McTeague created a literary sensation when it first appeared in 1899. Critics hailed Frank Norris as the "American Zola" for his gritty tale of greed and violence set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Yet the novel's ultrarealistic portrayal of the rise and fall of a simpleminded dentist and his grasping wife shocked many readers with its candid depiction of sordid behavior right at the edge of insanity. It remains a searing indictment of human weakness and selfishness in a rapidly evolving America that battled to reconcile city life with the mores of the Wild West.
"McTeague is one of the great works of the modern American imagination," wrote Alfred Kazin. "The novel glows in a light that makes it the first great tragic portrait in America of an acquisitive society. McTeague's San Francisco is the underworld of that society, and the darkness of its tragedy, its pitilessness, its grotesque humor, is like the rumbling of hell. Nothing is more remarkable in the book than the detachment with which Norris saw it--a tragedy almost literally classic in the Greek sense of the debasement of a powerful man--and nothing gives it so much power."
The novelist Frank Norris is almost forgotten today, but in books like "McTeague," published in 1899, he paved the way for a whole generation of American writers--a generation that included Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis and, less directly, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. McTeague is a dentist saddled with a grasping wife, and the book chronicles his rise and fall in awkward but powerful prose. This type of social realism, so contrary to the uplifting entertainment of the day (and to Mark Twain's more fanciful, comic novels), provided turn-of-the-century America a disturbing mirror in which to view itself.