Finding Frank Norris in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Goat Trails
By Ryan Masters

A gargantuan spiderweb hangs across the steep dirt road. It shimmers, translucent in the sunlight, slack lines nearly imperceptible. As I duck the web and trudge further up the road's corkscrew turn, the thick brush, thistle, weeds and poison oak part, revealing an ancient looking stone bench on the shoulder above the road.

Finally. More than a year after I first searched for it, I have found the mysterious, nearly forgotten memorial to legendary California novelist Frank Norris in this far corner of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

A simple cross and a crooked, barren flag holder crown the semicircular, mission-style bench. They are both encrusted in a century of rust. Constructed with river stone, chert and mortar, the memorial sits atop a 15-foot, steep-faced boulder. Steps have been carved up its right flank. The overgrowth nearly chokes it completely. Neglected and forlorn, the memorial appears ready to disappear from sight altogether in a few years.

I mount the base of the boulder, each step nearly obscured by dirt and thistle, and clamber unsteadily up to the bench. At the center of its backrest, a plaque has been set. Around a simple Celtic knot, a nearly illegible inscription reads: "Frank Norris - 1870-1902 - Simpleness and Gentleness and Humor and Clean Mirth."

A prosaic epitaph for a young artist often credited with launching an American literary movement before his untimely death. Of course, the inscription was not written by some fawning devotee, but a friend—someone who apparently chose to focus on the basic human goodness of Norris instead of his considerable literary fame.

That friend was Fanny Osborne Stevenson, wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, and widow of the Treasure Island author after he died in 1894. As the wife of one of the most famous writers of his generation, the widow Stevenson knew well the pressures of literary celebrity. Hence, I assume, the humane inscription.

Twelve years after her husband's death, Fanny Stevenson purchased 120 acres of land at the base of Mt. Madonna and built an English-style lodge. The area reminded the woman of the tropical terrain of Samoa where her husband died and so she named it Vanumanutagi, a Samoan word meaning “Vale of the Singing Birds.”

Today, much of that land is a vineyard owned by Fernwood Cellars surrounded by some of the most dazzling gardens and pastoral land I have ever walked. The rest of the area, known generally as Redwood Retreat, has been divvied into privately owned tracts of land.

Norris, a dear friend of the widow Stevenson, would frequently camp on her land, perhaps to escape the trappings of newfound, meteoric fame, which accompanied the publication of his novels, most notably McTeague in 1899 and The Octopus in 1901.

Like Fanny Osborne's deceased husband, Norris was not a particularly healthy man. He suffered from an "African fever" contracted in 1895 while serving as a news correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle in South Africa during the Boer War.

Probably feeling protective of the young literary star, the widow Stevenson convinced Norris to build a cabin on a small plot of her property—a place to work on new novels and relax with his young wife, Jeannette Black, whom he married in 1900, and his infant daughter, born the following year.

The cabin was built, but Norris and his family were never able to enjoy it. Norris died suddenly in 1902 at the age of 32 from an infection caused by a burst appendix.

The widow Stevenson was, by all accounts, devastated by her friend's death, echoing as it did the death of her own beloved husband, who had died before her at the age of 44 from a cerebral hemorrhage on a Samoan island.

In a grim side note that in some odd way foreshadows the future of his wife's Vanumanutagi property, Stevenson was allegedly straining to open a bottle of wine when he suddenly exclaimed, "What's that! Does my face look strange?" before collapsing.

Her husband's horrific and shockingly swift death was an experience the widow Stevenson may never have truly reconciled. Consequently, when her young friend Norris, a man similarly both sickly and talented as her husband, died, the widow Stevenson ordered this curved stone bench built near the cabin site as a memorial.

And here I am, more than a century later.

# # #

So why do I care so much about this obscure memorial? Partly the challenge of it—the only image I could find of the bench was a 1910 photograph from the Historic American Buildings Survey. But mostly because of a novel Norris wrote more than a century ago.

When McTeague was published in 1899, it was both critically acclaimed and harshly condemned. It was hailed as the first major "naturalistic" work of fiction. Norris was trying to realistically depict the hard luck and consequences of turn-of-the-century California, rather than traffic in the melodrama that dominated American literature to that point.

McTeague is a dark, weird story, which, in my experience qualifies it as pretty realistic. It's also really funny. It follows the doomed trajectory of a dim-witted Placer County gold miner-turned-dentist who opens a little practice on Polk Street in San Francisco. "Mac," as he's referred to throughout the book, is pretty difficult to like. He molests his best friend's cousin while she's under sedation in his dentist chair. When he discovers she's won $5,000 in the lottery, he manages to marry her. When his best friend, Marcus, protests, Mac beats him up. He's also an anti-Semite.

What's completely entrancing about the character of Mac is not his evil nature (at least not to begin with), but the fact that he's more a big oaf whose limited intelligence handicaps his ability to really succeed at anything—bad or good—because of nearly awe-inspiring superficiality.

In fact, Norris underscores the shallowness of the Gilded Age society in which his characters live throughout the novel—most memorably in the form of a giant gold molar that Mac hangs outside his dental office.

"'What do you mean, Trina?'" Mac asks his wife, "'Ain’t I a dentist? Ain’t I a doctor? Look at my sign and the gold tooth you gave me. Why, I’ve been practicing nearly twelve years.’"

Mac, of course, is neither a dentist nor a doctor. In fact, he's totally unlicensed to practice dentistry. He's also unequipped to deal with life. Eventually, his complete lack of spiritual connection to the universe and his unfortunate taste for whiskey combine with unspeakable results.

After losing his license to practice dentistry thanks to the jealous, bitter Marcus, Mac kills his estranged wife during a whiskey bender and must flee south to Death Valley to avoid the hangman's noose. At this point, his prized possession is a canary in a gilded cage.

In the penultimate scene of the novel, Mac fights to the death with Marcus over the last of their water in the middle of Death Valley. In the scuffle, the bird cage is knocked from a dead mule and broken.

Yet once Mac kills his former best friend, he realizes Marcus managed to handcuff the two of them together. Mac is described as “stupidly looking around him, now at the distant horizon, now at the ground, now at the half-dead canary chittering feebly in its little gilt prison."

The novel concludes with Mac and his damned canary trapped out in the desert, both of their worlds destroyed, left to die of thirst. And that's that.

So what do I love about McTeague? It riffs heavily on two of my favorite themes: 1) American Dream as Dangerous Fantasy; and 2) God/Nature Always Snuffs Man in the End.

# # #

As a middle-aged native of California I've lived long enough to see this cycle play itself out a few times already. As a student of history, I can see it echo back many generations, beyond even, Norris and the Gilded Age. Furthermore, as California's population grows, it does not take an oracle to foresee the rut of this cycle digging ever deeper with each passing year.

When it comes to the state's water table, for instance, I can't help but think of us all as some great McTeague-like oaf lumbering collectively into the desert.

Frank Norris wrote other books, of course. His subsequent work took on the corrupt and greedy turn-of-the-century corporate monopolies.

Generally considered his greatest book, The Octopus depicts the suffering and death of Southern California ranchers at the hands of the Pacific and Southwest Railroads. It was the first in a trilogy of novels that Norris planned to finish in his new cabin on the widow Stevenson's property. Alas, the universe had different plans for Norris.

There are two cabins up the road from the memorial and each looks old enough to be the very structure Norris may have built; but there is no evidence that either is the genuine article.

Besides, they are on private property. In fact, so is this memorial. So yes, I have trespassed to find this little-known literary monument. Consequently, I cannot provide directions or encourage you to follow in my footsteps. I can, however, wholeheartedly suggest you read McTeague and remember the brilliant, all-too-brief life of one Frank Norris.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the country at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a weekly column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.

More Goat Trails:

Read Ryan’s unique take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s California.
Read about a rainy-day hike, with newts!