(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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....

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The two major studies of Wright Morris’ work, David Madden’s Wright Morris (1964) and G.B. Crump’s The Novels of Wright Morris: A Critical Interpretation (1978), begin with similar statements of puzzlement over the reading public’s neglect of this writer. Morris’ more than thirty volumes, of which his novels represent more than half, include phototexts, essays, short stories, and memoirs. Despite having won both the National Book Award and the American Book Award, Morris had not by the beginning of the 1980’s attracted a sufficient following to warrant the reprinting by commercial presses of even his most ambitious novels. Nevertheless, the decision by the University of Nebraska Press to reprint his work, plus Morris’ continued productivity and the appearance in the 1980’s of more than half a dozen stories in The New Yorker, has resulted in a modest renaissance of interest.

Morris’ minimalist approach and understanding of human emotions raised a number of questions, fair or not, about Morris himself and about his intentions as a writer of fiction. A typical reservation was that of Alfred Kazin: Despite Morris’ “many symbols, his showy intentions, his pointed and hinted significances,” the novels were “without the breath and extension of life.” The seeming detachment of Morris’ narrators from their material, and of his characters from their lives and from one another, echoed for many readers the cool geometry of the peopleless photographs of Great Plains settings in The Inhabitants (1946) and The Home Place (1948). The appearance in his eighth decade of the memoirs Will’s Boy, Solo, and A Cloak of Light answers many questions about Morris as a man and a writer, and reinforces his image as a detached observer of human existence, including his own, as well as an ironic humor which accompanies that detachment.

The three volumes cover the period between Morris’ birth in Nebraska in 1910 to the end of the summer of 1960, when he is about to begin a new life in California with his second wife, Jo Kantor. Will’s Boy emphasizes his youthful years in Nebraska and later in Chicago, concluding during his third year at Pomona College. Solo, subtitled An American Dreamer in Europe, 1933-1934, recounts a Wanderjahr spent mainly in Austria and Italy. A Cloak of Light deals with Morris’ years of struggle to support himself, develop as a writer, and find himself as a man. Although all three volumes, especially the more expansive first and third, use the vignette as their basic structural unit, each is a unique mixture of thematic emphases.

Will’s Boy, a slender two hundred pages long, possesses the most evenly flowing chronology (though it seldom refers to specific dates, being a product of recollection rather than of research), the clearest preoccupation with recounting family history, the most humor, and the warmest tone. It contains many examples of Morris as storyteller: how on a crowded baseball field...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Antioch Review. XLI, Summer, 1983, p. 375.

Christian Century. C, October 12, 1983, p. 915.

Library Journal. CVIII, May 1, 1983, p. 902.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 26, 1983, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, June 5, 1983, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LIX, September 12, 1983, p. 158.

Newsweek. CI, June 13, 1983, p. 74.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, April 15, 1983, p. 40.