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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Readers of the modern phenomenon of autobiography-as-rebuttal who are used to authorial self-inflation and self-justification will find Morris’ volumes quite different. Morris has no sense of himself as a figure of great importance. He has always been something of an enigma because of the quiet eccentricity of his fiction; whereas he is willing to answer basic questions about himself, the genesis and place of composition of his various major works, the real-life models for some of his protagonists, and his favorite settings and people, he remains a private individual. He tells no tales on others, either: His vignettes of fellow literary figures such as Robert Frost, Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Leon Howard, Kitty Bowen, and others are sometimes ironic but never unkind. The dominant presence in the three volumes is a man who feels lucky with his life and his accomplishments, who makes no great claims for himself and has no reason to snipe at anyone. There is a kind of modesty throughout the narratives, as if to assert—as his phototexts do— that a careful look will reveal the depth and significance of the common man’s experience.
To the tradition of contemporary writing from the American West, these volumes—especially Will’s Boy and A Cloak of Light—will be distinguished additions because they work so hard to overcome the merely regional. In addition to giving a skillful picture of growing up on the plains in the early part of this century, Morris also makes it clear that a writer can and must escape the limitations of family, region, and history. He transcends the image of the Western writer tied to geography and hampered by lack of sophistication. He does not strike out against the dominant East and its ignorance of and condescension to the West. Instead, the summary in A Cloak of Light of the ideas in his critical study The Territory Ahead (1958) attempts to integrate all American writing in a cultural context whose largest forces are felt by writers from all regions. Of all Western writers, only Wallace Stegner and Wright Morris have made such serious use, without apology, of Western experience.
Abbey, Edward. Review of A Cloak of Light in The New York Times Book Review. XC (February 17, 1985), p. 9.
Allen, Bruce. Review of A Cloak of Light in The Christian Science Monitor. February 28, 1985, p. 20.
Crump, G. B. The Novels of Wright Morris: A Critical Interpretation, 1978.
Knoll, Robert E., ed. Conversations with Wright Morris: Critical Views and Responses, 1977.
Madden, David. Wright Morris, 1964.
Simon, Linda. Review of A Cloak of Light in Library Journal. CIX (December, 1984), p. 2272.