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date: 14 June 2024

Norris, Franklocked

Norris, Franklocked

  • Jan GoggansJan GoggansSchool of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, University of California, Merced


Benjamin Franklin Norris Jr. was born on March 5, 1870, in Chicago, Illinois. A scant thirty-two years later, he died after fictively returning to Chicago, the setting for his final novel, The Pit (1903). During his brief life, Norris wrote essays defining literary naturalism, the genre with which he is most associated, as well as verse and novels. Influenced by Émile Zola and determinism, Norris defined naturalism in ways specific to Zola as well as his own writing. His work joins that of Zola and Thomas Hardy (Europe) and Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane (United States), addressing themes of inevitable misery, commonplace corruption and vice, unsympathetic poverty, and unchallenged prostitution, racism, and violence. Naturalism was not easily embraced, and those who maintained its philosophies were often alone.

Best known for his California novels, McTeague (1899), and The Octopus (1901), he has found a resurgence in California studies. The Octopus, a study of the policies and politics behind California’s great agricultural concerns, has been the most enduring, partly because of late-20th-century scholarship that focused on the role of literature in shaping our responses to the wilderness, and particularly the western landscape. Responses to Norris’s writing at that time, however, looked not only at the content of his novels but at the philosophy that drives his plot and characterizations. In these analyses, the difficulties of limiting a writer to a certain genre became evident, for Norris was alternatively classified as a naturalist, a realist, a romantic, and a transcendentalist. Far from posing a problem, however, the discussion pointed to Norris’s value as an American writer. It is because of the rich vein of philosophical thought found within his novels, and the wealth of historical detail they afford, that they remain as relevant and important as they were in the early 20th century.


  • North American Literatures
  • Fiction
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)

Updated in this version

Text re-written to reflect recent scholarship. Style-related updates made to the original American Literature article. Additional biographical information, references, and further reading suggestions also been included in the updated version.

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