Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Morris’s devoting his twentieth novel to a consideration of what it means to be a woman in twentieth century America is somewhat surprising, given the secondary status of women in most of his fiction. Women are presented as dominating their men in such works as Man and Boy (1951) and The Deep Sleep (1953), but beginning with One Day (1965), Morris’s women gradually start to establish their distinctive qualities, developing a logical progression to Sharon Rose Atkins. He creates Cora and Sharon because he understands women better than he did previously, not because he wants to write a feminist tract. With the exception of Love Among the Cannibals (1957), a rather sexy book by Morris’s standards, he eschews the fashionable.

The ninth of his novels to be set at least partially in Nebraska, Plains Song, for Female Voices completes Morris’s vision of the plains as a place with a profound grip on the emotional lives of its natives, these practical but passionless American dreamers. The Atkinses’ failure recalls that of Will Brady, the doomed egg dealer of The Works of Love (1952). Despite his criticisms of the deficiencies of the American character, both male and female, Morris always finds something admirable in his protagonists’ quests, as when Will Brady dies offering love to an indifferent world. Cora’s endurance in a world of loneliness and alienation is no small achievement.

Plains Song, for Female Voices joins The Works of Love, The Huge Season (1954), The Field of Vision (1956), Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960), and Fire Sermon (1971) as one of Morris’s most notable novels, primarily through his portrait of Sharon and his celebration of her individuality. The choice between living a reasonably safe, conventional existence, and one involving challenges and independence—or degrees of independence—is a difficult one for any inhabitant of Wright Morris’s America.