Morris recalls at the beginning of A Cloak of Light that when he returned from Europe at the age of twenty-four, determined to be a writer, his intention was to draw upon the expatriate adventures he had sought and enjoyed. He found instead that native material, especially from his childhood in Nebraska, dominated his thoughts. The style in which this material appeared on his manuscript pages emphasized compactness, simplicity of language, and the specific in time and place: “Time had not actually stopped, but the movements were slow enough to be photographed. The scene had the characteristics of a still life.” It is not coincidental that his early work emphasized photography and prose, leading to The Inhabitants and The Home Place. This early preoccupation with visual qualities—texture, surface detail, arrangement—has continued to influence Morris’ work throughout his career and characterizes Will’s Boy, Solo, and A Cloak of Light. Morris does not seek to demonstrate a grand plan for his life, or a sense of steady progression toward some generalization about the American Self, the American Novelist, and the like. These volumes might best be regarded as a series of vignettes whose course is dictated by accident as often as by design. The Morris who spent so much of his early years without much guidance refuses to write about his life as if plot were its essence. Surprise and puzzlement share equal billing with insight and comprehension.
Readers who look for a tight weave of event and commentary will find in the memoirs as in the fiction a lack of overt editorializing. The surface is the message. Above all, the reader will be struck by the absence of psychoanalytic reflection and speculation: Although there are abundant personal histories that invite such treatment, Morris indulges only once, guessing that his first wife (who is never named in the text) had a need for the companionship of older women because her relationship with her mother had never been satisfactory. Though Morris did not become a Europe-steeped writer in the mode of Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, his emphasis upon the exact rendering of names, streets, places, and other concrete particulars results in an impression sometimes similar to Hemingway’s: Morris’ method discredits the habit of abstraction.
Morris’ most general and enduring preoccupation is with epistemology: How does one know and with what confidence? Here the distinction between surface and meaning makes itself felt, for the picture created by memory has an elusive quality:If I attempt to distinguish between fiction and memory, and press my nose to memory’s glass to see more clearly, the remembered image grows more illusive, like the details in a Pointillist painting. . . . In this defect of memory do we have the emergence of imagination? . . . Precisely where memory is frail and emotion is strong, imagination takes fire.
The role of emotion is key, though authorial emotion is not in most of Morris’ narratives a subject for overt discussion and some emotions, such as anger, are not even implied. Nevertheless, to see that for Morris the absence of human beings in a photograph of a human habitation makes the human presence all the more powerfully felt is to understand an important feature of his method and to appreciate the subtlety of his implications. He wrote in A Cloak of Light that the ideal reader has the “ability to read the book the author believed he had written,” that is, the ability to intuit the emotion within the arrangement of particulars. Even so, Morris himself promises no certainty, for memory, the image-maker at the start of the process, cannot be exact. In Solo, Morris punctuates his description of an Austrian acquaintance, Hermann Unger: “If I pause here to consider what I have just written, to what extent is it true to what I remember? To what extent is what I remember true to Hermann? [Hermann himself acted] as if he privately had his doubts that he was the person he appeared to be in public.” For the observer, the task is no easier. While Morris was making a tour of the South, he became aware that he was seen as a “Northern snooper out to discredit” the region, and in that troubled state of mind he tried to analyze a possible subject, a house:Was it a portrait, or a caricature? Did it reveal a state of soul or a state of abuse? I could see now one, now the other, by merely blinking. What was there to be seen was in the eye of the beholder. . . . It would be weeks before I saw the negative, and many months would pass before I made a print of what I had seen on the ground glass. Would that image restore my original impressions, or would they be replaced by others?
The connection with writing is direct, for Morris regards writing as the process of making images the mind only incompletely remembers. All is problematic: The writer struggles to create an image to slow time and flux to a standstill, to embody intentions and emotions, and the reader struggles to find those intentions and emotions.
This situation reflects...
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