Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments
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.
(The entire section is 1,597 words.)