- “Oh, come out here and see the fire, will you?”U.S. Disaster Culture and Vandover and the Brute
Frank Norris’s Vandover and the Brute, completed by 1898, but published posthumously in 1914, examines its eponymous protagonist’s degeneration in turn-of-the-century California. Vandover’s devolution has been central to scholarship on the novel, and rightly so, as the Darwinian logics influencing the ne’er-do-well aesthete’s derangement into a crazed alcoholic lycanthrope are hard to ignore.1 But Vandover also coincides with the advent of yellow journalism and an advancing consumer culture, and as much as Vandover portrays an evolutionist tragedy, the novel also elicits questions about sensational journalism and the ways mass-mediated disasters influence social experience. What is of particular interest to this essay is how sensational media contextualizes the novel’s mounting succession of social and environmental calamities which for Vandover, and the American public, amount to disaster as everyday life.
Whether Norris intended Vandover to be a satirical novel about media’s effect on the individual I cannot say. Nowhere have I found Norris taking up the specific issue of disaster news in explicit terms, nor have I located any writings by Norris where he reflects on the disasters I discuss. Yet within the pages of Vandover reside disasters not used for filler or fluff but treated as the natural gears advancing plot. I contend that Norris’s devolution tale taps into a social ecology determined as much by consumerism and individualistic desire as it is by the rampant succession of mass mediated crises that disclose turn-of-the-century disaster culture. Moreover, I posit that Vandover’s ceaseless pleasure seeking communicates how consumerism operates as a deficient means to cope with and remediate disaster’s psychologically and socially destabilizing influence.
The fact that disasters are ever present in the novel demonstrates how the discursive propagation of material crises promote social vulnerabilities. [End Page 157] Even in scenes like Vandover’s botched suicide attempt structural causalities disclose narratological contradictions, situations that Amy Kaplan identifies as affecting “dissonance as well as resonance” (10) and that provide opportunities to see clearly the systems of cultural power effecting social oppression as well as modes of counter discourse, or, as Kaplan puts it, the “anarchy” of social freedom. To put a finer point on it, I am intrigued by Norris’s use of natural disasters and to what end the public narrativization of pervasive crises, vis-à-vis the yellow press, produce cognitive dissonance, the psychological stress generated by maintaining two irreconcilable beliefs. In the case of Vandover, we find this dissonance between the unstable world of environmental calamity, intemperance, and disease that breaks in upon and undermines the seemingly stable realm of upperclass mobility, socioeconomic freedom, and consumerist pleasure seeking.
Throughout Vandover, crises promote gossip and spectatorship, but when disaster dislodges from objective social dimensions and becomes personal and subjective, these calamities congeal into a pervasive anxiety. No matter how much Vandover drinks, gambles, and carouses, he can never remediate the crisis conditions that pervade his being, and it is the very habits through which he attempts to cope that progressively escalate Vandover’s abjection and debility. Just why Vandover succumbs to the forces of disaster when others do not has more to do with individual risk and resiliency factors, as Norris plots them, than anything else. It is the type of man that Vandover becomes that is at question, and with Vandover Norris is playing at a type.
The original title that Norris’s brother, Charles, altered upon publication in 1914 provides some evidence of this claim. Vandover and the Brute: A Story of Life and Manners in an American City at the End of the Nineteenth Century suggests that Norris is exploring American urban culture at the turn-of-the-century, but his use of the phrase “life and manners” indicates that he is particularly concerned with an upwardly mobile class.2 We know that Vandover and the brute are one and the same, and thus the full title implicates the young upwardly mobile urbanite as a social type complicated by an internal competition between the traditional mores...