The Inhabitants Essay - Critical Context

Wright Morris

Critical Context

Because the photographs in The Inhabitants were taken at the end of the Depression and show the physical effects of economic disaster, including the ravages of the Dust Bowl, the book might be expected to be little more than a document of its time. Because of the emphasis on style, both verbal and pictorial, however, that is not the case. Morris, nevertheless, admits being influenced by Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the classic study of the era with text by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. He named Agee Ward, the protagonist of The Man Who Was There, after Agee, and his photographs have often been compared with those of Evans—as well as with those of Eugene Atget, Russell Lee, Paul Strand, Diane Arbus, Robert Adams, and Minor White. Morris’ goal in The Inhabitants goes beyond his era to encompass a timeless sense of a country. He attempts to emulate, on a smaller scale, Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Democratie en Amerique (1835-1840; Democracy in America, 1835-1840), and, especially, Henry James’s The American Scene.

The Inhabitants has received much more critical attention from Morris scholars than from experts in photography or Americana. These commentators see it as a work that attests the variety of Morris’ art. They see it as a minimalist version of his writings as...

(The entire section is 418 words.)