Wright Morris is known as one of the most distinctive chroniclers of the American scene, but he has also paid close attention to Europe in his fiction. Three of his twenty novels, The Huge Season (1954), What a Way to Go (1962), and Cause for Wonder (1963), are set at least partly in Europe. Will’s Boy (1981), the first volume of his memoirs, provides the raw material for much of Morris’ fiction, especially that centering on the inhabitants of the Nebraska plains. Solo picks up where Will’s Boy left off, with Morris as a college student in California longing for the experiences which will help make him a writer.
Morris does not explain directly how his year in Europe helped him to become a writer. Through his photographic attention to details, his almost total recall, his sense of place, his love for oddballs, his wonder at the strange and beautiful things he sees around him, he illustrates that he possessed the potential to be some sort of artist in his youth. He has more than lived up to this potential, having developed a masterful combination of a subtle style, insight into human nature, and a wry humor, all on prominent display in Solo. The book is a combination of memoir, portrait of an artist as a young man, travel adventure, and social history, capturing the somber mood of a Europe slowly drifting toward war.
Solo begins with Morris’ decision to leave Pomona College for a Wanderjahr in Europe because “I had kissed a few girls, and had read a few books, including The Decline of the West, by Oswald Spengler, to whom I had written to question his assumption that the West had declined west of the Missouri River.” Spengler did not answer the letter, so Morris plans to “look him up” in Munich. (His timidity overcomes his audacity once he is in Europe.) One of the other books Morris had read was The Royal Road to Romance (1925) by Richard Halliburton, from whose “hot tip” he decides to work his passage on a cattle boat to France. Morris pokes considerable fun at the naïve unworldliness of his twenty-three-year-old self:I was not without experience, of an artless sort, but I had yet to ride the rails, spend the night in a hoosegow or sit around the smoking fire in a hobo jungle, swapping yarns and the butts of cigarettes, all known to be indispensable in the education of an American writer. As the author of
The sunSweats through the fog
I was not without a show of style and substance.
Morris’ skill as a reader is called upon as he hitchhikes to Chicago. Two Utah farmers offer him a ride if he will read the directions on a bottle of Listerine. He witnesses their soaking the swollen rump of a recently gelded horse with the mouthwash and then unsuccessfully whacking him with a plank to make him move. This bizarre behavior combined with the heat makes Morris swoon: “it was the sort of experience I valued, but I seemed to lack the stomach for it. The stomach would come, I told myself, when I had toughened up.” The experience sets the tone for Solo, much of which consists of Morris’ bemused responses to unusual encounters, the accumulation of which does serve to toughen him.
Forcing himself to overcome his fears and ride a freight train, he passes through Chapman, Nebraska, one of the small towns along the Platte Valley where he grew up and where his mother is buried, and he experiences, like so many of his characters, a sort of exorcism: “I turned to watch it all recede behind me and vanish like smoke: switch tower, grain elevator, water stack, the station where my father had sat. . . . Racing into the future, I saw it all vanish, and felt only relief.” This freeing oneself of the burdens of and nostalgia for one’s past in order to deal with the present and race into the future is a major motif in Morris’ fiction.
Morris spends the summer of 1933 working in the Schlitz Garden Cafe at the Century of Progress world’s fair in Chicago, saving $360, which he hopes will last him a year in Europe. His Halliburton-inspired romantic illusions about travel begin to diminish even before he begins, when he discovers there are no cattle boats and has to pay passage on a freighter to Antwerp. He has another chance to compare life and literature on the voyage, learning “the difference between a real storm at sea and reading about a storm in Conrad,” finding Conrad’s version more memorable than the real thing.
Landing in Antwerp, he takes the night train to Paris, afraid to sleep because he might miss something. Rural France reminds him of Vincent Van Gogh: “It seemed normal to me that most of what I saw far exceeded my expectations. Wasn’t it for this I had come to Europe?” Deciding it is not the right time of year for Paris, he moves on to Vienna, where he joins the Foreign Students Club in which students teach one another their languages. He admires Bogislav von Lindheim, the club secretary, for speaking English “the way I would have liked to.” Morris plans to last the winter on thirty dollars but impulsively buys a Raleigh bicycle for sixty-five dollars, confirming Bogislav’s suspicions that Americans from the Far West are crazy.
Young Morris is completely naïve about European social and political issues but begins to be initiated when an admired acquaintance is arrested for his involvement in a right-wing plot to overthrow the government....
(The entire section is 2285 words.)