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Posthumously published in 1914, Vandover and the Brute is probably Frank Norris's first complete novel, much of it written when he was a student at Harvard in 1894-1895. The subject matter made it unacceptable to turn-of-the-century taste, and when the book finally did appear one reviewer declared that "it ought to have been issued for private circulation only". (Bookman). The setting of the story is San Francisco in the 1890s. Vandover, fresh out of college and the son of a wealthy owner of slum properties, has dreams of being an artist but lacks the discipline to fulfill them. His seduction of a young woman results in her suicide and the death of his own father. Cheated by false friends of part of his patrimony, Vandover gambles away the rest. Finally, as Warren French writes in Frank Norris, "he becomes a bum reduced to cleaning the offal from the slum houses he once owned. His degeneration has also been marked by attacks of lycanthropy, during which he pads around on all fours, naked, howling like a wolf."
Although present-day critics would agree with one of the few favorable early judgments--that "it is a first novel of which any writer might be proud" (Boston Transcript)--Vandover and the Brute has yet to be established in its proper place in American fiction. Warren French's introduction points out that while the novel is usually considered as an early, unrevised example of American naturalism, it needs to be seen now as a principal example of a "decadent" literature that flourished briefly in the United States in the 1890s as the influence of the genteel tradition was collapsing. It presents the portrait of an artistic young man comparable to the portrait of a young matron in Kate Chopin's now much discussed novel The Awakening.
Professor of English and Director, Center for American Studies, Indiana University-purdue University at Indianapolis, Warren French has written or edited eleven books, including studies of Steinbeck, Norris, and Salinger, and The Social Novel at the End of an Era.