Wright Morris Essay - Critical Essays

Wright Morris American Literature Analysis

In his long and productive literary career, Wright Morris’s fictional practice remained consistent with the theoretical concerns he expresses in his essays and interviews. Morris was one of the few to combine the roles of novelist and literary critic, roles which frequently tend to diverge among twentieth century writers. His books on literature—The Territory Ahead; a Bill of Rites, a Bill of Wrongs, a Bill of Goods; About Fiction; and Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments (1978)—are perceptive studies that reveal many of his literary origins and aims. His novels, which are in many ways extensions of his theory, testify to Morris’s unwavering belief in technique as an indispensable tool of the successful writer.

Although Morris’s critical comments about fiction tend to be understated and somewhat implicit, they do suggest his profound interest in a number of artistic concerns. Foremost among these concerns are the nature and role of the artist, the writer’s way of handling his material, the writer’s relationship to literary tradition, the value of realism as a literary approach, and the importance of technique.

The best working definition Morris provides of the artist’s role is found in this statement from The Territory Ahead:Life, raw life, the kind we lead every day . . ., has the curious property of not seeming real enough. We have a need, however illusive, for a life that is more real than life. It lies in the imagination. Fiction would seem to be the way it is processed into reality. If this were not so we should have little excuse for art. Life, raw life, would be more than satisfactory in itself. But it seems to be the nature of man to transform—himself, if possible, and then the world around him—and the technique of this transformation is what we call art.

The passage introduces two key terms in Morris’s theory—“transformation” and “reality.” Generally speaking, Morris used transformation to signify the process through which unformed events, emotions, and memories—the writer’s raw materials—are shaped into structured experience by the artist’s imagination. The writer’s role is thus to articulate experience and through such articulation build a form of reality that transcends the common plane of ordinary experience, resulting in the permanent capturing of transitory experience and feeling in the form of a work of art.

One of the reasons Morris made such strong claims for the imagination is that he sensed that the reservoir of raw material is dwindling. The workings of art, geographic expansion, and the mass media have all contributed to the exhaustion of untouched, virgin experience that fueled many early American writers. In creating material in the modern age, Morris sensed that many American artists too often have been guilty of misplacing artistic energy. To compensate for a dwindling supply of experience, too many writers have escaped into nostalgia to supply themselves with raw material missing from their own experiences. For Morris, the results of any sort of sentimental overindulgence in the past produces cliché, not art. Thus, all of his fiction represents a concerted effort to gain control over his material and to escape nostalgia by avoiding frozen and worn-out patterns of expression and behavior.

This is not to suggest that Morris completely eschewed literary tradition. In his view, tradition functions to prevent disorder and the pursuit of novelty for its own sake. He noted that an exclusive concern with newness often fails to produce the kind of art from which subsequent writers can learn. He felt that new artists must transmute their literary inheritances through technique and imagination so that what is of value is preserved and what is exhausted is not.

Even though Morris believed that literature should be in some sense representational, he was critical of some of the by-products of the drive toward realism. To Morris, a definition of realism meant more than a mere photographic rendering of the facts using the language of the vernacular. In his opinion, the successful writing of fiction requires that language be questioned, fashioned, and run through the processes of the imagination. Reality is never attained in art without being filtered through some subjective vision. As the critic G. B. Crump explains, “For Morris, the sense of life is indispensable in fiction, but it is not something that is given in the artist’s materials, the automatic product of fidelity to the facts; it is achieved through his style, not through elimination of style.”

Morris said in About Fiction that the writer’s major task is to “make of this life what it failed to make of itself.” To do so requires not only that the artist resist cliché, nostalgia, and vulgarity but also that he or she stand squarely in the present and face it for what it is, a place where Morris, quoting D. H. Lawrence in The Territory Ahead, says there is “no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished.” In such a world, Morris sensed that the value of fiction is that it is, perhaps, the only means available for humanity to lend a sense of finish to the unfinished business of life. Morris firmly believed that a talented imagination can reveal the richness in almost any material. It is not essential that writers use a conspicuous style or parade their knowledge by making their works imitations of other novels. If a writer has talent and can realize his or her vision, the revelatory act will give fiction a sense of life and design on its own.

The Inhabitants

First published: 1946

Type of work: Prose with photographs

Through the combination of photographs and prose, Morris conceives an original vision of America’s mythic past.

The Inhabitants, the first of Morris’s volumes to combine photographs and prose, grew out of his preoccupation with the past. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Morris began writing fiction using simple, compact visual cues to create “still” word pictures. After composing a number of such pictures, he concluded that he might actually photograph what he was describing in order more effectively to capture concrete detail and visible reality. What he was after was the look and feel of a specific time and place. To produce the look, he selected telling photographs from the many he had taken on his travels across the United States. For the feel, he used words. What resulted when Morris imaginatively synthesized his photographs and prose was the most experimental and innovative of Morris’s four “photo-texts.”

Technically, The Inhabitants, through its imaginative fusion of various points of view, anticipates many of the narrative devices Morris later employed in his multivoiced fictions of the 1950’s and 1960’s. As the critic Alan Trachtenberg points out in his 1962 essay, “The Craft of Vision,” the book has a triangular structure that blends three separate strands: two narrative voices and the photographs. Each two-page spread has a monologue that announces the theme or argument of the book and occasionally meditates on the question of what an inhabitant is; a second voice—sometimes third person, sometimes first person, sometimes dialogue—provides a vernacular translation that narrates a particular example of what or who it is that “inhabits.” Finally, the photographs provide the visual ambience or “look” of the artifacts or land depicted. The monologue maintains the continuity of the book by relating the many individual speakers to the whole and by reminding readers of the many divergent elements, as evidenced in the second voice, that represent the United States.

Essentially, Morris uses words to add another dimension to the visual cues provided by the pictures. In The Inhabitants, one of his intentions was to move his audience beyond the clichés of hard times, ruin, and alienation, commonplace in the photography of the Depression, into new recognitions spawned by variform perspectives on ordinary objects, artifacts, and environments. The words help overcome that problem by revealing the nature of the object or artifact.

Beyond the reading Morris gives to the photographs, however, exists another autonomous realm. The presence of the photographs authenticates the “thing itself” as an independent entity or essence that speaks using its own voice. Morris once referred to the houses, buildings, and artifacts he photographed as “secular icons” having a “holy meaning to give out.” As such, the “thing” that Morris frames in his viewfinder has a metaphysical presence that goes beyond the mundane or superficial. Thus, Morris’s photographs are usually concerned with significant abstract presentations, while his words are more concerned with personal interpretations.

When the photographs are coupled with textual voices, a balanced three-dimensional image emerges that represents a harmonious blend of reality and fiction. In The Inhabitants, authentication of time and place rapidly fading from sight shares equal status with imaginative presentation and textual revelation. Ultimately, the photograph gives, as Morris says in Photographs and Words (1982), an incomparable registry of “what is going, going, but not yet gone.”

The Huge Season

First published: 1954

Type of work: Novel

Caught in the mundane present world of the 1950’s, the protagonist, Peter Foley, finally faces and overcomes his obsession with the past.

The Huge Season is closely related to Morris’s other novels in that it reflects one of his common themes: the hold of the past over the present. Where this book breaks fresh ground, however, is in its employment of raw material. It differs in that it is the first, and fullest, treatment that Morris gives to his experiences in college. Moreover, this is the first novel in which Morris shows a protagonist, Peter Foley, who actually escapes from the crippling forces of nostalgia and the mythic past.

In The Huge Season, the past is the 1920’s, an artistically heroic age that produced such great writers as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner. When compared with the dull, seemingly unheroic 1950’s, the past becomes magnified; in the minds of the main characters in the book—Montana Lou Baker, Jesse Proctor, Lundgren, and even Foley himself—it assumes blighting significance. All are, in a sense, captive to it and cannot free themselves from its compelling forces.

The central focus of the novel is one Charles Gans Lawrence, a tennis player and dormitory mate of Foley who, like Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), has everything—money, good looks, and athletic ability. Lawrence, like Gatsby, proves to be psychologically dazzling. Exhibiting a tough, unpredictable compulsiveness, Lawrence fascinates his friends by performing audacious deeds. He first astounds them by becoming a superlative tennis player, despite the fact that he has one arm that is practically useless. Later, near the end of his sophomore year, Lawrence pulls another surprise by abruptly leaving college, apparently bored by it all, and going to Spain to become a bullfighter. Then, after being badly gored, he commits suicide, perhaps out of despair, perhaps to impress his friends, and he leaves what proves to be an indelible stamp on their imaginations.

The tension that Morris develops in the novel between past and present is filtered through the viewpoint of Foley, whose memory operates on two discrete levels. The present-day action, titled “Foley,” is a third-person narrative that follows the events of a single day in which Jesse Proctor, an old friend of Foley, had testified before the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities. Foley travels to New York City, ostensibly intending to visit Proctor and Baker. In the process, however, he spends much of his time ruminating about the effects of his twenty-three-year mental captivity, dating from May 5, 1929, when Lawrence shot himself.

The past action of the 1920’s is cast in a series of episodes contained in “The Captivity” sections. Written in the first-person voice, it represents Foley’s unfinished book manuscript about Lawrence. From a functional standpoint, the historical “Captivity” chapters chronicle actual historical events, while the “Foley” sections represent an attempt to find meaning in those events. In the end, they come together when Foley realizes that his captivity has been lifelong and that he has at last escaped from the pull of the past.

What causes this recognition is hinted at in an epiphanal moment that Foley experiences near the end of the book. Summing up the heroics of his generation, Foley asks himself:Did they lack conviction? No. . . . What they lacked was intention. They could shoot off guns, . . . jump from upper-floor windows, . . . or take sleeping pills to quiet the bloody cries of the interior. But they would not carry this war to the enemy. That led to action, action to evil, . . . and to the temporal kingdom rather than the eternal heavenly one. That led, in short, where they had no intention of ending up. The world of men here below. The God-awful mess men had made of it.

What Foley eventually recognizes is that life enhancement requires intention, which throughout the book Morris allies with conception, or the ability to make constructive use of the past. Survival in the present requires that one face facts, be they disconcerting or no, and try to put them to positive use. By the end Foley does so, and it grants him his emancipation.

The Field of Vision

First published: 1956

Type of work: Novel

On vacation in Mexico, five characters come to imaginative terms with their lives.

The Field of Vision, like The Huge Season and The Inhabitants, reflects Morris’s struggle with the past. In this book, however, he is less concerned with how one escapes the past than he is with how one confronts and conceptualizes it. One of the most sophisticated and intricate of Morris’s novels, The Field of Vision employs...

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