Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part One

This blog has been quiet for a week or so. The reason for this is that I was stricken with a fairly nasty sore throat early last week. Following that was the “Sunflower” student protests in Taiwan, which occupied my attention. Finally, I started reading Henry David Thoreau’s books, starting with A Week and found that I needed more time to fully understand and appreciate it. So after a reboot, I picked up my Library of America volume of Frank Norris’ novels, which I love. This was not an unfortunate refocusing. I have long wanted to do a series on industrializing America, covering the period from 1880 until the Great Depression. This period contains some of my favorite American writings, including the great (and in my opinion underappreciated) Frank Norris.

frank Norris

Frank Norris

Frank Norris died tragically young at 32. Despite his youth he left a fairly impressive body of work of four novels, the last of which was published in 1914 (over a decade after his death), although was written while he was at Harvard. I will start with this novel, Vandover and the Brute, since it appears first in the volume and was the first novel he completed. Published during his life were three other novels: McTeague, The Octopus, and The Pit. These last two made up the first two novels in an incomplete trilogy surrounding the production, sale, and consumption.  The Library of America chose not to include The Pit, so we are left with just these three novels and some of his shorter non-fiction work. We will have to manage.

Vandover and the Brute is a quite rich and entertaining novel about an artist who graduates from Harvard but through bad habits and ill-luck is driven into poverty. On the surface, it is a reverse Horatio Alger story and reads as a morality tale. Certainly Vandover shares some of the blame for his decline, but I would like to suggest that he is not entirely at fault. He wrestled with demons, but Norris is not so simple of a writer to blame the “beast” alone for Vandover’s fall. He was also destroyed by the society around him, its expectations and its pressures. Norris wants us to sympathize with Vandover, which makes it difficult for us to take him as a lesson in what not to be. In this post and the next, I would like to argue that Vandover’s “beast” is as much an invention of Vandover’s society as it is a real thing. It becomes, for outsiders and often for Vandover, the scapegoat for his failure. Unwilling to accept the social causes of his poverty, he looks inward and blames his beast. The reality is, even had Vandover totally suppressed these negative characteristics, he would have been defeated.

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Some of the context of Vandover’s decline was inherited. He was raised with the false sense of wealth. Vandover’s father was a lawyer who was able to use to the system to create the false facade of wealth, an all too common strategy in Gilded Age America. He took two mortgages on various properties. The first to purchase the property, the second to buy another property. Thus he created a chain of rental units, heavily mortgaged. As long as the interests payments were less than the rents, he was able to provide for himself a nice monthly income. Making little effort to pay off the loans, he ensured that this wealth would always be fragile. In fact, it was really a near criminal act. It did allow Vandover to grow up in relative luxury and allowed him to pursue his art.

Vandover was a talented artist and could have started his career right away, but he want to Harvard as expected by his father and colleagues. He also sustained an appreciation for vulgar passions, but again this was largely a product of his peer group. It is not clear he got much pleasure from smoking, drinking and playing around with girls. His more authentic pleasures came from his work as an artist and his never-ending work on his masterpiece, a portrait of a wounded soldier fighting a final losing battle with a lion. He approached the vulgar side of life with almost intellectual curiosity.

When he returned from Harvard, Vandover fails to take responsibility for his life by getting a job as an artisan painter. His sense of entitlement and the very real support from his father lead him to pursue his masterpiece, even though it means he never is able to create for himself an independent foundation of his life, like many of his friends do. This keeps him in a more juvenile life, where the “brute” is more alive.

Gradually Vandover allowed his ideas and tastes to be molded by this new order of things. He assumed the manners of these young men in the city, very curious to see for himself the other lower side of their life that began after midnight in the private rooms of fast cafes and that was continued in the heavy musk-laden air or certain parlours amid the rustle of heavy silks. Slowly the fascination of this thing grew in him until it mounted to a veritable passion. His strong artist’s imagination began to be filled with a world of charming sensuous pictures. (21)

Vandover has a strong desire to be part of society, unfortunately, he lives in a world in which community is being rapidly degraded by industrialization. What is left is the stuffy, banal middle class culture that is expected of him but does not very much interest him, and the culture of the cafes and other public amusement, full of cheap liquor and cheap sex. He floats between the two with relative ease. His disaster comes when he seduces a well-off girl, Ida, at one of these low-brow parlors. When she becomes pregnant, she kills herself and Vandover is subtly accused of seducing Ida in her death notice. He is unable to handle the moral burden of his guilt. Never before has the life of the “brute” faced such consequences. His response to this is actually quite fruitful for him and allows him to spend part of his life more authentically, but it requires leaving home and taking a long trip on a passenger ship.

I will end for now at this point with the conclusion that Vandover’s pliable nature helped nurture the “brute.” It must be added, however, that Vandover is not so unlike many of us, eager for community. The early industrial city was destroying the communities that Vandover’s father grew up in. Some certainly thrive in the social Darwinian world that industrialism produced. We will see in the second half how one of Vandover’s friends is able to successful take advantage of this situation. I suspect that most of us are closer to Vandover, and face with terror the unrelenting loneliness of the world we live in. Cheap amusements fill in that hole in our lives.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka” (1970) Part 2: “Something Is There”

One story from the second half of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of short stories, A Friend of Kafka seems to me to summarize the thematic running through all the stories: the feeling of paralysis most of us get from the banality of life, whether it comes from our relationships, our community, our job, or even our religions. The early  story of the book, “Dr. Beeber,” is about a hedonist and libertine who finds boredom first in his lifestyle and then later in his a marriage he uses to replace his vulgar pursuit of pleasure. In “Something Is There,” the final story of the collection, Rabbit Nechemia fights a war against God, emerging from his growing disgust with religion, largely due to the problem of evil. “Yes, you are great, eternal, all mighty, wise, even full of mercy. But with whom do you play hide-and-seek—with flies? What help is your greatness to the fly when it falls into the net of the spider that sucks out its life?” (240) He projected all of the evils of the world – evils that as the head of the local Jewish court he helped perpetuate – onto God, his laws, and capricious nature.  His final thoughts before turning away from God was “God, is this your world?” (247)

kafka

His choice is to reject entirely his world, the village, and as much as he could, his religion, thinking that he can learn from the “heretics” in the city. He does this by moving to the city, where his brother resides. He finds it hard to escape the life of his village. He does not know how to order food to ensure it is kosher and he notices openly blasphemous books in the window of booksellers. He even toys with prostitution, but does not go through with it. He is completely out of his element. Despite his desire to leave the village he is unable to break free at the foundational level. His freedom is confined by all the experiences of his life. “Each time the rabbi asked how to reach Smotcha Street, where Simcho David [his younger brother] lived, he was advised to take a trolley car or a droshky, but the trolley seemed too formidable and a droshky was too expensive. Besides, the drive might be a Gentile. The rabbi spoke no Polish… He passed by stores that sold leather, hardware, dry-goods, and ready-made clothes. The salesman vied for customers, tore at their sleeves, winking and interspersing their Yiddish with Polish.” (249) Such disorientation shapes almost all experiences in the novel. The rabbi has detached himself from what he knew and whatever intellectual freedom he enjoyed is illusionary and burdened by the challenges of getting through life. Even his brother, he learns, is no longer familiar. He has become “a modern.” “What they worship is the ego,” he said pondering his brother’s change.

Things begin to change for Nechemia when he takes a closer look at a book on cosmology, How the Universe Came into Being. He discusses with the storekeeper about science. He warms him that the book is dated and that while the author can describe evolution, he cannot state how the universe began. He tells him to pick up the book in a few weeks and points out to him that urban life is beyond the dilemma of belief or unbelief. “In my time there were a few [unbelievers], but the old ones died and the new generation is practical. They want to improve the world but they don’t know to go about it.” (254)

In addition to learning a bit about modern science, the rabbit discovered much about the modern institutions, the prison, the hospital, and the police from a coal dealer. He mocks his stated desire to be a coal dealer, and like the book store owner suggested, had a practical understanding of God. He does not know if God exists, punishment comes in this world, not the next, and the way to make it in this world is to learn a trade, not teach ancient books. He is friendly, however, and allows the rabbi to stay with him, while he tries to teach him of the city (where to find healthy prostitutes, where he might get a job teaching if that is all he is good for).

There has been almost no progress in the rabbi. He is as mixed up as ever about life in Warsaw. He has managed to create a routine that gives his life some semblance of normalcy, but in truth he is still fully in the world of the village. This is most evidenced by this ongoing conflict with God, while surrounded people who have moved beyond such fears and concerns.  But all of that changes when the rabbi reads the cosmology book at the library. For the first time he learns of the scientific perspective. “Man descended from an ape—but where did the ape come from? And since the auuthor wasn’t present when all this happened, how could be be so sure? Their science explained everything away in distance of time and space. The first cell appeared hundreds of millions of years ago, in the slime at the edge of the ocean. The sun will be extinguished billions of years hence. Millions of stars, planets, comets, move in a space with no beginning and no end, without a plan or purpose. In the future all people will be alike, there will be a Kingdom of Freedom without competition, crises, wars, jealousy, or hatred… All books had one thing in common: they avoided the essential, spoke vaguely, and gave different names to the same object. They knew neither how the grass grew nor what light was.” (262) Bold certainty, optimism and confidence intersected with ambiguity and doubt.

At this point the story ends and the rabbi returns to the village, his spiritual conflict ended. He concludes that the entire world “worships idols” or “invented gods,” but that there are no heretics Heresy, it would seem, requires a certain engagement with religion that is lost on the urbanites.

The rabbi resolves his spiritual conflict by returning home but accepting some of the randomness, possibility, and diversity of human potential. He did not find freedom in the physical vagabondage that he pursued when he left the village, but rather in the intellectual uncertainty which is home to curiosity and wonder.