Collected Stories, 1948-1986
Although Wright Morris is better known as a novelist than as a short-story writer, having received both the American Book Award and the National Book Award in the past for his efforts in that genre, these stories, which were previously published in such magazines as The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, American Mercury, and Esquire, and which span almost forty years of his distinguished career, indicate his abiding interest in the short-story form.
Since its inception in American literature with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the short story has depended on certain unique conventions: It has tended to be more symbolic than realistic; it usually focuses on an event that breaks the routine of everyday life; and it frequently places heavy emphasis on its ending. Morris obviously knows and has control of these unique conventions, for many of these twenty-six stories can be read as textbook cases of the twentieth century short story, even if they do not always exhibit the special illumination or genius of such short-story specialists as Bernard Malamud, Eudora Welty, or, more recently, Raymond Carver.
Morris’ stories share a number of themes and techniques which reappear so frequently that they might be called personal or artistic obsessions. For example, Morris is quite fond of using domestic animals as central figures in his stories. In “The Cat in the Picture,” a retired army officer rents a studio with his wife and begins painting. When a stray cat comes through the skylight and begins sleeping with the couple, the retired captain finds it an intrusion and begins to harass it by throwing his paint tubes at it. In the background of the story is a continuing unarticulated friction between the captain and his wife that ends with his separating from her. When he opens the suitcase his wife has packed for him, he finds, sandwiched between his clothes, the body of the dead cat with red paint, looking like blood, on its mouth. The cat serves primarily as a metaphoric catalyst for the unspoken conflict between the captain and his wife, for when he discovers the body of the dead animal, he realizes that it is the living part of the picture that his wife had always urged him to paint but which he had never seemed capable of producing.
Other stories which make use of animals as central metaphoric embodiments of human conflicts are “Drrdla,” “The Cat’s Meow,” “Victrola,” and “Fellow Creatures.” The first of these, “Drrdla,” named for the sound made by a cat which has strayed into the basement, deals once again with a growing estrangement between a husband and wife for which the cat serves as an emblem. In this case the cat suggests the sexual arousal of the wife, who heretofore has been a reserved, scholarly type. With the arrival of the cat, however, she becomes a “female creature” awakened to life and in need of being satisfied both by her husband and by another man who lives with the couple.
The central metaphor, indeed the central character, in “The Cat’s Meow” is a cat named Bloom, which has laryngitis and is therefore presented as an enigmatic voiceless creature, whereas the central figure in “Victrola” is a dog, so named because he reminded his former owner of the dog in the RCA advertisement listening to “his master’s voice.” A dog is also a catalyst in the story “Things That Matter,” whereas a leghorn pullet figures centrally in “Fellow Creatures.”
Another obsessive characteristic appearing frequently in Morris’ stories is the theme of alienation, for many of the stories focus on a stranger in a strange land, a character experiencing a sense of being lost in an alien world and unfamiliar with its customs. In “Since When Do They Charge Admission,” a Kansas couple travel to San Francisco during the hippie heyday of the 1960’s to visit their married daughter and are taken to a nude beach for a picnic. The father, however, is more fascinated with a crow he sees on the beach, so domesticated that, doglike, it buries a bone he gives it. At the conclusion of this inconclusive story, his wife says that it is typical of him to drive all that way to look at a crow.
In a similar story about a man thrown out of his element and unsure how to respond to it, “Glimpse into Another Country,” the protagonist, a sheltered academic type, flies to New York City to consult a doctor. The story is told from such a distanced omniscient point of view that the protagonist seems detached from his surroundings in a dreamlike way. Under the influence of this dreamlike state, he buys his wife an expensive string of pearls, gets caught up in a bomb scare in a department store, and then is accosted by a group of young boys to whom he willingly, but needlessly, gives the pearls. This is another inconclusive Morris piece that seems less a formally tight story than an experience of the innocent caught in a world he neither understands nor desires to understand.
The central Morris story illustrating this theme (which...
(The entire section is 2060 words.)