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University of Oregon G L E N A . L O V E Frank Norris’s Western Metropolitans I have great faith in the possibilities of San Francisco and the Pacific Coast as offering a field for fiction. Not the fiction of Bret Harte, however, for the country has long since outgrown the ‘red shirt’ period. The novel of California must be now a novel of city life. . . .* A representative action in Frank Norris’s San Francisco novels is the withdrawal of the central character or characters from the city itself out to the Presidio and to the ruins of old Fort Mason near the Golden Gate. There, in a setting of solitary beach, fresh trade winds, thundering surf, swirling foam, and great, bare hills rolling down to the sea — in short, the sort of booming and kinetic natural landscape which embodies the author’s sense of the vital force surging through all life — come Norris’s troubled San Franciscans to straighten out their values. Here McTeague begins his interior journey back to the Sierra Mountains of his youth as he sits for hours, “watching the roll and plunge of the breakers with the silent, unreasoned enjoyment of a child.”2 Here Norris brings all three of his popular romances, Moran of the Lady Letty, Blix, and A Man’s Woman, to a close, and in Blix the scene is visited repeatedly throughout the novel. Here Norris envisioned his own recovery from his debilitating experiences in the Cuban War in 1898. As he wrote to a friend, 'L etter from Norris to Isaac Marcosson, December, 1898. The Letters of Frank Norris, ed. Franklin Walker (San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1956), p. 23, hereinafter abbreviated as Letters. 2McTeague (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Co., The Argonaut Manuscript Limited Edition of Frank Norris’s Works, 1928), V III, p. 283, hereinafter abbreviated as Works. All subsequent references to Norris’s novels and stories are from this edition and will be limited to volume and page number and included in the text. 4 Western American Literature I want to get these things out of my mind and the fever out of my blood, and so if my luck holds I am going back to the old place for three weeks and for the biggest part of the time I hope to wallow and grovel in the longest grass I can find in the Presidio reservation on the cliffs overlooking the ocean and absorb ozone and smell smells that don’t come from rotting and scorched vege­ tation, dead horses and bad water.3 The rejection by the fictional hero of his blighted contemporary surroundings and his rejuvenative withdrawal to a green shade is, of course, a classic ritual in American literature. But Norris’s version of American pastoral requires closer examination precisely because it is not the simple praise of natural setting and vilification of the city and indus­ trial society which we have come to expect when the machine and the American garden stand in confrontation. Norris’s characteristic treat­ ment of the modern city, as exemplified for him by San Francisco, combines conventional romantic attitudes toward nature with his beliefs in a mechanistic life-force and an evolutionary heritage which included the propensities for both atavism and progress.4 If Norris can evoke the qualities of grim indifference in the San Francisco of McTeague, if it becomes a city of dreadful night in Vandover and the Brute, if it is the setting of inconsequential society frivolity in Moran of the Lady Letty, Norris’s western metropolis is also throughout his works the emblem of an inevitable future, urban and complex, in which the survivors are those who have met the city’s strenuous and unique requirements. Thus, Norris resists.classification as a conventional defender of the natural world against the threatening city/’ It may be acknowledged that, to some degree, Norris demonstrates apprehension over the growth of techno­ logical civilization. His works often dramatize flight from the city into Letters, p. 19. 4I am indebted to Donald Pizer’s lucid and thorough explanation of Norris’s conception, gained primarily from his teacher at Berkeley, Professor Joseph Le Conte...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 3-22
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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