California English Journal


California English

Table of Contents

FALL 1997

Should We Create An Authorized National Literary Canon?
- Excerpts from an on-line discussion.

For The Love Of Lists 
-Miles Myers

Need A New Literary Canon? Listen To Students
- Hattie Beresford

NCTE To "Classics": Drop Dead
-David Laubach

What Would You Recommend?
-James Strickland

Overcoming The Tradition of Silence
- Rosario Diaz Greenberg

Firing The Canon and Making Literacy Grow
-Alfee Enciso

Of The Making Of Lists There Will Be No End
-Anthony Backes

Political Agenda In The Classroom
-Bruce Henderson

Get Rid Of Those Summer Reading Lists
-Maureen Offinger

Why Limit Us With A List?
-Anne Fairbrother

Contents page

California Writers: Frank Norris
-by Janice Albert


Back | Top | Overcoming the Tradition.... | Should We Create.... | Frank Norris |

Overcoming The Tradition of Silence
                                   - Rosario Diaz Greenberg

If you really want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity. I am my language. Until I can accept as legitimate. . . all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself. . . and as long as I have to accommodate.. . English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, White . . . my women's voice . . . my poet's voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence. (Anzaldua, 1987, p. 59)

As a Latina attending school in the United States I often felt immersed in the culture of silence. Many times it seemed as if I did not exist in the classroom. If I raised my hand to participate in class discussions, the teachers did not acknowledge it or would call on me last. Mine was the voice unheard, the presence not recognized, the voice silenced by the structured patterns imposed on students who do not seem to belong. I became ashamed of my accent, unable to speak without being conscious of the way I sounded. Every time I needed to participate in class, my heart would pound furiously while I stammered the words. Often times I would apologize for my inability to pronounce certain words, not realizing that I was only sinking deeper and deeper into the culture of silence. For years I managed to survive by doing well in the written part of the assignments while forcing myself to be quiet. Years later I realized that mine was not a unique experience, but one often lived by second language learners in the USA.

My personal experiences in the classroom as a second language learner shaped my desire to become a teacher. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of Latino students, wanted them to learn without losing their language and identity, without becoming ashamed of who they were. For years I struggled to incorporate my students' language and culture within the curriculum. Their lives and home-based experiences became a central part of our lessons, helping to create a child-centered classroom.

During the Fall of 1991 I had the opportunity to begin working as a researcher and a teacher with a group of young Latino suburban high school students. We spent the next three years defining our own identity, reclaiming our voices by applying several principles rooted in Critical Pedagogy. This process entailed the creation of a safe haven where students felt a sense of freedom of expression. It also encompassed developing mutual trust, reciprocity, respect, and believing in the ability of students to construct knowledge. It included the use of a problem posing approach, where students were considered experts who could contribute to the learning process.

As I advanced in my doctoral studies, I felt that my research should be based on my students' work. When given the opportunity to select a topic for my dissertation, I decided to focus on issues of voice among Latino students, since it was a subject that we had been working on for years. As a result, I felt that the organizing principle of this study should rest on the premise that students are experts whose voices need to be elicited, validated, and heeded.The participants were eighteen Latino high school students, from a Spanish-for-Native-Speakers program in Florida. Dialectical, open-ended, sequential interviews constituted the vehicle for communication among the participants and I. The dialogues took place at "Eastern High School" (E.H.S.), in Traviss, Florida. Seven topics were covered by each participant, 140 dialogues for the whole group. Dialogue within the classroom encouraged such voices and provided an opportunity to probe into deeper layers of understanding and perception.

I decided to cluster the participants' comments around four central issues, which provide an insight into the students' perceptions of their own realities and illuminate areas that students consider must be incorporated as part of the learning process. The four major themes are: (I)voice: rupturing the structured silence, (2) power and knowledge: a direct connection, (3) ethnic identity and its relationship to culture and language, and (4) education as a learning process involving reflection.

These series of articles will present, through the voices of Latino students, the struggles and dreams of a community of learners. The students' comments will serve as a centerpiece showing how teachers can benefit from listening to students' voices and the students' perspectives about the factors that silence their voices.

Voice: Rupturing the Structured Silence
Defining Voice: New Beginnings
Voice is an individual's only power to express her inner thoughts and life experiences. Without this tool called voice, the inner self is murdered (Ana)

Ana was born and raised in Colombia, where she attended a private school. Coming to the USA aged 12 and not knowing any English, she felt confused and frightened by the new environment. However, her determination to succeed, coupled with her teachers' encouragement, enabled her to become active in scholastic activities. Ana's case represents one of many untold stories of success among Latino students. Her love for Latin American literature and her artistic abilities allowed her to take part in state-wide academic competitions and obtain recognition in the field of foreign languages. Ana often searched for deeper meaning in the literary works we studied. Her comments on the meaning of voice exemplify a personal understanding of her identity, a theme that was forever present in her work.

Some of my students defined voice as the ability "to express one's ideas, feelings, and thoughts, and having them heard and understood" (Yeiza). According to Alicia, having a voice entailed the ability to "speak out about any injustice that may be done to you or any of your peers:' For some of my students, coming to voice often meant a political act that could denounce social injustice. The power of voice as a political tool to create a better world was directly expressed by many of the participants.

Lorraine's comments exemplify the students' desire to make a difference in society: "Being able to express your voice means to be able to express how you feel about an issue and make a difference" For Natalia having a voice was a moral right which should be respected as such:

To me "voice" means expressing my views, thoughts and opinions, especially on subjects such as culture, racism, and discrimination. Your voice should be listened to and respected. When this fails to happen, you are being deprived of a moral right.

For Anita, not having a voice was related to the denial of individual identity and a desire to have students conform to preconceived notions dictated by those in power.

Without voice we would not be able to open up and say what we feel. In other words, we would be like robots, computed to simply do, say, and act as we are told by another person. People cannot live like that, I cannot live like that.

Ryan's comments summarize the participants' point of view and echo Anzaldua's Feelings. His words illustrate the fact that voice is an essential part of identity and, as such, central to the development of self-esteem:

Having a voice means to be able to express yourself, to relate your ideas and opinions.. .. To have that restricted will mean not to have a voice at all. To take away someone's voice is to take away their identity. . .

Silencing Voices: Overt and Covert Attempts
Most participants shared a common belief in the need to express their voices and use them as a political tool to obtain power. However, their attempts were usually thwarted by most teachers and administrators. Among some of the causes that led to the silencing of students' voices was fear, as expressed by Guillermo's comments: "They try to silence our voices, in some cases, for fear, fear of us exposing those who try to oppress our race, for fear that we say what we feel. . . . They are afraid."

Teachers and administrators seemed to be afraid of the unknown, that is, what might happen if students were allowed to come to voice and express their inner feelings and thoughts. Yeiza summarized the participants' general feelings by stating: "We are silenced because people are fearful of our ideas and the power we might obtain with our voices."' At times fear appears to be rooted in xenophobia. Students perceived that teachers tended to reject them because they were different from the rest of the school population. As Ryan expressed it: "I think they might be afraid of what they don't understand. What's not familiar to them, they . . . treat it like garbage. . . . Until they try to understand other foreign .. . cultures, I don't think this problem will ever be resolved."

Racism and discrimination, as well as teachers' negative perceptions of Latino students were often mentioned as causes for silencing students' voices. As expressed by Alexia: "They perceive Latinos as students that never do anything, except misbehave, . . . never get their work done and always disrespect teachers and . . . they think that we are all like that and . . . are not worth it." Similarly, authoritarianism and denial of reality played an important role. Alicia stated "They want to avoid getting the truth. You know, finding out what's really going on behind closed doors. They want to keep it under cover."


| Back | Top | Overcoming the Tradition.... | Should We Create.... | Frank Norris |

Should We Create An Authorized National Literary Canon?
                                                                 - Excerpts from an on-line discussion.

From: Sheridan Blau < >
To: Multiple recipients of list <>
Subject: [NCTE-TALK:14734] National Reading List

The National Literature Project and the NCTE Commission on Literature are jointly proposing to sponsor a national effort among teachers of literature to construct a reading list that might supplement the NCTE/IRA standards document by providing schools nationally with recommended reading lists for various levels of schooling. We want to initiate a national discussion of that proposal here on NCTE-Talk, by calling on English and language arts teachers at all grades and in all regions of the country to offer their views on the merits of such professionally authorized lists, and on titles, authors, themes, topics, periods, or genre that such lists should include, if they are ever produced.

To help open the discussion nationally let me point out some of the arguments that have urged the sponsors of this discussion to believe that it might be in our professional interest to produce professionally authoritative reading lists to guide curriculum planners, school boards, parents, teachers, and students who ask if there anything like an authorized reading list to guide them in planning reading programs.

1. Such lists -- and they are fairly narrow ones and fairly persistent over time -- already exist without our having chosen them. They exist in the common practices and book room inventories of schools nationally and in the contents of textbooks (see Applebee's LITERATURE IN THE SECONDARY SCHOOL: NCTE, 1993). It's time that we took control of professional decisions that we have heretofore yielded to the power of tradition and the market research of textbook publishers.

2. In a nation as diverse as ours we must count on schools to provide the materials for building a common culture beyond that created by commercial TV and popular music. A nationally honored program of reading can help to shape such a culture to compete with and deepen the culture now produced by the media.

3. The debate over what selections or authors to include on any national list will itself be a useful one for teachers and their students to engage in and may prove more intellectually valuable than any lists thereby produced. Let us therefore begin the debate.

The informal discussion that we hope to begin nationally on NCTE-Talk will continue more formally at the NCTE Fall convention in Detroit in a Friday afternoon session jointly sponsored by the NCTE Commission on Literature and the National Literature Project. All are invited to attend and participate.

Sheridan Blau, NCTE President-Elect, University of California, Santa Barbara

From: Kim Ballard < >
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

I appreciate your invitation for NCTE-Talkers to discuss the pros and cons of a national literary canon. I believe you'll get far more theoretically and practically sound ideas than my own, but here are my views on the point:

No, a professionally authorized national literary canon should not be created, for the reasons I offer below; however, to offer some assistance to teachers a NCTE-sponsored annotated bibliography, or some such entry detailing information about - perhaps even lesson plans - may be useful. Such a "list" may be able to include the various views/approaches to different texts.

The lists do, of course, exist, and do, in fact, cause a number of problems - problems which the past 30 years or so of English Studies has attempted to rectify. The lists are, of course, products of a history of culturally determined decisions. For a long, long time the canon was rich in particular representations of power and culture and deprived of others' visions. I cannot help but think of how eloquently Virginia Woolf speaks of the problems of THE CANON in A Room of 0ne's Own and how powerfully Ralph Elison points out similar harms of THE CANON, in my humble opinion, in Invisible Man. Certainly, these texts are often allowed in some new canons, or someone could argue that the new canons could allow better "representation' But the point is that ANY canon excludes. By creating a new canon, those in authority will be simply practicing THEIR authority. Are we so sure of ourselves that we are ready to say what is OUR AMERICAN culture, and to codify it in a list?

First, commercial TV and popular music do not exist in a cultural vacuum. Political power and economic distribution as well as the history of political power and economic districution and religious/spiritual battles are much more powerful aspects of our cultural structure than are the media which instanciates, inscribes, reinscribes, etc., American "culture" And family still plays a part, too. I think point 2 includes with a false dichotomy and a false representation of how culture happens. Does some "ONE" American culture created by commercial TV and popular music actually exist? Or are groups and individuals, instead, reacting against some aspects of the diverse culture which exists in America and in every other country, including, perhaps, a reaction against the kinds of'texts' that exist on TV and in music in favor of a personal belief in print texts?

I also wonder if the purpose of a school is to "provide the materials for building a common culture." Are cultures really tied to material things only? How exactly is the term "culture" being defined in point 2? What theory of culture is being advanced?

Finally, a nationally honored program of reading does not have to be grounded in a reading list. Reading is an act, isn't it? A goal should be to promote reading, not a canon.

No doubt the debate will be useful. But why begin with that point of issue? Must it be "what selections or author to include on any national list"! Or may it be "what is culture?" Or, "how does culture and power work?" Or, "What are the complex motivations of those wanting to have a National Reading List?" Mind you, I do not offer that last question to suggest some conscious political agenda. Rather, I honestly think all three of the question above will offer as rich a debate as one promised by "the debate over what selections or authors to include . . . :

Kim Ballard

From: Patricia Schall <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

I can see the pros and cons of establishing a professionally approved list. However, I'm always cautious about "approved" lists, since they have a way of becoming sacred. When lists become "approved:' we make them inviting targets, and we get embroiled in arguments about what should be included and excluded. I live and work in New Jersey, and I'm really distressed about what the state is doing with standards for the content areas. Some of the standards aren't bad at all. They are based on the professional standards established by the various disciplines.

However, NT is turning them into content to be monitored and tested at various grade levels. Here is a good idea gone bad. Are we inviting the same kind of behavior in developing an approved literature list! I can see the testing and publishing industry having a field day with all the "convenient" multiple choice tests, study guides, and standardized tests for approved literature. If such lists were to be constructed, we would have to be very cautious about the language used to describe the function of the lists. And even with cautious language, the lists easily could become prescriptive. I am certainly interested in hearing more about this topic.

Pat Schall, Education Department, College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, NI.

From: Eric Crump <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

Maybe we should, as Kim suggests, back up a step from the question of what should be on a reading list to reconsider why we might be tempted to create lists in the first place. Indoctrination (I know, a loaded word, but it seems appropriate) in the common culture may be the most evident reason for lists past. I, too, question whether there "is" a common culture and whether there "should" be, but past that, I imagine there are many other reasons behind the impulse to create reading lists. Perhaps we could dig some of those up and see what alternatives they suggest.

So to everyone, I would ask:
What purpose lists? Setting the 'common culture' question aside for a minute, how do they serve? Or is that their only function?

I'll hazard one guess which leads to my suggestion eventually: Lists are maps that help us navigate our rich, diverse, vast, confusing body of literature. There's just so much of it and teachers typically have so little time for exploring the terrain on their own that they are forced to follow others' breadcrumb traces. And it's worth keeping in mind O.B. Hardison's comment: "The right map tells you the lies you need to know."

What to read? How to choose? A list serves as a shortcut, a solution to the problem of too many choices, not enough time to choose. We believe lists are representatives of our culture, of our values, and of quality in our literature because that allows us to justify using them in their practical sense.

I'm thinking, though, that we have developed better ways of addressing that problem available to us than lists. We have lists--the electronic kind. We have communities. We have NCTE-talk.

From: Dianne Kanawati <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

No literary canon can exist without inherent bias; somebody's agenda would be represented and somebody's agenda would be neglected. And then sides would be taken and battles would be waged ...and words from the texts, twisted out of context, would become weapons. No, please. Let there be lists, by all means, dozens of lists with dozens of titles in each one. Several such lists have appeared here recently; I have saved them all.

Dianne Kanawati
Raleigh, North Carolina

From: Gloria Pipkin <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

No, no, a thousand times no to national reading lists. As Kim and Eric have already argued so brilliantly, we gain nothing and stand to lose a great deal in the process of staking out territory in the literary terrain.

Several years ago English Journal carried an article by Chris Anson entitled "Book Lists, Cultural Literacy, and the Stagnation of Discourse" (or something close) that changed my thinking about the value of such lists. Anson used an elaborate allegory to make his point, and I can't do justice to the richness of his examples here, but it was based on a desert island on which a series of shipwreck survivors wash ashore, each clutching six precious and very different books. Literacy flourished for a time, but eventually someone started to worry about the diversity, and the Committee on Island Literacy was formed. The richness that had characterized island literacy faded into dull sameness once the List appeared.

Another consideration: assigning books to particular grade levels is an arbitrary and counter-productive exercise. If a teacher in Illinois can inspire eighth graders to productive study Of Mice and Men, more power to her. An NCTE-sanctioned list that places the book at tenth grade could be used against her, and that would be a real injustice. I do not wish to see my professional organization buying into the literature-as-turf battles.

Gloria Pipkin

To: Multiple recipients of list <>

A simple question: Are there any texts that all students who successfully complete a U.S. education should be exposed to?

I can think of at least one: sections of the Bible. I purposefully pick a loaded one to start. How can you call anyone educated, who does not know the story of Adam and Eve? With so many people's views of the world referenced to this text, what is the advantage to an individual to be ignorant of it! I am not a religious person by any means. Yet, I recognize that to understand my world and the people in it I must try and understand their understandings.

Yes, there are so many perspectives and texts that could profitably be studied, more than any list could contain. Yes, there will be cultural assumptions behind that list. I don't see that that means it is better to have no common educational background whatsoever.

Steve Cohen

From: Carol Jago <
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

My support for the idea of creating a national list is largely practical. Most secondary English teachers, both new and experienced, are constantly looking for ideas about books to teach or to recommend to students. The number of queries on NCTE-talk for suggestions of titles bears this out.

I would be interested to hear what other middle and high school teachers think about having such a resource. In 1989 the California Department of Education asked a group of teachers to develop a list of recommended readings and published their document. I felt it was put to good use. The fact that such a list might be misused doesn't seem to me reason enough not to have one.

Carol Jago

From: (Sidney & Kathy)
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

I sure wish somebody would present a competent reading list to the school district where I work! Anything has got to be better than the pathetic contents of the book room. Seriously. I think we most certainly do have a common American culture -- not a Euro/Anglo one -and we should have a "canon" which reflects all those lofty ideals of freedom, individualism, enterprise, and ingenuity (for better or for worse) which color every aspect of our history from The Boston Tea Party to Ellis Island to (yes, even) the 0J Simpson trial. Maybe if we had something like this, and it contained a fair number of YAL titles, English departments would stop turning their noses up at them! If it reflected the minority experience in our country,not a "token" but in a realistic way, all the better! And what is so bad about kids in Sacramento and Baltimore all having read some of the same things! I think it's great! Put the "unity" back in US!

Kathy Quinn

From: Nancy Patterson <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

Why do we need an NCTE list to update the department book room? Aren't there enough lists out there already? And doesn't English Journal review new books all the time.

As for a common culture--it only exists in the minds of middle class whites. The fact that there is an ebonics issue certainly means we do not have a common culture. The fact that we feel we have to implement English-only statutes means we do not have a common culture. And don't for a minute believe those issues are merely a means of moving us toward a common culture. Those issues are about continuing to marginalize people who aren't ready for the goodies of our culture yet.

The problem with selecting a canon that reflects "all those lofty ideals" is those lofty ideals historically have only applied to certain segments of the population. If we are so concerned about lofty ideals why do we still segregate students into gifted or academic tracks and keep the "dummies" down the hall where they won't get too confused about who they really are and what their place in our common culture really is. If we are so concerned about those lofty ideals why do so many of us insist that all students read the same book at the same time? And why do we pick the book? Doesn't democracy belong in a classroom that teaches about the lofty ideal of democracy?

Isn't it part of our job to stay current? Yes, we are all busy. No, we don't have time to read every new book that comes out. But a list is a means of defining something. And when we define, we begin the process of control. Teachers are so programmed to allow others to tell them what to do. It's a carryover, in part, from that factory model of education. The chain of command-with the teachers at the next to the lowest link in the chain. The only ones who are lower are the students and they have their own ways of rebelling against their lowly status.

It would be so easy to say "they" think this is a good book, so "I" think we should make this part of our curriculum. And in doing this "I" have failed to justify the merits of a particular book. "I" have opted out of the discussion. "I" have deferred to someone else. And in doing so, "I" have participated in the undermining of the lofty ideals of democracy.

Nancy Patterson

From: Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

I'm glad that Carol brought up the State of California's recommended reading list. I commend the fact that it was developed by and for classroom teachers, but, as with any list, the works recommended are a direct reflection of the developers of the list. I was excited when I first saw it, but when I looked for works that would speak to my students and their realities, or that would reflect the realities of students around them, I found the list sadly lacking. Remember that in California, the "minority" is the "majority" in most schools. This list is decidedly "majority". Is that because "minority" writers don't exist? Do they not write quality literature? Not at all. I also don't think that the teachers who developed the list intentionally left out "minority" writers, maybe they just weren't aware of them.

Also note that the list is nearly a decade old, but is still regarded by many school districts as the last word on quality literature for students.


From: Anne Fairbrother <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

I participated in some sessions of the California Literature Project (which coexists there with the California Writing Project) and it was a wonderful forum for an exploration of diverse literature rather than prescriptive. It certainly did not try to create a canon, which for me is very problematic. In this posting there are excellent reasons given for embarking on this path, but even though the idea of supplanting a "traditional" canon, and the idea that the discussion would be more fruitful than the outcome, both sound good .....

I am still leery of coming up with some LIST that every school district had to pass on like edicts to teachers! California puts out Model Curriculum Standards - which I assume are updated, I need a new one! - where texts are recommended. That would be useful recommendations, standards (like NCTE's Standards and Standards in Practice), bibliographies of books being used successfully ... maybe teachers could be polled - now there's a radical thought - literally - it could be a bottom-up creation, based on what teachers DO, because it works, resulting in a document representing/reflecting the diversity of real teaching.

Why should some august body tell us teachers what is best for our students? I think the emotional opposition will reflect this issue?

Now maybe such a document would persuade some school districts to loosen up in their impositions on classroom curriculum, but it would also induce some school districts to start being prescriptive - and proscriptive.

I have to say though, that I would like some way that those teachers who dose their doors and teach all white male lit, (the way they've taught for the past 20 years) could be required to broaden their repertoire, but I think that has to happen at a District and/or school level.

Schools are in different regions, with different school populations. And you know, with all the good intentions in the world, this will be used by some to mandate that insidious concept of a common culture, an American culture .... which we know by default is a Euro/Anglo American culture. The canon will show this, albeit with some token "minority" - probably safe- works.

And unless this tome will be updated each year, how would you provide for new works being published and being piloted by teachers!

I am sure there will be lots of debate on this!


To: Multiple recipients of list <>

Doesn't NCTE already publish annotated bibliographies of recommended books ("Your Reading" and "Books for You") for teachers? Aren't there already countless resources that already exist (in print and in cyberspace) for teachers who need new ideas? Any teacher who wants ideas can find them with a minimal effort. Such a list would be, at best, superfluous. I think the cons of a National Canon far outweigh the practical (and unnecessary) purpose of providing teachers with ONE MORE "idea generator".

Elizabeth Atkins

From: "Shirley A. Gabbard" <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

My concern is that some administrator somewhere would get hold of this list and decide that these books were the'only" ones that students in his school were going to read. I know of such a case, and the teachers had a difficult time getting YA novels included in their curriculum.

********From: ben martin dutcher <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>

There is so much good and interesting in-put on this subject it's hard to respond to only a part of what's been said. But I think what most concerns me, and I think almost everyone who I read, is the idea of culture. I'm not sure if we share a common culture or not, but I do know we have a multitude of voices in this culture that have yet to be heard. At least, this was the case when I was a youngster. I think by not allowing those voices to be heard we hurt ourselves as a country. It turns around and gets us in that we end up with a lot of confused people out in society. People with no direction who turn to TV for their identity. I think this would probably be the biggest benefit to having a national reading list or canon. We could insure that all the voices of this culture of ours are heard. No matter if anyone listens, that they'll be heard is enough. I liked the idea of an ever changing list. One that allows for change. The idea that we practice what we preach - democracy in the classroom - also sounded good to me. However, I see this matter of voice being threatened. Maybe it could be a canon of lists. A national grouping of voices that could be chosen from, but must be read. The benefits for our country just in the interactions between people, seem countless. Not that we would learn to appreciate others, but just that we'd learn about others. How they, we think. We might not find it so different, and who knows, maybe some lives would be saved.
forever hoping,
Benito Martin Dutcher


To join NCTE Talk, send a message to with the sole line:

subscribe NCTE-TALK Bill Shakespeare

If you wish to join a list other than NCTE-talk or if your name is not Bill
Shakespeare, please substitute your own list and your own name.


| Back | Top | Overcoming the Tradition.... | Should We Create.... | Frank Norris |

Frank Norris by Janice Albert

Frank Norris rests eternally in the deep shade of four Irish yew trees. His elegant monument, dedicated by his fraternity brothers at the University of California, is an eight-foot tablet in the Arts and Crafts style. It bears his writer's name, Frank, rather than his given name of Benjamin Franklin Norris, and is embellished with three blades of wheat, in tribute to his epic novel, "The Octopus," about wheat farming in the San Joaquin Valley. Roman numerals (MDCCCLXX-MCMII) blunt the awful fact that this nationally recognized writer died at the age of 32. Norris' novels include Blix (1899), The Pit (1903), The Octopus (1901), and the memorable McTeague (1899). Of the writers who assembled in San Francisco's Bohemian Club along with Joaquin Miller and Jack London, young Norris was one of the most prolific.

He was born in Chicago in 1870, but came to San Francisco at the age of fourteen to live with his father at 1822 Sacramento Street. From this base, he traveled to Paris where he studied art. Reading the novels of Emile Zola fueled his imagination and sharpened his sense of creative purpose. Later, as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, he studied the philosophy of evolution in the natural history classes of Joseph LeConte. In 1895, he transferred to Harvard College to develop his writing under Lewis E. Gates. A study of his student work shows that McTeague was already in the making as a series of weekly themes.

Besides being a ripping good story with well-drawn characters and plenty of atmosphere, the novel McTeague was a well-received expression of the school of Naturalism, a literary development exemplified in the work of writers such as de Maupassant and Zola. Naturalists, along with Realists, share a belief that the lives of ordinary people are worthy of serious literary treatment. Naturalism goes a step further, according to Margaret Drabble, in calling for scrupulous attention to authenticity and accuracy of detail, "thus investing the novel with the value of social history." (688) Naturalist writers counted physical and hereditary factors in the formation of character and temperament, and they considered both wealth and poverty to have a great influence on character. Thus, as McTeague is denied the further practice of his profession, dentistry, (he had the strength for extraction), he becomes more and more brutal, while, in a parallel development, poverty brings his wife, Trina, to pathological depths of secrecy and hoarding.

Norris was writing a trilogy of San Francisco, of which McTeague was the middle piece, Blix the starting point, and Vandover the Brute, published posthumously in 1914, the conclusion. He is believed to have chosen San Francisco for these tales of moral ruin because of the violent and depraved reputation of the city after the Gold Rush. Kevin Starr writes,

By 1890 the city had a saloon for every 96 citizens. Vice thrived in its most sordid and elegant forms, from squalid opium dens and off-the-street brothels... to the decorum and plush luxuriance of the so-called French restaurants. A stranglehold of graft and political corruption gripped the city from the mid-1880's onward, a system of kickbacks and payoffs which took its origins in the criminal underworld. (264)


Norris's knowledge of San Francisco was developed in the years between 1891 and 1989 when he completed over 120 pieces for The Wave, a periodical founded by Southern Pacific originally to promote Monterey's new Hotel Del Monte. As a feature writer, Norris interviewed residents of all classes, from tamale vendors to society matrons and the crews of visiting battle ships. As the Tom Wolfe of his time, he took meticulous notes of life along Polk Street, reporting details so accurately that scholars have been able to trace the prototypes of all the shops and even the festivities recorded in the novel McTeague.

For example, Robert D. Lundy tells us that Norris named his failed dentist McTeague after hearing that the president of the local dental association was a Dr. Teague (264). The story of Trina and McTeague seems to have been based on an actual case reported in the San Francisco Examiner on October 14, 1893. In this story, Patrick Collins, who has just stabbed his wife at the kindergarten where she worked as a janitor, is described in these terms: "Collins is a young man in his early thirties, healthy and muscular.... The face is not degraded, but brutish. That is to say, he is not a man who has sunk, but one who was made an animal by nature to start with.... The jaw is heavy and cruel.... He is not devoid of intelligence, but it is of a low kind, with foolish cunning as its highest manifestation."

The Octopus and The Pit were planned as parts of a second trilogy on the "Epic of the Wheat." Norris wanted to record the drama of this industry from seed to sale. Events of The Octopus are based on the struggle of the San Joaquin ranchers against the Southern Pacific monopoly, which climaxed in the Mussel Slough massacre of 1880 in which five farmers were killed when they resisted the railroad's attempts to evict them. Norris' field work for this novel was conducted over a two-month period in Tulare County at Rancho Santa Anita near Hollister. Norris and his wife Jeannette had hoped to live and write on a ranch he had purchased from the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson, ten miles west of Gilroy off Route 152, but his sudden death from appendicitis in 1902 ended everything. His cabin, though private, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Mountain View Cemetery, his burial place, is located at the foot of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, California. Norris' grave site is Plot 12, Lot 105; Site 11 on the cemetery's map of "Graves of Noted Persons."

Works Cited
Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Fifth edition, Oxford: Oxford, 1985.
Starr, Kevin . Americans and the California Dream 1850-1915. New York: Oxford, 1973.
Lundy, Robert D. "The Polk Street Background of McTeague," McTeague: a Story of San Francisco, New York: Norton, 1977, 263-268.

| Back | Top | Overcoming the Tradition.... | Should We Create.... | Frank Norris |