McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


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McTeague is a riveting tale of murder and greed set in the squalid, urban world of turn-of-the-century San Francisco. More significantly, the novel is the premiere document of American literary naturalism and provides a vital glimpse into the turbulent American society of the period. Through his focus on the transformation of the slow-witted dentist McTeague into an animalistic, hunted murderer, Frank Norris creates a story in which desperate characters on the fringe of society are corrupted and destroyed by their uncontrollable desires.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780760773741
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 01/19/2006
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 566,118
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)


Frank Norris' McTeague, first published in 1899, is a riveting tale of murder and greed set in the squalid, urban world of turn-of-the-century San Francisco. More significantly, the novel is the premiere document of American literary naturalism and provides a vital glimpse into the turbulent American society of the period. Through his focus on the transformation of the slow-witted, naive dentist McTeague into an animalistic, hunted murderer, Norris creates a story in which desperate characters on the fringe of society are corrupted and destroyed by their uncontrollable desires. As the leading American innovator and novelist of the literary genre known as "naturalism," Norris wrote McTeague to create a literature that would unflinchingly expose society's grim social truths with brutal objectivity. In Norris' words, "naturalism," would be a "drama of the people, working itself out in blood and ordure . . . a school by itself, unique, somber, powerful beyond words." In McTeague, Norris accomplishes this goal by examining in merciless detail how social and psychological limits defeat his characters.

Frank Norris was born to wealthy parents in Chicago in 1870, but he moved with his family to the booming city of San Francisco in 1884, where he used the people and urban life of his adoptive hometown as the subject matter for his later fiction. (In fact, the central murder in McTeague is based on an actual vicious murder in a San Francisco kindergarten in 1893.) Leaving California for several years in 1887 to study painting in Paris, Norris discovered Émile Zola's groundbreaking, graphically detailed novels portraying vast social forces crushing lower-class characters. Influenced by Zola's self-proclaimed "scientific" examination of a socially determined underclass, Norris came to disdain the literary "realism" of such American authors as William Dean Howells and Henry James that focused on subtle social intrigues of the middle and upper classes, which Norris derisively termed the "drama of a broken teacup." Instead, Norris became dedicated to creating a literature portraying the harsh truths of society, which to Norris meant examining the brutal world of the lower class, people constrained through personal and social limitations, destined for destruction. He most fully accomplished his vision through the publication of McTeague (1899) and Vandover and the Brute (published posthumously in 1914), in two volumes of his unfinished "wheat trilogy," The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903), as well as in his influential body of literary criticism. Although he died suddenly of peritonitis in 1902, Norris left a lasting legacy as the foremost American practitioner of literary naturalism, permanently altering our understanding of turn-of-the-century American literature and influencing generations of later writers.

Frank Norris' McTeague and literary naturalism are born from the intense social, scientific, and philosophical changes of the late nineteenth century. Forces of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration that began moderately before the Civil War accelerated exponentially in its aftermath, creating with alarming speed whole urban industrial centers and tenement housing teeming with new and miserably poor immigrants, where only years before had been small settlements or open prairie. Similar to such rapidly expanding cities as Chicago and Cleveland, Norris' San Francisco transformed from a modest, Spanish-flavored city of 56,000 in 1860 to the symbol of the new American West by 1900 as a city of 342,000. For many Americans who took their country's traditional agrarian and relatively racially homogenous identity for granted, these swift and uncertain changes were distressing. Like Frank Norris, numerous American writers explored the exotic urban landscape of nouveau riche industrialists, mass assembly lines, and impoverished immigrants for a curious and anxious middle-class audience. To name a very few, Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills (1860) provided the first fictionalized glimpse of the crushing factory conditions and pathetic lives of industrial mill workers, and in a similar vein, Jacob Riis published his jarring photography and sensational prose about New York's poor in How the Other Half Lives (1890). Focusing on young girls maneuvering through the pitfalls of industrial America, Stephen Crane in New York and Theodore Dreiser in Chicago respectively published Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and Sister Carrie (1900). And most famously and graphically, Upton Sinclair's muckraking classic The Jungle (1906) exposed the many abuses in Chicago's squalid meatpacking industry.

Not content to simply depict the new urban landscape for their audiences, many writers in this period sought to interpret the social significance of the growing industrial city in America. The first distinct genre to do so has come to be known as literary "realism," led by William Dean Howells in such novels as The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). Howells, the influential long-time editor of the Atlantic Monthly and "dean of American letters," urged that novels should not didactically "instruct" or purposefully "please" their audience, but rather they should "make the truest possible picture of life." To Howells, the measure of a novel's fidelity to the "truth" was how closely its readership felt the novel portrayed life "like what [the reader] has seen or felt." With a "true-to-life," mimetic reading experience as their goal, it is unsurprising that the novels of Howells, or the other master of realism, Henry James, center on middle- or upper-class characters, settings, and situations, thus creating a world that rings "true" to their contemporary middle- and upper-class audiences.

While extended observations of the social customs and controversies of the relatively wealthy may have been "the truest possible picture of life" for Howells and James, to Frank Norris and the rising group of literary naturalists, these mannered novels seemed patently false. Norris bluntly described the divide between his fiction and that of the literary realism:

The people who buy novels are the well-to-do people. They belong to a class whose whole scheme of life is concerned solely with an aim to avoid the unpleasant suffering, the great catastrophes, the social throes, that annihilate whole communities, or that crush even isolated individuals-all these are as far removed from them as earthquakes and tidal waves.

For Norris, like Howells, the purpose of the novel was to depict "truth," but Norris believed that literary realism missed the starker, deeper social truths because they focused on the ephemeral-the "tragedy of a walk down the block, the excitement of an afternoon call, the adventure of an invitation to dinner"-rather than the essential-by going "straight through clothes and tissues and wrappings of flesh down deep into the red living heart of things." To Norris, this deeper truth of modern American life was one of large groups of urban poor, often immigrants, being hopelessly ground down by social and biological limitations beyond their control. Norris believed only literary naturalism could reveal these disturbing social truths to America's novel-reading public.

Norris' ideas for how to best understand and fictionally portray these harsh social "truths" were deeply influenced by the social, political, and scientific thinking coalescing at the time, which Norris studied at both the University of California and Harvard (mostly completing McTeague while at the latter). In 1859 Charles Darwin first proposed his theory of natural selection and biological evolution in Origin of Species, which effectively unseated humans from a unique stance above the animal world and placed them firmly within the continuum of nature (hence providing "naturalism" its name). Darwin's ideas were expounded upon, popularized, and at times distorted, by such figures as the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who coined the term "survival of the fittest," and Yale professor William Graham Sumner, who vigorously advocated Social Darwinism, both attempting to link evolutionary principals to social theory. These seeds of biological determinism were taken up by the early Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, a very influential figure in Norris' collegiate studies, who in 1876 first published his theory correlating criminality and social deviancy with genetic, atavistic, physical traits (such as the shape of the head or nose). Apart from biology, in 1867 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels popularized notions of economic determination with their first volume of Das Kapital. We can see Norris' goal of capturing these contemporary economic and "scientific" theories in his literature when he argues that "the best class" of literature "proves something, draws conclusions from whole congeries of forces, social tendencies, race impulses, devotes itself not to a study of men but of man." Thus, for Norris, naturalism was a practice in social science as much as it was literature, an exposition of broad social currents as much as it was a depiction of individual characters or their stories.

From the beginning of McTeague, Norris makes clear that his readers are observing characters that are fated for destruction through their lack of free will. When McTeague first falls in love with Trina, whom he will later viciously murder and then die himself while in flight from the authorities, Norris writes:

Their undoing had already begun. Yet neither of them was to blame. From the first they had not sought each other. Chance had brought them face to face, and mysterious instincts as ungovernable as the winds of heaven were at work knitting their lives together . . . they were allowed no voice in the matter.

Although Norris makes clear that random "chance" plays a role in their fate, such as Trina first being a dental patient of McTeague's and once engaged winning $5,000 in the lottery, the determining factor for Norris is his characters' "instinct." By the characters primarily operating by instinct, they have "no voice in the matter" of their own fate, no agency. Chance brings Trina and McTeague together, chance provides them with a large sum of money-providing the stimulus for action-but it is their pre-set "instinct," their default inclinations and desires, that unavoidably dooms them under the circumstances.

In McTeague, Norris clearly attributes the characters' lack of agency to biologically determined notions of race. In what is perhaps the most alien aspect of the novel to our modern sensibilities, Norris, drawing from the social and evolutionary theories of his day, believed "hereditary determinism offers a satisfying way of understanding individual destiny in terms of biology, social problems in terms of evolution of the species." Thus the main characters in the novel, all lower class, are clearly marked as lacking "pure Aryan blood," which Norris and many American intellectuals believed was "nobler than that of other races." McTeague's name indicates he is of Celtic rather than Anglo-Saxon lineage, and we are told his wife Trina has a "good deal of peasant blood" running "undiluted in her veins" from her Swiss-German heritage, which she shares with her cousin Marcus Schouler, McTeague's rival. The insane South American cleaning woman, Maria Macapa, is "a strange woman of a mixed race," who marries Zerkow the murderous Polish Jew, and together they have a "strange hybrid" baby who quickly dies without "wits enough to cry." From Norris' psuedo-evolutionary perspective, the characters are not biologically equipped to survive, as each of the above characters become "instinctually" obsessed in one way or another, and each obsession leads to his or her violent death. In a social order determined by "survival of the fittest," these impoverished immigrants' destructive "instincts" set them against one another, resulting in the Darwinian eventuality of their destruction.

Symbolically, Norris develops the theme of the characters' fatal lack of agency through McTeague's canary, which he keeps close beside him in its "little gilt prison" at all times, even when on the run from the law in Death Valley. Like the canary confined in a golden prison, the characters in the novel are captive to their "instinctual" desires, which are most strongly expressed as a greed for gold. We see this in Trina's "instinct of hoarding" her lottery winnings to the point of sleeping nude on gold coins, sucking on them in her mouth, and ultimately ruining her marriage with McTeague. Equally destructive are Maria Macapa's apocryphal fantasies about her family's lost solid-gold serving set, which attracts the manically greedy junk peddler Zerkow. Zerkow's animalistic lust for wealth is emphasized through his "lynx"-like eyes and "clawlike, prehensile fingers," so it is little surprise when he murders Maria and then commits suicide when she refuses to reveal the hiding place of the nonexistent gold. Equally, Marcus Schouler's envy of McTeague and his cousin's lottery winnings eventually destroys him as well as McTeague. Each of these characters, then, functions in a prison of his or her own "instinctual" desires for gold. As McTeague's canary is helplessly carried into the desert where it will die, each character is guided to his or her death by their animalistic instincts beyond their control.

Unlike the above characters, McTeague's "cage" of determinism is not greed for gold, but rather his inescapable atavistic impulses that violently emerge as the story develops. Norris uses animalistic descriptions of the "heavy, slow to act, sluggish . . . draft horse" of a dentist from the start of the novel, but there is initially "nothing vicious" about McTeague. However, the ruining of McTeague's dental career by the jealous Marcus, which heightens Trina's miserly hoarding of her fortune, and causes McTeague to drink heavily, eventually fully expose the "brute that in McTeague lay so close to the surface." McTeague's bloody murder of his wife is not out of greed, but is rather the frustrated reaction of an unreasoning man pushed to a reliance on "brute instinct" alone. And with McTeague dying in the desert along with the canary he dragged with him, Norris ends the novel with the image of two animals, constrained by powers beyond their control, dying in the midst of a vast and indifferent nature.

Donald Pizer, the leading critic of naturalism, asserts it is "perhaps the only modern literary form in America which has been both popular and significant." Naturalism's significance lies chiefly with its early sensitivity to and graphic portrayal of modern urban conditions, its clear questioning of the "American Dream" that all citizens have inherently equal access to material success, and its portrayal of characters suffering determined "fates"-not from the ancient mythic or religious perspective-but rather from the modern perspective of natural and social forces. Norris' contemporaries, such as Stephen Crane and Jack London, used the tenets of naturalism to explore human impotency in the face of untamed nature; Theodore Dreiser and Edith Wharton write of deterministic social pressures in the wilderness of American city. Soon after Norris' death, socially conscious writers such as Upton Sinclair in The Jungle (1906), and later John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), portrayed social determinism to argue for social reform. Current critics trace the influence of naturalism through such major twentieth-century writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, John Dos Passos, and Saul Bellow. Thus as the premiere work of American literary naturalism, Norris' McTeague remains a vital text.

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