Ceremony in Lone Tree Summary
by Wright Morris

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Ceremony in Lone Tree Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ceremony in Lone Tree is a continuation of the story begun in The Field of Vision. Once again, Morris uses many of the same characters he employed in the previous novel: Tom Scanlon, the man who lives his life in the past; McKee, the embodiment of middle-class conventionality; McKee’s wife, Lois, a woman encased in her inhibitions; their grandson Gordon, the “infant Davy Crockett”; and Boyd, the “self-unmade man.” This time, however, the scene is different. Instead of using Mexico, Morris employs the ghost town of Lone Tree as a setting.

To the five familiar faces Morris used in The Field of Vision, Morris adds Maxine Momeyer, Scanlon’s second daughter; Maxine’s husband, Bud; and daughter Etoile, who looks like a young Lois but has none of her inhibitions. The Momeyers have a nephew named Lee Roy, who uses his car to kill two taunting classmates and who shares local headlines with Charlie Munger, a murderer who slays ten innocent victims. In addition, Morris introduces Scanlon’s third daughter, Edna; Edna’s blustery husband, Clyde; little Gordon’s inarticulate older brother, Calvin; Calvin’s outspoken mother, Eileen; a character called “Daughter” (whom Boyd picks up in a restaurant in Nevada); and an unsuccessful writer of Westerns named Jennings.

By adding to the cast of characters and changing the setting, Morris is able to refine the vision of failure he introduced in The Field of Vision. Although Ceremony in Lone Tree has a number of comic moments—such as when Bud stalks and kills “Colonel” Ewing’s expensive bull pup—and shares many of the same concerns with coming to grips with the past as were voiced in The Field of Vision, it digs deeper into the psychic center of its characters’ patterns of behavior. In Ceremony in Lone Tree, for example, humans are portrayed as falling prey not only to nostalgia but also to dark impulses of violence and self-destruction.

In Ceremony in Lone Tree, Lee Roy and Charlie embody the extreme expression of such violent human impulses. By killing at random and without discretion, both express the irrational side of human nature and amplify a primitive impulse that the other characters subvert. For the McKees, Momeyers, and Ewings, this dark impulse is also the new dimension of the present and is a force to which they must awaken. Unfortunately, they do not, and choose to retreat, as in The Field of Vision, into the superficial.

Symbolically, Morris gives shape to this theme of destruction through the image of the atomic bomb:The past, whether one liked it or not, was all that one actually possessed. . . . The present was that moment of exchange—when all might be lost. Why risk it? Why not sleep on the money in the bank? . . . There was this flash, then the pillar of fire and the heat and the light of that moment illuminated for a fraction the flesh and bones of the present. Did these bones live? At that moment they did. The meeting point, the melting point of the past confronting the present. . . . [W]here it failed to ignite the present, it was dead.

This suggests precisely where the McKees, Momeyers, and, by implication, most Americans fail. For the most part, the past to which these characters subscribe is insubstantial and does very little to explain or illuminate uncomfortable present realities such as violence and the threat of nuclear destruction. To “live” requires constructive use of the past to combat the destructive elements of the present.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Tom Scanlon spends his life in the Lone Tree Hotel in Lone Tree, Nebraska, now a ghost town. The winter before he is ninety, his daughter Lois and her husband, Walter, take him on a trip to Mexico. There they run into Walter’s old friend Gordon Boyd, who left Nebraska because he could not have Lois. Later, Walter writes to Boyd and invites him to a reunion in Lone Tree late in March, on Tom’s ninetieth birthday.

After much soul-searching, Boyd leaves Acapulco in his dilapidated car and heads north. In a Nevada town,...

(The entire section is 1,644 words.)