Although for decades many critics have considered him one of America’s most important writers, Wright Morris never attained the prominence he deserves. The reason may lie in the fact that much of his work is closely tied to a particular region of the United States, the rural Midwest, so some have misclassified Morris as a mere local-color writer. This myth should have been dispelled by his winning the National Book Award for The Field of Vision (1956). By this time, however, Morris was being accused of having too much to say rather than too little. In Ceremony in Lone Tree, Morris juggles multiple themes, complex characters, and rapid shifts in time and focus in a way that some readers find dizzying. Others, however, are exhilarated by their excursion into Morris’s sometimes comic, sometimes nightmarish world, in which the only certainty is constant change.
The inevitability of change is emphasized in the first section of Morris’s novel, entitled “The Scene.” Tom Scanlon’s home, Lone Tree, is a ghost town, with dusty, deserted streets and a hotel littered with dead flies. In contrast to Lone Tree, Walter’s boyhood home, Polk, is still very much alive. It has green, tree-shaded avenues and even a new supermarket. Polk also maintains its links with the historical past, represented by the Civil War cannon in the park, and with the personal past of Walter McKee and Gordon Boyd, who carved their initials on the cannon and who rode the sled which, although no longer used, still sits under the house where Boyd once lived. In some ways, Polk is changing; in other ways, it is unchanged. Significantly, Walter no longer lives there. He is a resident of Lincoln, where Maxine, Bud, and Etoile Momeyer also live, along with the killers, Lee Roy Momeyer and Charlie Munger.
Both Lone Tree, the ghost town, and Tom, who loves it and identifies himself with it, represent the Old West, both the reality and the illusion. Calvin McKee thinks of Tom as a Western hero, a cowboy who lived free and solitary, with just a horse and a gun for company. Threatened by Etoile’s attractions and her mother’s designs, Calvin goes west,...
(The entire section is 881 words.)