In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Zoe Anderson Norris

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Archival Collections
  • Profiles and Reminiscences
  • Scholarly References

American Literature Zoe Anderson Norris
Eve Kahn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0218


Zoe Anderson Norris (b. 29 February 1860–d. 13 February 1914) was a Kentucky-born journalist, fiction writer, and poet who was also known for documenting immigrant poverty in her bimonthly magazine, the East Side. Norris was the eleventh of thirteen children of Henry and Henrietta Anderson. Her father served as a pastor and teacher in Kentucky who translated the New Testament from ancient Greek texts. Norris attended Daughters College, a girls’ high school in Harrodsburg, her hometown, and spent time with family members homesteading in Kansas. She was married at age eighteen to Spencer Norris, who ran a grocery store in Wichita, and they had two children. By 1898, Norris had divorced her unfaithful husband and begun writing journalism pieces (including a newspaper gossip column) and short stories. Her fiction drew on autobiographical material: deceived wives, struggling writers, gossipy neighbors, inhospitable farmland. Around 1900, Norris and her daughter Clarence traveled in Europe and then settled on New York City’s Lower East Side. In 1902, Norris married an illustrator, Jack Bryans (they soon separated when he refused to live with Clarence, who by then had a toddler son). Norris published two novels and a short-story collection while freelancing for publications, including the New York Times. Her interviewees ranged from chorus girls and wharf workers to prominent sculptors. In 1909, Norris launched the East Side, “to fight for the poor with my pen.” In her essays and poems, she raged against injustice: deadbeat fathers abandoning starving families, trash-strewn streets spreading disease, factory laborers trudging through toxic runoff, children killed by careless chauffeurs. She also wrote paeans to the beauty of the New York skyline and to industrious new arrivals from Italy and Russia, immigrants who could be seen sharpening scissors or sorting rags and who were determined to prosper. At times she dressed as a beggar, reporting undercover as policemen harassed her and wealthy passersby looked away. Meanwhile, she organized weekly dinners for a club she founded, the Ragged Edge Klub, and she became known as the “Queen of Bohemia.” Readers and members of her Ragged Edge Klub included the philosopher Elbert Hubbard, the photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals, the filmmaker Wray Physioc, and the activist Helen Hamilton Gardener. In early 1914, the East Side published Norris’s description of a recent dream that she had in which her mother appeared at her bedside and warned her of imminent death. Days later, Norris died of heart failure. She is buried in Harrodsburg. After her accurate premonition made headlines nationwide, she was largely forgotten, although some 21st-century books mention her fearless curbside reports on immigrants’ lives.

Reference Works

A handful of collections of biographies mention Norris. Leonard 1914 focuses on her media outlets, while Townsend 1913 explores her origins, milieu, and varied poetry and prose.

  • Leonard, John William, ed. Woman’s Who’s Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914–1915. New York: American Commonwealth, 1914.

    See p. 602. Thumbnail biography describes Norris as “interested in the poor” and lists her books and some magazines and newspapers to which she contributed.

  • Townsend, John Wilson. Kentucky in American Letters, 1784–1912. Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press, 1913.

    See pp. 135–139. The only substantive biographical essay on Norris published in book form in her lifetime. Townsend, in a survey of Kentucky writers’ lives, summarizes her accomplishments—she has given “a voice in the world worth having” to New York’s poor—and reprints a short story and a poem from the East Side.

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