Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/111

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
93
Stephen Crane; Frank Norris

was but twenty-one, gave a horrible picture of a degenerate Irish family in New York and the tragedy of its eldest daughter; its violent plain speaking seemed very new when it appeared. Crane’s great success, however, attended The Red Badge of Courage An Episode of the American Civil War (1895), a reconstruction, by a man who at the time of writing knew war only from books, of the mental states of a recruit when first under fire. A greater war has made the theme widely familiar, but Crane’s performance still seems more than an amazingly clever tour de force; it is a real feat of the imagination. Norris had larger aims than Crane and on the whole achieved more, though no one of his books excels the Red Badge. He was one of the least sectional of American novelists, with a vision of his native land which attached him to the movement, then under discussion, to “continentalize” American literature by breaking up the parochial habits of the local colour school. He had a certain epic disposition, tended to vast plans, and conceived trilogies. His “Epic of the Wheat”—The Octopus (1901), The Pit (1903), and The Wolf (never written)—he thought of as the history of the cosmic spirit of wheat moving from the place of its production in California to the place of its consumption in Europe. Another trilogy to which he meant to give years of work would have centred about the battle of Gettysburg, one part for each day, and would have sought to present what Norris considered the American spirit as his Epic of the Wheat presented an impersonal force of nature. Such conceptions explain his grandiose manner and the passion of his naturalism, which he was even willing to call romanticism provided he could mean by it the search for truths deeper than the surface truths of orthodox realism. He had a strong vein of mysticism; he habitually occupied himself with “elemental” emotions. His heroes are nearly all violent men, wilful, passionate, combative; his heroines—thick-haired, large-armed women—are endowed with a rich and deep, if slow, vitality. Love, in Norris’s world is the mating of vikings and valkyries. Love, however, is not his sole concern. The Pacific and California novels, Moran of the Lady Letty (1898), Blix (1899), McTeague (1899), A Man’s Woman (1900), as well as The Octopus, are full of ardently detailed actualities; The Pit is a valuable representation of