Solo Critical Context - Essay

Wright Morris

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Readers of the modern phenomenon of autobiography-as-rebuttal who are used to authorial self-inflation and self-justification will find Morris’ volumes quite different. Morris has no sense of himself as a figure of great importance. He has always been something of an enigma because of the quiet eccentricity of his fiction; whereas he is willing to answer basic questions about himself, the genesis and place of composition of his various major works, the real-life models for some of his protagonists, and his favorite settings and people, he remains a private individual. He tells no tales on others, either: His vignettes of fellow literary figures such as Robert Frost, Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Leon Howard, Kitty Bowen, and others are sometimes ironic but never unkind. The dominant presence in the three volumes is a man who feels lucky with his life and his accomplishments, who makes no great claims for himself and has no reason to snipe at anyone. There is a kind of modesty throughout the narratives, as if to assert—as his phototexts do— that a careful look will reveal the depth and significance of the common man’s experience.

To the tradition of contemporary writing from the American West, these volumes—especially Will’s Boy and A Cloak of Light—will be distinguished additions because they work so hard to overcome the merely regional. In addition to giving a skillful picture of growing up on the plains in the early part of this century, Morris also makes it clear that a writer can and must escape the limitations of family, region, and history. He transcends the image of the Western writer tied to geography and hampered by lack of sophistication. He does not strike out against the dominant East and its ignorance of and condescension to the West. Instead, the summary in A Cloak of Light of the ideas in his critical study The Territory Ahead (1958) attempts to integrate all American writing in a cultural context whose largest forces are felt by writers from all regions. Of all Western writers, only Wallace Stegner and Wright Morris have made such serious use, without apology, of Western experience.