atavism and destructive atavism. Essentially, the distinction rests upon the setting of the stories—if the reversal occurs in the city, it is usually destructive; while a similar reversal on the high seas or on any “frontier” is generally beneficial. This article will be concerned with the two writers’ treatment of beneficial atavism and, specifically, with the influence of Norris’ first published novel, Moran of the Lady Letty (1898) upon London’s earliest fiction. Shortly after Norris published Moran, he gave a succinct state­ ment of the book’s significance for him in a letter to Isaac F. 16 Western American Literature Marcosson: “I do not think, though, that I shall ever write another story of adventures. When I wrote ‘Moran’ I was, as one might say, flying kites, trying to see how high I could go without breaking the string.”1 Upon reading Moran, it is not difficult to see the lack of seriousness which Norris hints at; indeed, it does seem as if he is purposely writing as implausible a story as he can get away with. One wonders, however, if the inspiration behind the work is not serious, even if the story proper is not. It is admittedly “escape” literature, but one should remember that most such fiction originates in a rejection of some serious aspect of reality. The book obviously is partially modeled on Kipling’s Captains Courageous. Although it clearly is an attempt to write a story utilizing most of the “red blooded” principles which Norris associ­ ated with Rudyard Kipling, in many ways it is a quite different kind of work from Captains Courageous. Early in the story, Ross Wilbur, a young San Francisco sophisti­ cate, is shanghaied aboard a ship captained by one Alvinza Kitchell, who at one point, summarized his code of conduct in this pointed manner: “ . . . my name’s Kitchell, and I’m hog right through. . . . H-O-G spells very truly yours, Alvinza Kitchell—ninety-nine swine an’ me make a hundred swine. I’m a shoat with both feet in the trough, first last, an’ always. . . . I’m out for anything that there’s stuff in. . . . ”2 Besides greed and poor grammar, Kitchell is notable for one other characteristic—brutality. When Wilbur demands to be re­ leased and taken back to San Francisco, Kitchell, like Kipling’s Disko Troop, ends the argument with a quick knockout punch. Norris thus describes the subsequent change wrought in Wilbur by this encounter with force: It was more than a change—it was a revelation. What he made up his mind to do—precisely what mental attitude he decided to adopt, just what new niche he elected wherein to set his feet, it is difficult to say. Only by results could the change be guessed at. He went down the forward hatch at the toe of Kitchell's boot—silk-hatted, xFrank Norris, The Letters of Frank Norris, ed. Franklin Walker (San Francisco, 1956), p. 17.«Frank Norris, Blix—Moran of the Lady Letty, Works, Vol. Ill, p. 207. Frank Norris and, Jack London 17 melton-overcoated, patent-booted, and gloved in suedes. Two minutes later there emerged upon the deck a figure in oil-skins and a sou’wester. There was blood upon the face of him and the grime of an unclean ship upon his bare hands...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 15-27
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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