Friday, March 6, 2009

Kathleen Norris

Kathleen (Thompson) Norris (1880-1966) was one of America's most popular novelists of the 20th century. She published more than 80 books in her lifetime. Some of her novels including Manhattan Melody and My Best Girl were made into films.

Norris was married to author Charles Gilman Norris (1881-1945), whose brother was also a novelist: Frank Norris (1870-1902), author of several important works, the most famous of which is McTeague: A Story of San Francisco.

Norris was born in San Francisco and moved with her family to Mill Valley in Marin County. After her mother and father died, Norris worked to support the large family. She worked as a society reporter for San Francisco papers, a theme she later used in one her novels.

She began writing fiction while living in New York City with her husband. She was successful almost instantly, selling several stories to popular magazines. Soon she turned to the novel as a form for her stories and the couple moved back to the Bay Area, which serves as the setting for most of her novels.

Her books are fascinating portraits of the American Past. A young woman is always the main character, and her story is told via her struggles with work, family, men, marriage, and often poverty. In many ways, her books are formulaic: the central character must struggle to overcome some challenge (a bad marriage, etc.), and in the process she grows and thrives. There is almost always a love story to her novels, although the true focus is on the main, female character.

Norris concentrates greatly on the physical settings for her stories, and often uses the urban/rural divide to indicate themes in her writing. She also explores the domestic angle of a woman's life, chronicling in depth the meals, chores, clothing, and other daily details that are part of her characters' lives. The majority of her novels are set in San Francisco, Marin County, and the Peninsula, although a handful are set in other locations, including New York.

Norris has been brushed off as a novelist of mere romantic fiction or rudely dismissed as a writer of "women's fiction," but her work is first rate. Her novels are intensely gripping, fascinating tales of young, modern women and the issues they faced in their lives. Further, as cultural documents, they provide a clear window into the past that allow readers to see the early 20th-century from an angle that is not usually available in novels written by men.

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