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Auction 12: The Zamorano 80 Collection of Daniel G. Volkmann Jr.

Lots 58 & 58A

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Item 58. Frank Norris’s McTeague—“Deeply felt, precisely observed, and masterfully constructed, the work of a youth, the work of a master. In short, a literary miracle and masterpiece, a California classic” (Powell).

58. NORRIS, Frank [Benjamin Franklin] (1870-1902). McTeague: A Story of San Francisco by...Author of “Moran of the Lady Letty.” New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1899. [6] 442 [4, ads] pp. 8vo, original red vertical ribbed cloth decorated and lettered in white. Slightly shelf-slanted, spine a bit light, minor traces of shelf wear at spinal extremities, lower hinge starting but strong, interior very fine and clean, overall a near fine to fine copy, with none of the white stamping flaking (as is usually the case with this book). This is a difficult book to find in collector’s condition.
First edition, first issue, with unexpurgated text on p. 106 (“moment” as last word). Baird-Greenwood 1879. BAL 15031. Bennett, American Book Collecting, pp. 184-85. Cowan II, p. 878 (#450). Edwards, Enduring Desert, p. 183: “Ably depicts early San Francisco and—as though motivated by some Fabian influence—determines to conclude its plot in a macabre Death Valley setting.” Howell 50, California 674. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 58. Johnson, High Spots of American Literature, p. 60.
Libros Californianos, p. 61 (Powell commentary): “McTeague is not only the finest of all California novels, but, possibly, the greatest of all American novels.” Norris 2860. Powell, California Classics, pp. 175-84: “Deeply felt, precisely observed, and masterfully constructed, the work of a youth, the work of a master. In short, a literary miracle and masterpiece, a California classic.” Streeter Sale 3026. Wright III:3989. Zamorano 80 #58 (Phil Townsend Hanna): “The book is particularly significant because it marks the first appearance in the United States of realistic fiction of the genre produced by Émile Zola, Maupassant, Stendhal and other European writers. In McTeague Norris set a pattern followed and developed by Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, et al.” ($500-1,000)

58A. NORRIS, Frank [Benjamin Franklin]. A Story of San Francisco...McTeague, Introduction by Charles G. Norris...An Exact Printing of the Text from the First Edition. San Francisco: Colt Press, 1941. [10] 390 [1, colophon] pp., title and text illustrations by Otis Oldfield (hand-colored). 4to, original black buckram over floral cloth in jewel tones and gilt, printed red spine label. Spine chipped, otherwise fine. Publisher’s box not present.
Limited edition (500 copies). Designed by Jane Grabhorn and William Roth. ($50-100)


Phil Townsend Hanna, in writing the entry on McTeague for Libros Californianos, called it the finest, and possibly the greatest, American novel. Later generations may dispute this claim and others would argue that The Octopus (1901) must be regarded as Norris’s most important work about the West. Nonetheless, this novel of the seamy side of life in San Francisco is a hallmark of California and American literature, and according to Kevin Starr, “the finest novel ever to be set in San Francisco.” Following Bret Harte and Sam Clemens, Norris was the next major writer to achieve national recognition for focusing on California and Western themes.
Norris’s plot centers on the character McTeague, a physically powerful but dimwitted dentist, and his wife, Trina, who had won the lottery and invested her winnings wisely. The novel provides a brilliant sociological analysis of the underside of San Francisco society, a society dominated by avarice, jealousy, and depravity. Once the dentist is exposed as a fraud, he becomes sullen and frustrated that his wife will not squander her earnings on him. Impoverished, he deserts Trina, steals part of her money, and when he attempts to get it all, murders her. Fleeing, the desperate McTeague tries to cross Death Valley and the novel ends with him pathetically handcuffed to the dead body of his captor, awaiting a miserable death.
Born in Chicago but considering himself a true Californian, Frank Norris saw San Francisco in a transitional phase between the Old West of the Gold Rush and the modernism of a sophisticated urban center. While in Paris, he fell under the spell of Émile Zola who urged him to forget about writing about medieval themes and focus on contemporary life. After a less-than-satisfactory stint at the University of California, he went to Harvard, and under the able tutelage of Professor Lewis E. Gates, honed his writing skills, choosing plots centering on his own San Francisco neighborhood. He grew up just two blocks from Polk Street, the primary scene of McTeague, and had an intimate knowledge of the people and businesses along the street. Norris also incorporated local news into his writing. In October 1893, for example, he read with interest newspaper accounts of a man who had brutally murdered his wife for money, a situation not too dissimilar to the novel. Not surprisingly, the cityscape and the people of Polk Street dominate McTeague. Norris finished the great novel late in 1897.
Naturally, a psychological book such as this with its social Darwinism, emphasis on greed, and animal imagery has become one of the most analyzed and written-about California novels. Norris’s look at lower- and middle-class life could fit just about any American city. When published in 1899, the established literary world was not ready for McTeague with its shockingly morbid scenes. One reviewer called it “about the most unpleasant American story that anybody had ever ventured to write.” Gradually, however, McTeague won its disciples for its cutting-edge writing and brutal realism. Professor Don Graham, for example, offered this contemporary analysis in explaining the environment of the hulking Polk Street dentist: “Norris understood that McTeague was in some respects a victim of the closed frontier. Norris’s image of the West in this novel—city and frontier—is a grim one indeed. It is a land of pulsing but unfocused energies, a place where civilization has failed to provide an adequate environment for the disposed frontiersman and urban peasant.”
Norris’s searing novel was turned into a film masterpiece in 1923 by Erich von Stroheim with the appropriate title of Greed. In 1941, the Colt Press published an elegant new edition of 500 copies with an introduction by the author’s brother, Charles G. Norris, and in 1964, the New American Library published another edition with an afterword by Kenneth Rexroth as part of its Signet Classic series. The best scholarly edition was published in 1982 by Penguin Books with a penetrating and insightful introduction by Kevin Starr. Norris, during his all-too-short life, produced, in addition to McTeague and The Octopus, such other important works as Blix, a novelette set in San Francisco’s bohemian milieu, Vandover and the Brute, and The Pit. Norris also did much writing for the Wave, a San Francisco literary and social magazine.

——Gary F. Kurutz

Additional sources consulted: Don Graham, “Frank Norris” in A Literary History of the American West (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press), pp. 370-80; Lawrence Clark Powell, California Classics (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1971), pp. 175-84.

Item 58. Ad from Norris’s McTeague, not only the finest of all California novels, but, possibly, the greatest of all American novels” (Powell).

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