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DON D. WALKER University of Utah TLe Western Naturalism of Frank Norris In one of his “Essays on Authorship,” Frank Norris wrote of “those places where the Master-note sounds,” “those untracked, un­ charted comers of the earth.” “It sounds,” he said, “in the canyons of the higher mountains, in the plunge of streams and swirling of rivers yet without names —in the wildernesses, the plains, the widerimmed deserts.”1 If imaginatively these places constitute the West, we can ask, what for Norris was the Mastemote to be heard in the literary West? The essay itself provides a partial answer. At least it indicates what the note does, if not fully what it means. Nature, said Norris, the nature of the wildernesses, plains, and deserts, is the great Tuner. The “silver cord of our creative faculty” responds to the Master-note, “attunes itself to it, vibrates with its vibration, thrills with it quivering, beats with its rhythm, and tautens itself and freshens itself and lives again with its great pure, elemental life, and the man comes back once more to the world of men with a true-beating heart and a true-hearing ear, so that he understands once more, so that his living, sensitive, delicately humming instru­ ment trembles responsive to the emotions and impulses and loves and joys and sorrows and fears of his fellows, and the Man writes true and clear, and his message rings with harmony and with melody, with power and passion of the prophets interpreting God’s handwriting to the world of men.”2 1The Complete Works of Frank Norris (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, n. d), IV, 368. 2Ibid., pp. 368-69. The Western Naturalism of Frank Norris 15 But this remains an incomplete answer. We still do not know what God’s handwriting says to the world of men, and if we use Norris himself as the Man writing true and clear, if we listen in his work to the sound of the wilderness, we are even more puzzled: the message does not ring with harmony and only occasionally does it ring with melody. The Master-note claimed in the essay would seem to be the old chord of romantic primitivism. Man returns to nature and is purified in elemental life. He throws off the tired habits of an old civilization. His senses are quickened. Life becomes sweet and good. Certainly one hears this note in Norris’ writings. There is, however, another note, a more dominant note, and against this old chord a discordant note. Like London, Norris be­ came a writer in an intellectual environment in which nature was being transformed from the good nature of Cooper and Emerson into the indifferent nature of Darwin and Spencer. For the evolu­ tionists the return to nature meant no necessary gain in goodness. On the contrary, man’s return to his beginnings meant a reversion to his brutish past. In this sense, return to nature was degradation. Norris knew this. He made his favorite theme the presence of the brute beneath the veneer of civilization.3 Again and again he nar­ rated the breakdown of the man and the ascendance of the brute. And only in some moral perversity could one claim that man was better as a brute, that a return to an elemental natural state was good. Surely this was not the message God wrote upon his world. The truth is that Norris suffered a basic confusion of values. He could not make up his mind whether reversion was good or bad. His own sensibility delighted in the blood lust of physical conflict. He took genuine pride in the superior vigor of his AngloSaxon race. He admired wolves, moose, and great Durham bulls. Yet intellectually he knew that blood lust is atavistic, that the return to nature may be a return to levels of mere brutish instinct. And if he gave humanistic value to great animal “heroes,” he frequently wrote of men as insects, gnats buzzing impudently in their tiny battles, mere ephemerides that flutter and fall and are forgotten be­ tween dawn and dusk. The Master-note, insofar as one note sounded above the others, was finally more naturalistic than...


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