While a few of Wright Morris’s books have European settings, he is most effective when writing about his native Nebraska and characters returning home to try to recapture memories or relive the past. That Morris was unusually concerned with his craft is evidenced by his several books of essays on the writing of fiction and the readers thereof. A prolific writer, Morris was primarily a delineator of character, rather than a constructor of intricate plots. He pays considerable attention to the “artifacts” of his characters’ worlds and to the workings of their minds, most particularly to the kinds of thoughts that are never expressed aloud.
Morris is inevitably compared to both James Agee and Walker Evans because of his poetic, reflective prose about the dignity of rural life and because his photography is reminiscent of Evans’s in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Morris combines the talents of both Agee and Evans in his photo-texts, conducting a search for the meaning of America through word and picture.
Although Morris always received critical acclaim, he did not enjoy popular success. Robert Knoll suggested that the reason may be Morris’s failure to involve the reader in the exciting events of his fiction. He rather invites the reader casually, as did Robert Frost, to come along and clear the leaves away. His poetic style is as far removed as prose can be from the popular journalistic narrative mode. Although Morris knew that readers do not want fictive distance, he created novels that question rather than confess, that disturb rather than reassure.
Morris received three Guggenheim awards, two of them for photography and the third for fiction (The Deep Sleep); the National Book Award for The Field of Vision and Plains Song, for Female Voices; and the National Institute for Arts and Letters Award for Ceremony in Lone Tree. He received a National Institute Grant in 1960 and was fiction judge for the National Book Award in 1969.