A Cloak of Light

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

With the third volume of his autobiography, Wright Morris concentrates on his development as a novelist. Will’s Boy (1981) depicts his childhood and adolescence in Nebraska and Chicago, and Solo: An American Dreamer in Europe, 1933-34 (1983) describes a Continental tour by college student Morris. These books present many people, places, and events that served as the raw material for Morris’ fiction, and A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life, which begins with his return from Europe, in 1934, and continues until 1960, offers Morris at work on twelve of his twenty novels. The book is more than a literary memoir, however, providing loving portraits of Morris’ friends and relatives and of the numerous places in the United States, Mexico, and Europe. A Cloak of Light also contains a reasonably objective portrayal of its author as artist and man.

Much of the memoir is devoted to the early years of Morris’ first marriage. Mary Ellen Finfrock Morris taught music while her husband began his career as a writer. During this period, Morris worked briefly for the Works Progress Administration and taught drawing and swimming, but most of the time, he wrote, trying to find the proper voice for his fiction. Experimenting with short descriptive passages, Morris suddenly realized that “one might actually ’take’ the pictures I was describing.”

Morris quickly developed considerable skill as a photographer, making photographs across America of houses, rooms, and landscapes that subtly, unsentimentally evoke the lives of the people associated with them. His talent earned for him the first of his three Guggenheim fellowships in 1942, and the resulting pictures served as the basis of The Inhabitants (1946), his first photo-textbook.

After a heart murmur kept Morris out of World War II, the Morrises moved from California to suburban Philadelphia when Mary Ellen obtained a position at the Baldwin school in Bryn Mawr. Although they lived in the Philadelphia area for more than a decade, Morris traveled constantly, rediscovering his roots during one trip. The visit to his taciturn Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara near Norfolk, Nebraska, provided the inspiration for The Home Place (1948) and The World in the Attic (1949). The former ended Morris’ experiment with photo-texts when Wally Meyer, his new editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons and successor to the legendary Maxwell Perkins, observed that there was no evidence that the public was interested in the format and that “even reviewers were confused as to the purposes of the author. Was he a writer who liked to take photographs, or a photographer who liked to do a little writing? In either case, it played hell with the publisher’s intent to establish a new author.”

Morris describes this period as “good years. My wife lived in her work, as I did in mine, and these years we lived our lives together. Old friends and new friends came to visit us in our new home, and in these settings I admired and took pride in my wife.” Yet at the same time, something was wrong: “For several years I had been doing most of my living in my writing, and I was feeling the strain on these resources.”

The first sign of a coming change came on a trip alone to Mexico when Morris saw a used but still beautiful Jaguar for sale. For most of his life, Morris had been poor and unappreciated, but he had recently won the prestigious National Book Award for The Field of Vision (1956), received twenty thousand dollars from New American Library for the paperback rights to Love Among the Cannibals (1957), and been promised another fifteen hundred dollars for two lectures at Amherst College. When he saw the Jaguar, “it dawned on me, after a lifetime of rejecting, that I could now buy some of the things I wanted, if I wanted them badly enough.”

Buying the sports car on impulse for $1,095, he felt transformed into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby: “I had taken the step to West Egg. How far up ahead was the green light on Daisy’s dock?” Morris found the answer to that question soon afterward when, in Los Angeles, he met and fell in love with Josephine Kantor, a young divorcée-to-be. Almost immediately, they were exploring Paris and Venice together. A Cloak of Light ends with Morris about to start a new...

(The entire section is 1787 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The two major studies of Wright Morris’ work, David Madden’s Wright Morris (1964) and G.B. Crump’s The Novels of Wright Morris: A Critical Interpretation (1978), begin with similar statements of puzzlement over the reading public’s neglect of this writer. Morris’ more than thirty volumes, of which his novels represent more than half, include phototexts, essays, short stories, and memoirs. Despite having won both the National Book Award and the American Book Award, Morris had not by the beginning of the 1980’s attracted a sufficient following to warrant the reprinting by commercial presses of even his most ambitious novels. Nevertheless, the decision by the University of Nebraska Press to reprint his work, plus Morris’ continued productivity and the appearance in the 1980’s of more than half a dozen stories in The New Yorker, has resulted in a modest renaissance of interest.

Morris’ minimalist approach and understanding of human emotions raised a number of questions, fair or not, about Morris himself and about his intentions as a writer of fiction. A typical reservation was that of Alfred Kazin: Despite Morris’ “many symbols, his showy intentions, his pointed and hinted significances,” the novels were “without the breath and extension of life.” The seeming detachment of Morris’ narrators from their material, and of his characters from their lives and from one another, echoed for many readers the cool geometry of the peopleless photographs of Great Plains settings in The Inhabitants (1946) and The Home Place (1948). The appearance in his eighth decade of the memoirs Will’s Boy, Solo, and A Cloak of Light answers many questions about Morris as a man and a writer, and reinforces his image as a detached observer of human existence, including his own, as well as an ironic humor which accompanies that detachment.

The three volumes cover the period between Morris’ birth in Nebraska in 1910 to the end of the summer of 1960, when he is about to begin a new life in California with his second wife, Jo Kantor. Will’s Boy emphasizes his youthful years in Nebraska and later in Chicago, concluding during his third year at Pomona College. Solo, subtitled An American Dreamer in Europe, 1933-1934, recounts a Wanderjahr spent mainly in Austria and Italy. A Cloak of Light deals with Morris’ years of struggle to support himself, develop as a writer, and find himself as a man. Although all three volumes, especially the more expansive first and third, use the vignette as their basic structural unit, each is a unique mixture of thematic emphases.

Will’s Boy, a slender two hundred pages long, possesses the most evenly flowing chronology (though it seldom refers to specific dates, being a product of recollection rather than of research), the clearest preoccupation with recounting family history, the most humor, and the warmest tone. It contains many examples of Morris as storyteller: how on a crowded baseball field...

(The entire section is 1257 words.)