Saturday, March 2, 2013

Hunting Human Game

Frank Norris (1870–1902)
From True Crime: An American Anthology

In 1894, at the age of twenty-four, Benjamin Franklin (“Frank”) Norris finished his fourth year at Berkeley but didn’t receive his degree, having repeatedly flunked the mathematics portion of his examinations. His failure to graduate did not slow him down. During the following eight years he took writing courses at Harvard; reported for the San Francisco Chronicle on the Boer War in South Africa, where he fell ill before being expelled from the territory; wrote at least 160 short stories, sketches, and essays for various newspapers and magazines; covered the Spanish-American War in Cuba, where he again became sick (and where he befriended Stephen Crane); became an editor for Doubleday in New York (where he “discovered” and championed the novel Sister Carrie by up-and-coming writer Theodore Dreiser); and managed to finish writing seven novels, including the national bestseller The Octopus. In 1902, he was back in the San Francisco area and planning a trip around the world on a tramp steamer when he suffered an attack of appendicitis. Initially ignoring the pain, he finally went to a doctor—but it was far too late. Suffering from gangrene, he died of peritonitis at the age of thirty-two.

Like fellow San Francisco writer Jack London, Norris was heavily influenced by the theories of Charles Darwin and the literary naturalism of French writer Émile Zola. (In spite of overlapping careers and friendships, Norris and London appeared to have never met.) Jeanne Campbell Reesman, in her essay for A Companion to the American Short Story, tallies up some of the many similarities in Norris’s and London’s works: “such key naturalistic concerns as the nature of the self; heredity and environment in shaping lives versus free will; Darwinistic ideas concerning an individual’s ability to adapt to environment; awareness of the human capacity for animalistic and brutal behavior; patterns of dominance and submission; survival of the individual versus survival of the community of species.” All of which explains Norris’s fascination with crime and criminals in such pieces as “Hunting Human Game.”

This week’s story was recommended by longtime Story of the Week fan Ben Ostrander of Austin, Texas, who found this “grisly little report on an Australian serial killer” to be a fine early sample of true crime writing. (Squeamish readers need not worry: the grisliness is left entirely off the page and to the reader’s imagination.)

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On the 21st of November in the year 1896 there appeared in one of the newspapers of Sydney, Australia, an advertisement to the effect that one Frank Butler—mining prospector, was in search of a partner with whom to engage in a certain mining venture. . . . If you don't see this week's selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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