The Joys of the Poor


The Joys of the Poor was published in Literature in the Making by Some of Its Makers, edited by Joyce Kilmer, 1917. Norris speaks passionately about writing what you know, adding "I never could write without a moral intention."

Any young woman who desires to become a famous novelist and short-story writer like Kathleen Norris will do well to take the following steps: In the first place, come to New York. In the second place, marry some one like Charles Gilman Norris.

Of course, every one who read Mother and The Rich Mrs. Burgoyne and Saturday's Child knew that the author was a married woman—and also a married woman with plenty of personal experience with babies and stoves and servants and other important domestic items. But not until I visited Kathleen Norris at her very genuine home in Port Washington did I appreciate the part which that domestic item called a husband has played in Kathleen Norris's communications to the world.

I made this discovery after Charles Gilman Norris—accompanied by little Frank, who bears the name of the illustrious novelist who was his uncle—had motored me through Port Washington's pleasant avenues to the Norris house. Before a fire of crackling hickory logs, Kathleen Norris (clad in something very charming, which I will not attempt to describe) was talking about the qualities necessary to a writer's success. And one of these, she said, was a business sense.

Now, Mrs. Norris did not look exactly business-like. Nor is "a business sense" the quality which most readers would immediately hit upon as the characteristic which made the author of Gayley the Troubadour different from the writers of other stories. I ventured to suggest this to Mrs. Norris.

"I don't claim to possess a business sense," she said. "But my husband has a business sense. He has taken charge of selling my stories to the magazines and dealing with publishers and all of that. I do think that literally thousands of writers are hindered from ever reaching the public by the lack of business sense. And I know that my husband has been responsible for getting most of my work published. My stories have appeared since my marriage, you know. I don't need to have a business sense, all I have to do is to write the stories. My husband does all the rest—I don't need even to have any of the author's complacency, or the author's pride!"

Mrs. Norris's fame is only about five years old—about as old as her son. I asked her about her life before she was known as a writer, expecting to hear picturesque tales of literary tribulations among the hills of California. But her description of her journey to success was not the conventional one; her journey was not for years paved with rejection slips and illumined with midnight oil.

"It was New York that did it," she said. "When we first came to New York from California the editor of a magazine with which Mr. Norris was connected gave us a tea. Most of the people who were present were short-story writers and novelists. It was pleasant for me to meet them, and I enjoyed the afternoon. But my chief sensation was one of shock—it was a real shock to me to find that writers were people!

"I felt as if I had met Joan of Arc, Cæsar, Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, and all the great figures of history, and found them to be human beings like myself. 'These writers are not supermen and superwomen,' I said to myself, 'they are human beings like me. Why can't I do what they're doing?'

"I thought this over after we went home that evening. And I made a resolve. I resolved that before the next tea that I attended I would tell a story. And when I next went to a tea I had sold a story."

"To what publication had you sold it?" I asked.

"To an evening paper," said Mrs. Norris; "but I had written and sold a story. That was something; it meant a great deal to me. My first stories were all sold to this evening paper, for twelve dollars each. This paper printed a story every day, paying twelve dollars for each of them, and giving a prize of fifty dollars for the best story published each week. I won one of the fifty-dollar prizes."

Any one who to-day could buy a Kathleen Norris story for fifty dollars would be not an editor, but a magician. Yet the memory of that early triumph seemed to give Mrs. Norris real pleasure.

"I wrote What Happened to Alanna two years before the Fire," she said. ("The Fire" means only one thing when a Californian says it.) "But most of my stories have been written since I came to New York."

I asked Mrs. Norris for the history of one of her earliest stories, a story of California life which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. She said: "That story went to twenty-six magazines before it was printed. My husband had an alphabetical list of magazines. He sent the story first to the Atlantic Monthly and then to twenty-five other magazines. They all returned it. Then he started at the top of the list again, and this time the Atlantic Monthly accepted it."

The mention of Mr. Norris's activities in selling this story brought our conversation back to the subject of the "business sense."

"A writer needs the ability to sell a story as well as the ability to write it," said Mrs. Norris, "unless there is some one else to do the writing. Many a woman writes a really good story, sends it hopefully to an editor, gets it back with a printed notice of its rejection, and puts it away in a desk drawer. Then years later she tells her grandchildren that she once wanted to be an author, but found that she couldn't do it.

"Now, that is no way for a writer to gain success. The writer must be persevering, not only in writing, but in trying to get his work before the public. Unless, as I said, there is some one else to supply the perseverance in getting the work before the public.

"I think that the desire to write generally indicates the possession of the power to write. But young writers are too easily discouraged. But I have no right to blame a writer for being discouraged. I had frightful discouragement—until I was married."

It is easy to see that Kathleen Norris does not hesitate to find in her own home life material for her industrious pen. Little Frank has undoubtedly served his mother as a model many times—which is not meant to indicate that he is that monstrosity, a model child. Indeed, Mrs. Norris believes that a novelist should use the material which lies ready at hand, instead of seeking for exotic and unusual topics. She sees that people want to read about the things with which they are already familiar, that they are not (as many young writers seem to think) eager for novelties.

"I cannot understand," she said, "how it is that writers will clamor for recognition, and abuse the public for not welcoming them with enthusiasm, and yet will not give the public what they know that the public wants. So many people seem to want just their own sort of art, but to want money, too. Now, I wouldn't write for a million dollars some of those things that are called 'best sellers.' But I cannot see why a writer who is avowedly writing for the public should think it beneath him to treat the themes in which the public is interested. The greatest tragedy of literature is the writer who persists in trying to give the public what it does not want. Think of poor Gissing, for instance, dying embittered because he couldn't sell his work!"

Mrs. Norris's conviction that a writer should use the material around him is so strong that she seems actually to be pained by the thought of all the excellent things for stories that are going to waste. I asked her if literature ever could come from apartment-houses. She said:

"Of course it can! There is no reason why there shouldn't be good stories and novels of apartment-house life. One reason why we are not writing more and better stories of the life around us is because we are living that life so intensely—too intensely. We live in this country so close to our income that the problem of earning money makes us lose sight of the essentials of life. It would be a fine thing for us, mentally and spiritually, if we should live on less than we do. If, for example, a family that found it was in receipt of a few hundred dollars more a year than before should decide, therefore, to live under a simpler scale than before, to do away with some really worthless luxuries, what a fine thing that would be!"

Of course many young writers come to Mrs. Norris for advice. And some of them excellently illustrate the tendency which she deprecates, the tendency to write about the unknown instead of the familiar.

"I was talking the other day to a young girl of my acquaintance who is a costume model," she said. "She has literary aspirations. Now, her life itself has been an interesting story—her rise from a shopgirl to her present position. And every now and then she will say something to me that is a most interesting revelation—something that indicates the rich store of experience that she might, if she would, draw upon in her stories. On one occasion she said to me, 'I went home and put my shoe-drawer in order.'

"'What do you mean?' I asked. 'What is your shoe-drawer?'

"'Why, my shoe-drawer!' she answered. 'You see, we costume models have to have a drawer full of shoes, because we must change our shoes to match every costume.'

"Why is it," asked Mrs. Norris, "that a girl like that cannot see the value of such an incident as that? That shoe-drawer is a picturesque and interesting thing, unknown to most people. And this girl, who knows all about it, and wants to write, cannot see its literary value! And yet what more interesting subject is there for her to write about than that shoe-drawer? I do not see why writers will not appreciate the importance of writing about the things that are around them."

Mrs. Norris gave a somewhat embarrassed laugh. "I really shouldn't attempt to lay down the law in this way," she said. "I can speak only for myself—I must write of the people and things that I know best, but I ought not to attempt to prescribe what other people shall write about."

Mrs. Norris's chief literary enthusiasm seems to be Charles Dickens. "When we were all infants out in the backwoods of California," she said, "we battened on Dickens. Dickens and a writer whom I don't suppose anybody reads nowadays—Henry Kingsley. The boys read Sir Walter Scott's novels, and left Dickens to me. I read Dickens with delight, and I still read him with delight. I have found passages in Dickens of which I honestly believe there are no equal in all English literature except in Shakespeare. I do not think that there is ever a year in which I do not read some of Dickens's novels over again. Of course, any one can find Dickens's faults—but I do not see how any one can fail to find his excellences."

"What is it in Dickens that especially attracts you?" I asked.

Mrs. Norris was silent for a moment. Then she said: "I think I like him chiefly because he saw so clearly the joys of the poor. He did not give his poor people nothing but disease and oppression and despair. He gave them roast goose and plum pudding for their Christmas dinner—he gave them faith and hope and love. He knew that often the rich suffer and the poor are happy.

"Many of the modern realists seem ignorant of the fact that the poor may be happy. They think that the cotter's Saturday night must always be squalid and sordid and dismal, and that the millionaire's Saturday night must be splendid and joyful. As a matter of fact, the poor family may be, and often is, healthier and happier in every way than the rich family. But these extreme realists are not like Dickens, they have not his intimate knowledge of the life of the poor. They have the outsider's viewpoint.

"Too many writers are telling us about the sorrows of the poor. We need writers who will tell us about the joys of the poor. We need writers who will be aware of the pleasures to be derived from a good dinner of corned beef and cabbage and a visit to a moving-picture theater. Often when I pass a row of mean houses, as they would be called, I think gratefully of the good times that I have had in just such places."

The thought of that little Celtic Californian reading Dickens among the redwood-trees appealed to me. So I asked Mrs. Norris to tell more about her childhood.

"Well," she said, "we hear a great deal about the misery, the bleak and barren lives of the children who live in the tenements of New York's lower East Side. But I think that an East Side tenement child would die of ennui if it should be brought up as we were brought up. We had none of the amusing and exciting experiences of the East Side child—we had no white stockings, no ice-cream cones, no Coney Island, nothing of the sort.

"We never even went to school. We would study French for a while with some French neighbor who had sufficient leisure to teach us, and then we'd study Spanish for a while with some Spaniard. That was the extent of our schooling.

"My parents died when I was eighteen years old. I went to the city and tried my hand at different sorts of work. For one thing, I tried to get up children's parties, but in eighteen months I managed only one. Then I did settlement work, was a librarian, a companion, and society reporter on a newspaper. Then I got married—and wrote stories."

Mrs. Norris was at one time opposed to woman suffrage. Now, however, she is a suffragist, but she refuses to say that she has been "converted" to suffragism.

"I can't say that I have been converted to suffragism," she said, "any more than I can say that I have been converted to warm baths and tooth-brushes. And it does not seem to me that any women should need to defend her right to vote any more than she should need to defend her right to love her children. There is a theme for a novel—a big suffrage novel will be written one of these days."

It may be that the author of Mother will be the author of this "big suffrage novel." But at present she disclaims any such intention. But she admits that there is a purpose in all her portrayals of normal, wholesome American home life.

"I don't think that I believe in 'art for art's sake,' as it is generally interpreted," she said. "Of course, I don't believe in what is called the commercial point of view—I have never written anything just to have it printed. But I do not believe that there is any one standard of art. I think that any book which the people ought to read must have back of it something besides the mere desire of the writer to create something. I never could write without a moral intention."

Our favorite of Norris's stories is Poor, Dear Margaret Kirby.


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