Plains Song, for Female Voices

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Plains Song, for Female Voices, Wright Morris’ twentieth novel, redresses an imbalance in his previous fiction in which the women characters are almost always in the background, either quietly supporting their men, trying to ignite them into action, or tormenting them for their sins, real or imagined. In the end, it is usually his men’s problems or triumphs, their visions of the world, which matter. The end of his previous novel, The Fork River Space Project (1977), may have subtly signaled a change in Morris’ perspective as the protagonist’s wife, another shadowy female, leaves him. Neither the reader nor the husband is surprised or upset by her departure since she is presented as clearly having a right to a choice, a right to choose escape, even escape from a comfortable, trouble-free marriage. Most of Morris’ previous women would have been unlikely to have even considered such a drastic change.

In Plains Song, Morris carries this idea of the woman’s right to choose what kind of life she wants, her need to escape to a more fulfilling environment, much further. Morris’ men and women usually have unsatisfying relationships, and those in Plains Song are typical. The only happy wife is Madge Atkins Kibbee who is completely fulfilled being a domestic drudge and childbearer. Sharon Rose Atkins, her cousin, avoids the problems inherent in heterosexual entanglements by shunning men altogether. Sharon’s goal in life is to establish and maintain her independence, and she becomes something of a heroic figure for her success.

Morris is also reexamining some of his traditional concerns in Plains Song. Nine of his prior novels take place mostly in Nebraska, depicting how the frequently harsh life on the plains has affected the inhabitants, turning them inward but not toward introspection. His Nebraskans are usually good people who do little good because they are passive, uncommunicative, unanalytical Westerners whose vision of the dream they or their ancestors pursued west has become cloudy. Morris condemns them for their unthinking lives yet sympathizes with them because of the potential goodness of their natures. This ambiguity toward the people of the plains underscores Morris’ efforts, in the words of critic Leslie A. Fiedler, “to convince his readers that Nebraska is the absurd hell we all inhabit.”

Morris’ ambiguity about the plains is embodied by the two most prominent characters: Cora Atkins, who stays and endures, and Sharon Atkins, who leaves and blossoms. Cora is living in Ohio with an uncle who operates a hotel and stable when she meets Emerson Atkins who has come east to buy supplies for the farm he and his brother Orion have started just north of the Elkhorn River in Madison County, Nebraska. Emerson proposes because a man beginning a homestead on the plains needs a wife, and the six-foot, solemnfaced, sober-gazed Cora, although clearly no prize, is the sort of level-headed woman a commonsensical farmer needs, and she accepts simply because she is expected to. The possibility of eventual affection is not important for these oh-so-practical pioneers.

A cliché of life and fiction is that such couples will grow to love each other, but Morris knows better. Cora, thrust into a situation she has not been prepared for, one she understands only on the most superficial levels, bites through her hand on her wedding night, a reaction which, like everything emotional, baffles her husband. Emerson’s inability to understand this incident foreshadows his failure to try to comprehend Cora for the remainder of their long marriage. For him, she is as much an employee, a servant, as a wife. Cora’s scarred hand comes to represent a fear of or indifference toward sex on the part of many Atkins women, to suggest an almost insurmountable barrier between Morris’ plainswomen and their men.

Cora more easily reconciles herself to farm life than to marriage, growing to enjoy her endless chores, and when she realizes she is pregnant, she sees having the child as simply another job she is expected to perform. Beulah Madge, however, turns out to be Cora’s only child because of her abhorrence of the sexual act. Unable to overcome this barrier between them, Emerson implies that Cora has failed him: “What a farm needed was sons. She had borne a daughter, to be fed and clothed, then offered on the marriage market. Who would be there to run the farm as they grew old?” Morris calmly criticizes the way Nebraska, the American West, and most of civilization have failed to see more in women than Emerson sees. Morris, as he so often does, softens the blow by turning his criticism into comedy as generations of Atkinses are “cursed” by producing nothing but daughters.

Orion marries Belle Rooney, an Ozark hillbilly whose constant chattering is her only weapon against the suffocating silence of her environment and its inhabitants. Belle seems lost amid the taciturnity which Morris convinces the reader is indigenous to the plains. Her daughter Sharon Rose and Cora’s Madge are mirrors of their mothers; Sharon babbles and demands attention while Madge quietly follows and watches her cousin. The girls develop a friendship and interdependence whose eventual weakening helps Sharon to sever herself from her home. They become even more like sisters after Belle dies giving birth to Fayrene Dee, whom everyone ignores and whom Orion blames for his wife’s death. As the Atkins girls grow up, Sharon discovers an innate talent for the piano while Madge’s “special talent” is watching Sharon.

During these years Cora becomes reconciled to her life, having “little desire to see more than she had already seen, or feel more than she had already felt.” Her life totally defined by her daily routine of looking after her chickens and their eggs, Cora has peace of mind if little else, especially when it comes to the emotional life some choose to have. She is not even particularly affectionate toward her daughter and nieces....

(The entire section is 2465 words.)