Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1577

That Wright Morris is a writers’ writer has seemed the case for nearly forty years. He has many admirers; he should have more. Americans should appreciate him; he understands us. He is a protean storyteller. He has remarkable energy, having produced some thirty volumes, including eighteen novels, a collection of...

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That Wright Morris is a writers’ writer has seemed the case for nearly forty years. He has many admirers; he should have more. Americans should appreciate him; he understands us. He is a protean storyteller. He has remarkable energy, having produced some thirty volumes, including eighteen novels, a collection of short stories, four photo-texts, an anthology, and four collections of essays, of which Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments is the most recent. He has written adventurously, always daring to push to new limits his craft, always changing and growing. Despite the size of his canon and his tenure on the scene, he has never quite caught the fancy of the general public—and he has never tried to. That is as it should be, but it is also a shame, because he succeeds cogently in showing Americans to themselves. Although he did win, twenty-three years ago, the National Book Award for his novel The Field of Vision, his is clearly not the purpose of the bestseller author. Instead, he is that rare artist who is equally interested in substance and technique: a stylist and craftsman.

Morris loves his stories, and he loves the process of deciding among the immense variety of possible forms for their telling. Art for him is heightened reality. His dual regard for reality and its rendering makes him special among American fiction writers and makes him a challenge to read. He is tough, eccentric, and clear-sighted. He does not comfort or delight readers with cheap easiness. He possesses an unapologetically hard-edged and angularly analytical intelligence; his truths are not always pleasant, and to appreciate his prose, one must love honesty. His combination of story and style makes his work of fascinating interest both to other writers and to readers willing to confront nonformula fiction, willing to live with zany, memorable, real characters, and willing to be startled and changed by what they read. Such adventurous writers and readers appreciate the crispness of Morris’ style, his aptness of scene and setting, his precision of phrase and picture, his ear for American idioms, his deep affection for the human condition, and his stories. They respect his restless search for new structures, for fresh nuances of diction, tone, and texture to add to a scene or a character. He is never lazy. Rather, he celebrates complexity and flux. It is unfortunate that Morris has not reached that wider audience which other, less gifted writers do achieve; the respect his fellow writers accord him must suffice for now. They know how hard he works to make the process of writing fiction look so much simpler than it is; they know he is America’s living master of le mot juste.

This collection of essays celebrates American writers and writing. It is obviously a labor of love and gratitude. Morris deeply admires those American writers who so fused themselves with their beginnings, their landscapes, and their language that they developed into artistic representatives of a nation. As a writer, he has aimed for this fusion himself. He sees American writing as a singular stream flowing up to him, around him, beyond him, and he is unabashedly proud to be part of it all. It is apparent that he has read American writing prodigiously, remembered much, and thought unceasingly and perceptively about his readings. He loves his craft and is grateful to those strong writers who stimulated and guided him in learning his craft. This book is his testimonial to those writers and an elucidation of how they accomplish their art.

Morris’ pleasure at being part of a tradition is obvious throughout this collection. For him, the greatness of the American literary tradition stems from the language itself, which is rich and various. It is a strong and sinewy language, capable nevertheless of astonishing grace, subtlety, and imagery, and superbly resistant to stultification. Morris believes that, in the hands of a perceptive author, the language has the power to shape our very lives.

Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments is a successful attempt to define, clarify, and illustrate Morris’ basic premise that images provide the hallmark to any writer’s style, “the signature by which we recognize them.” He shows how various representative American writers filter memory through their emotions and intellects, producing great works of art through singularly effective images.

The first essay in the collection is personal and places Morris consciously in the American tradition. In “Of Memory, Emotion and Imagination,” he explores his own growing consciousness of and delight in the combination of work, craft, and ineffable mystery which forms a literary product. He analyzes his need as an artist to create, delineates the decisions he makes, and gives credit to the elusive factor of creativity. Out of all this he attempts to understand the origin of his own unique style.

In the volume’s middle portion, Morris analyzes in separate, pithy, and memorable essays on each artist, these same concerns and concepts as they apply to the lives, personalities, and works of such American writers as Melville, Whitman, Twain, Henry James, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Katherine Anne Porter, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Hemingway, Richard Wright, James Agee, and Carson McCullers. As a unifying transitional device, he ends each essay with an intriguing comparison or contrast to the work of the writer to be treated in the next essay.

In the last two essays, “Origins: The Self-Imaged Image Maker” and “Unearthly Adornments,” Morris comes full-circle back to himself. He reiterates that those writers he has explored in the book are uniquely American, uniquely bound in the resilience of the language. It is our search, he suggests, for “. . . telling imagery . . . rooted in memory and emotion” which makes our literature singular. He maintains, “the whiteness of the whale, the lineaments of death, the speech of groping hands, water purling over rocks, the recurrent voices of impotence and rage provide us with clues to the writers’ obsessions, the chimed notes of their emotion. . . . Which is either positive and life-enhancing or negative and life-negating.” After this generalization, Morris homes honestly in on his own purpose as a writer, his own needs to make certain kinds of images: “Much of my own plains-based fiction grew out of my need for an experience I came too late for.” The compelling force, he concludes, is our hunger, our necessity to search for something profoundly elusive, to seek an image more life-enhancing than the one we have exhausted. Thus, his book’s title: writers create “unearthly adornments” for “earthly delights.” Morris, as Marianne Moore expressed it earlier, engages in speaking of imaginary gardens with live toads in them.

This volume is an important study for students of American literature; Morris’ assessments of a score of American writers are valuable for their freshness and exactness. A helpful index is provided which includes interesting citations of minor figures. Morris’ lively, inquisitive, and inventive intellect never fails to delight, even when one disagrees with a specific point. The collection is also of value to writers of fiction; it will aid them in relinquishing false burdens and in better shouldering worthwhile ones. When Morris writes of writing, he is to be trusted as the scout who knows the territory from firsthand experience. Finally, the volume should be of value to the general reader, since it is charmingly instructive, remarkably free of critical or scholarly jargon, easily accessible, pungent in its perceptions. One is constantly underlining passages as being truly outstanding. Of Twain, for instance, Morris muses, he was a man grown bitter, “exiled from what he held most dear—the image he had made of his boyhood.” Morris writes of Hemingway that he did not understand how much he had to love before he could write at full power, uninhibited by his reputation. In an eccentric and thought-provoking reevaluation of Hemingway’s much-maligned posthumous novel, Morris maintains “. . . he must find new objects of affection, of attachment. Islands in the Stream . . . finds him at ease with sentiment, indulgent with humor and admitting of binding ties with a cat named Boise.” Of Leo and Gertrude Stein he observes, “Compared with his sister, Leo’s egotism was self-absorbing and superficial. Slowly and in a way astonishing she was knowing she was a genius.” Each of these essays is packed with such keen perceptions. Each one, in a way, points toward Morris’ conclusion to his essay on McCullers: “We do not see the hard facts of life . . . until they are transfigured by the image-maker. The world itself is unfinished until he goes around and finishes things up.” Throughout these essays shines Morris’ admiration for the energy, tenacity, bravery, and hard-won brilliance of these writers—even when he does not find them altogether successful in certain works. What excites him consistently is their skill in transforming into higher truths their own memories and realities through their images.

Overall in these essays, Wright Morris has fashioned a marvelously warm and human book, rich in detail and reason. He sheds much light on literary reputations all too often accepted unquestioningly. His ideas are provocative and instructive, and because of its crystalline quality, the collection seems lighter than it is. The author’s infectious curiosity about the whys and the whats of writing will stimulate readers to come back to the volume again and again. Morris cares about us, our language, and our perceptions. He loves to read and to write; he does both uncommonly well and makes it possible for us to join him in enhancing those delights.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20

Booklist. LXXV, November 1, 1978, p. 449.

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, August 15, 1978, p. 934.

Library Journal. CIII, September 15, 1978, p. 1750.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIV, August 28, 1978, p. 382.

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