Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2097
Morris recalls at the beginning of A Cloak of Light that when he returned from Europe at the age of twenty-four, determined to be a writer, his intention was to draw upon the expatriate adventures he had sought and enjoyed. He found instead that native material, especially from his childhood in Nebraska, dominated his thoughts. The style in which this material appeared on his manuscript pages emphasized compactness, simplicity of language, and the specific in time and place: “Time had not actually stopped, but the movements were slow enough to be photographed. The scene had the characteristics of a still life.” It is not coincidental that his early work emphasized photography and prose, leading to The Inhabitants and The Home Place. This early preoccupation with visual qualities—texture, surface detail, arrangement—has continued to influence Morris’ work throughout his career and characterizes Will’s Boy, Solo, and A Cloak of Light. Morris does not seek to demonstrate a grand plan for his life, or a sense of steady progression toward some generalization about the American Self, the American Novelist, and the like. These volumes might best be regarded as a series of vignettes whose course is dictated by accident as often as by design. The Morris who spent so much of his early years without much guidance refuses to write about his life as if plot were its essence. Surprise and puzzlement share equal billing with insight and comprehension.
Readers who look for a tight weave of event and commentary will find in the memoirs as in the fiction a lack of overt editorializing. The surface is the message. Above all, the reader will be struck by the absence of psychoanalytic reflection and speculation: Although there are abundant personal histories that invite such treatment, Morris indulges only once, guessing that his first wife (who is never named in the text) had a need for the companionship of older women because her relationship with her mother had never been satisfactory. Though Morris did not become a Europe-steeped writer in the mode of Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, his emphasis upon the exact rendering of names, streets, places, and other concrete particulars results in an impression sometimes similar to Hemingway’s: Morris’ method discredits the habit of abstraction.
Morris’ most general and enduring preoccupation is with epistemology: How does one know and with what confidence? Here the distinction between surface and meaning makes itself felt, for the picture created by memory has an elusive quality:If I attempt to distinguish between fiction and memory, and press my nose to memory’s glass to see more clearly, the remembered image grows more illusive, like the details in a Pointillist painting. . . . In this defect of memory do we have the emergence of imagination? . . . Precisely where memory is frail and emotion is strong, imagination takes fire.
The role of emotion is key, though authorial emotion is not in most of Morris’ narratives a subject for overt discussion and some emotions, such as anger, are not even implied. Nevertheless, to see that for Morris the absence of human beings in a photograph of a human habitation makes the human presence all the more powerfully felt is to understand an important feature of his method and to appreciate the subtlety of his implications. He wrote in A Cloak of Light that the ideal reader has the “ability to read the book the author believed he had written,” that is, the ability to intuit the emotion within the arrangement of particulars. Even so, Morris himself promises no certainty, for memory, the image-maker at the start of the process, cannot be exact. In Solo, Morris punctuates his description of an Austrian acquaintance, Hermann Unger: “If I pause here to consider what I have just written, to what extent is it true to what I remember? To what extent is what I remember true to Hermann? [Hermann himself acted] as if he privately had his doubts that he was the person he appeared to be in public.” For the observer, the task is no easier. While Morris was making a tour of the South, he became aware that he was seen as a “Northern snooper out to discredit” the region, and in that troubled state of mind he tried to analyze a possible subject, a house:Was it a portrait, or a caricature? Did it reveal a state of soul or a state of abuse? I could see now one, now the other, by merely blinking. What was there to be seen was in the eye of the beholder. . . . It would be weeks before I saw the negative, and many months would pass before I made a print of what I had seen on the ground glass. Would that image restore my original impressions, or would they be replaced by others?
The connection with writing is direct, for Morris regards writing as the process of making images the mind only incompletely remembers. All is problematic: The writer struggles to create an image to slow time and flux to a standstill, to embody intentions and emotions, and the reader struggles to find those intentions and emotions.
This situation reflects another of his concerns—human separateness. Will’s Boy chronicles well the essence of life as he sees it: real human loss whose only compensation is imaginary gain. Human separateness was first embodied for him by his father, one of the most isolated of men, who becomes the model for lonely Will Brady in The Works of Love (1952). Morris himself admits to being by temperament an isolated person: “I do not take the trouble, in the interests of fraternity, to go out of my way.” Until Jo arrives for the final fifty pages of A Cloak of Light, there are few vignettes which exemplify real human felicity. The sequence of Will Morris’ marriages and affairs and that of his son’s early adult infatuations—a taste for rich girls echoes his father’s third marriage, to the dumpy Mrs. Van Meer—hint that the young Wright had no image of felicity to pursue. There is much evidence that Morris still views self-revealing friendship, and the Whitmanesque view of camaraderie, as deeply suspect. In Solo, he likens a preference for “the outward and open rather than the inward and private” to the German longing for the blond, a vision of human bliss that must be paid for in blood.
The goal of human connectedness, while illusive and perhaps even dangerous in the social intercourse of individuals, nevertheless seems for Morris to be the purpose of art; it is best illustrated not by individual relationships, but by what Morris calls “the vernacular structures of American life,” the anima contained in the objects which are built and inhabited. It is a concept Morris early in his artistic life borrowed from Henry David Thoreau, whom he discovered while living in a pondside cabin one Connecticut winter. In the early phototext volumes, he presents structures as geometric shapes against empty skies or as objects from interiors largely cut out by the frame of the photograph. Similarly, the background of the human relationships portrayed in the memoirs is free of almost all emotional coloration: contemporary history and politics—national, international, and sexual—and the generalizations that make them consistent and comprehensible in retrospect. The Wright Morris of these memoirs never gets angry, never raises his voice in celebration or rage. The same seems true of those among whom he lives. He follows the example of his friend and defender Granville Hicks, whose autobiography, Part of the Truth (1965), deemphasizes emotional life so that other truths can emerge. In compensation for this vision of separateness, Morris in Will’s Boy and A Cloak of Light suggests that the structures of power in the United States expand the distances between individuals and that the vernacular structures are to be found in the byways. The dominant image of authority in these volumes, whether it be the Omaha police arresting his foster father or Charles Scribner refusing to make a cash advance, is one of indifference. The dominant image of the vernacular is some form of family, ironically not his own except for the few meetings with his mother’s people in Idaho. At a North Carolina conclave of poor whites, Morris discovers anima where he least expected it, and it is beyond his ability to capture: Intimate sympathy, one of the main structures to which Morris’ texts attest, derives its existence from an imaginative response having in Morris’ case more to do with rural economics than with region, ancestry, sophistication, education, or other common measures. “Hardship,” he wrote in another context, “seemed to me indispensable to what I was feeling. There was something in hardship that I valued.” This explains why his fiction, though it portrays so many blighted lives and touches by implication many social themes, does not concern itself with the amelioration of those conditions. The same can be said of these memoirs. He names no presidents, political movements, or personal responses to the problems of his time; political connections are coincidental, as in his comment that he signed the contract for My Uncle Dudley on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Because Morris from the beginning of his career chose subjects indicative of his regional roots, questions of landscape and history carry significant weight. Many of his reflexes as an outsider seem traceable to his regional identity, but Morris implies that California more than Nebraska fueled his creative impulses. From Omaha he had looked toward Chicago; later, even before he saw California, it had come to seem a “sanctuary of . . . great expectations,” while “the pull of the West, a convenient illusion for any duffer with a yen for flight, had become a magnet for me with the discovery of California.” Nebraska seems to represent the hardship Morris found necessary as a catalyst: It made him a dreamer who “lacked a transcendent object.” It also habituated him to space and change and helped create a writer whose fiction and memoirs depend for their energy upon a certain kind of open landscape unchanged by what may be called the modern world.
The United States has always favored, Morris asserts, “not a writer in the bookish sense at all, but one of great natural forces.” Nevertheless, a distinction must be made between the place of inspiration and the art actually produced: Morris’ fiction and his memoirs are not ultimately concerned with that landscape even if they draw inspiration from the illusion of freedom it offers. As he notes, “Let the writer come from the plains, if he must, but be smart enough to leave them behind him.”
Of history, Morris is also wary: “The past cast its spell over the present” for major American writers, an affliction for all but William Faulkner. For others—and this has long been a problem for writers of a region as history-poor as the West— the past became “a nostalgic myth . . . that . . . cripple[d] the imagination,” a situation perhaps better than what Morris sees as its successor, wherein “the role of nostalgia in our literature has dwindled as our great expectations have diminished.” The developing writer Morris portrays in these memoirs had nothing about which to be nostalgic: The mobility and spaciousness of his youth was extended by pluck, luck, and three Guggenheim fellowships well into an adulthood which afforded college teaching positions if not bountiful book sales. The memoirs focus upon a mostly solitary male who keeps moving—to Mexico and California and Venice— who avoids the lethal events of midcentury history, and who in the view of some readers has not sufficiently acknowledged the importance of his never-named first wife.
The final and surely inevitable theme of an autobiographical project of such scope is the loss of innocence. For a writer as private as Morris, this is also the most personally revealing subject. Like all of his other themes, it appears in scattered and brief narrative moments and affords neither definitive statements nor a sense of progression toward enlightenment. There are no epiphanies, but often in the most relevant situations—most often romantic—there is the humor of the books’ clearest self-assessments: “It hadn’t even crossed my mind, until her mother pointed it out, that Joan [Harwood] already had most of the things I planned to give her.” Of the theme of artistic maturity, the reader will find that Morris does not know what constitutes the creative act. He can speak of himself only as “seated with pen and paper, my mind a blank until I [begin] to write.”
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