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W I L L I A M J. H U G Jacksonville State University McTeague asMetafiction?FrankNorris’ Parodies ofBretHarte andthe DimeNovel Whenever literary critics and historians discuss Frank Norris’ McTeague, they generally dwell upon the first four-fifths of the novel. With rare exceptions, scholars have given.its curious finale—the dentist’s flight into the California hinterlands and, finally, Death Val­ ley—rather short shrift, largely because it seems so removed from and inferior to the heart of the story, especially in terms of the ending’s frantic narrative pace and heavy melodrama. Granted, the novel’s con­ clusion has been effectively defended as the logical culmination to Norris’treatment ofsettings throughout the novel (Graham 61 ff.), and to McTeague’s atavistic descent into instinct (Dillingham 181 ff., Hochman 74, Pizer 81). Yet its blatant melodrama often goes undiscussed (Frohock, Graham, Hochman), or else is dismissed as a product of the flamboyant romanticism that Norris believed to be the essence of naturalism (French 68, Marchand 65, Pizer 81-82, Walker 229-230). But perhaps the ending of McTeague may be explained, even justified, in terms that readers have yet to consider: those of parody. Given Norris’affection for the novel’swestern locale—his own adopted region—and his disdain for the two types of fiction most widely associ­ ated with the West during his time—Bret Harte’s sentimental mining tales and the dime novels—the possibility merits consideration.1 It may be more than coincidence that, in the fall of 1897, as Norris was completing McTeague, he also published an experiment in western parody as one ofthe Perverted Tales, a series ofpieces he wrote for the San Francisco weekly The Wave. These consist of brief take-offs on familiar writers of the day: Kipling, Bierce, Harding Davis, Anthony Hope—and Bret Harte. In “A Hero of Tomato Can” (174-176), a caustic sketch based broadly on “The Outcasts ofPoker Flat,”Norris neatly mimics the 220 WesternAmerican Literature facile contrivances of plot and the lofty diction with which Harte gener­ ated the sentimentality of his stories, and lampoons Harte’s favorite sorts of characters and situations. Norris’John Oak-hearse is not only a parodic rendering ofHarte’sgamblersJohn Oakhurst andJack Hamlin, Oak-hearse and his exploits burlesque a character type and story pattern which reappear consistently throughout Harte’s fiction: the seemingly callous, anarchistic Westerner, free of moral and social constraints, who chooses to sacrifice himself in a redemptive act sentimentally embody­ ing genteel mores. So western parody was certainly on Norris’mind while the author was preparing the conclusion of McTeague. And if “A Hero of Tomato Can” represents his implicit criticism of Harte’s work, the 1902 essay ‘“The Literature of the West’:A Reply to W.R. Lighton” represents his explicit criticism not only of Harte but of the other form of western fiction prevalent in the later 19th century, the dime novel.2In this piece, Norris bluntly castigates Harte’s favorite character, the red-shirted miner, for “his stock lingo, his make-up, and his gallery plays.”This “redshirt fellow” is, he proclaims, “a very bad actor who dresses the part according to the illustrated weeklies” (104); and the heroes of the dime novel Westerns, “the wretched ‘Deadwood Dicks’ and Buffalo Bills of the yellow backs,” are no better (107). If western fiction is ever to transcend such dismal embodiments, Norris asserts that it will be done through romantic portrayal of frontier life in terms of contemporary regional epic (107), the approach he himself hadjust employed in The Octopus. In light of the sustained concern over the popular Western and its flaws which these two works indicate, the conclusion of McTeague can certainly be read as one more of Norris’ comments on the sad state of fiction about the West. From this perspective, the dentist’s flight from San Francisco becomes another parodic send-up of the absurdities plaguing the Western story—particularly Harte’s flat, sentimental char­ acterization of his crusty but lovable sourdoughs, and the sensational, staccato action ofthe dime novels. If this indeed wasNorris’intention, it might explain why he chose to complete McTeague in a stereotypical western setting characteristic of both...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 219-228
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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