Berry Morgan Critical Essays

Morgan, Berry

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Morgan, Berry 1919–

A Southern American, Mrs. Morgan writes short stories, mostly for The New Yorker, and has written a novel, Pursuit. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Houghton Mifflin awarded its fellowship of $5,000 for this first novel [Pursuit], and has trumpeted it as a major publishing event ranking with Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The publishers must be funnin'. Unwittingly, Berry Morgan, a 47-year-old Mississippi housewife, has produced the dad-gum laughingest parody of magnolia-and-plantation fiction to come out of the South since Marse Robert surrendered at Appomattox. Her passel of lil ole psychopathic dimwits seems to have been spawned in a high-rent district of Tobacco Road. When Pappy Ingles, the hard-drinkin', ruttin' hero, tries to kill hisself by knocking his punkin haid against the marble top off'n a dresser, the humor turns as purplish black as a ripe fox grape. Trouble is, the author is danged serious. (p. 132)

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 14, 1966.

There are certain inevitable moments in literature when a theme or setting passes over into history and can be resurrected most successfully only as parody. My feeling about "Pursuit" is that it is a serious novel and not parody, though there are comic moments in it that are intentional. Here, once again, is the Literary South, its odors and grotesqueries sadly predictable in tone if not form; here is an exotic marriage of Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, the rank over-ripeness of a microscopic segment of Mississippi meant—perhaps—to be metaphorical.

What Mrs. Morgan does bring to her material is her own distinctive touch. But what is original about the novel emerges ironically as its weakest element. There is a certain irresistible drama in the very look and smell of the old plantation and the crazy relationships of father, son, father's teen-aged wife, son's middle-aged mistress which carry a reader's interest some distance. Once this initial momentum slows, the novel loses its power….

Most serious of all, the pursuit of the illegitimate, doomed Laurence by his father for purposes of continuing the ancient Southern heritage (especially where there is none) is a Gothic situation far too often encountered. Ned Ingles's obsession with his ancestral line can be made reasonable by Mrs. Morgan only in terms of his being psychotic. He is indeed mad, but not gloriously and tragically mad like Faulkner's Sutpen; and to witness his steady disintegration into alcoholism and permanent insanity is of morbid and only occasional interest.

The crucial business of the novel is not Faulknerian, however, but owes a great deal to Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor's "The Violent Bear It Away" concerned a triangle of a religiously-obsessed boy, his uncle who would be his savior, and God in the form of a mad old prophet. What made the O'Connor novel successful (parochial and irritating as it may seem) was its sense of genuine psychological struggle, in both the boy-victim and the would-be savior. They struggled not simply with each other but with themselves, for their own souls. By contrast, Mrs. Morgan's father and son hardly struggle at all….

[For] the author deliberately to choose Catholicism for his obsession is to challenge all conventional notions of this religion….

[The author] seems to think that the weirdness of Southern setting will explain motivation. We are supposed to believe the grotesque story because its setting is conventionally assumed to be grotesque in literature. (p. 66)

Laurence's almost pathological laziness, his sloppiness, his evidently retarded intelligence, is a dubious subject indeed for the South or any tradition to contemplate. The boy's gradual disintegration through disease—unfortunately paralleled and bettered by the boy's death in the recent Walker Percy novel, "The Last Gentleman"—and his religious inclinations are both meant to suggest, perhaps, that the South's products are, by their very nature and heritage, doomed. But one has the constant suspicion, in reading this novel, that much of its meaning has been provided by a literary tradition, or fashion, whose achievements "Pursuit" takes comfortably for granted. (p. 67)

Joyce Carol Oates, "Heritage of Doom," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 16, 1966, pp. 66-7.

[Pursuit] is a fast-moving novel, and its action is matched with a sharply pointed dialogue which provides a humorous commentary. Our laughter, however, is cut short by the urgency of the chase, and the comedy is dark indeed. The situations are wild and surprising, and the novel appears at first to be a parody of Southern life but when the compelling theme of the book asserts itself, Pursuit is revealed as a parable. Perhaps that of the prodigal father….

[At] times it is hard to distinguish the pursuer from the pursued. The [son's] destiny takes on an obsessive interest for the father as though the only meaning, perhaps the only grace his life affords lies in it.

The novel is beautifully paced. One senses the net being laid, the gradual tightening and then the unbearable tension at the end. It makes for compulsive reading as in a good mystery story, which, in the older sense, I suppose Pursuit really is.

David Hales, "Return of the Prodigal Father," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 22, 1966, p. 56.

[Pursuit is a] good first novel. It is very much of the South, but there isn't a bit of Spanish moss dripping from any part of it. It is a straightforward family chronicle, and though the family involves itself in some out-of-the-way relationships, these are never thrust at you in that defiantly decadent way that some Southern novels have a tendency to do. About this one, one can say, with grateful relief, it is an interesting story, plainly told. (p. A3)

Roderick Cook, in Harper's (copyright 1966 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the November, 1966 issue by special permission), November, 1966.

Roxie, the narrator of [the] interlocked short stories [in The Mystic Adventures of Roxie Stoner], is black and articulate, but so thoroughly honest, patient, and kindhearted that she is locally considered to be weak in the head. If inability to understand vulgar reality is the criterion for intelligence, Roxie is indeed weak in the head, but she is also a most delightful companion and guide through the intricacies of King County, Mississippi. The book is a delicate, ironic put-on, for the author's actual purpose is to describe a general, vicious decline in morality and manners. Seen through Roxie's unworldly eyes, the nasty view becomes comic. (p. 103)

Phoebe Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1974.

Berry Morgan's The Mystic Adventures of Roxie Stoner is a collection of sixteen stories written over the past ten years or so…. The stories are told from the point of view of Roxie herself, and in a tactful and unobtrusive simulation of her language…. Roxie is a poor Southern black woman, quite young in the early stories, quite old in the later ones ("I was either seventy or ninety depending on whether Mama married should be added or taken away"), who is seen by most people as somewhat backward but whose backwardness, viewed from the inside, seems like a quiet replay of the motivations of Prince Myshkin or Mr. Pickwick. Roxie can't really believe ill of anyone, and is very active in believing good of those around her, like the disreputable Mr. Dock who wants to build his mother a house she doesn't want ("Right away I saw what this gentleman was. A bad man trying his best to veer around to good"), or like the young inmate of the "nerve hospital" who wants to get out and kill the man from the finance company. She escapes with the boy so that he can "go on home and get his business straight and raise himself a family like he ought to," although she doesn't mean to let him kill anyone, of course.

She can't believe that the man from the finance company won't listen to reason, and she can't believe that the murderous boy won't change his mind about killing him ("It looked to me like he was partly catching on"). Yet she is not, in the strict sense, naîve. It's not that she doesn't hesitate and deliberate about these things, it's just that she firmly expects the world to live up to her hopes. Thinking about her escape with the boy, she says, "It got to sitting on my mind that we were up to a mighty unusual thing, but the base of it was right if we could hold the rest." The boy is picked up by the sheriff, and Roxie goes back to the hospital. (pp. 30-1)

Roxie's backwardness or madness is her persistent project to rewrite the world in the light of its best possibilities, and she thus becomes a reflection not so much on the South as on the general moral poverty of what we call the real world. To be sure, there is a sense of a historical moment, of the replacement of a community which could tolerate and support Roxie by a community which can only confine her—and again, one thinks of Dickens, and mad Mr. Dick in David Copperfield, left at large not because he was sane but because he was harmless. But this shift seems less important than the enduring conflict between Roxie's view of things and the world's, than the continuing confrontation between an ingenious, reckless kindness and a secure and suspicious normality.

There are moments of excessive cuteness in these stories—the occasion when Roxie thought she was married but she wasn't—and touches of the apparently obligatory gothic. Perhaps there's a rule in the South that you can't be a writer unless somewhere in your fiction you have someone die a nasty and unlikely death in a crumbling old house. But mostly Berry Morgan writes with a skill more than equal to that of Muriel Spark and Evan S. Connell, and with … confidence in her medium…. (p. 31)

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), November 28, 1974.