Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
Will’s Boy, an autobiography, reworks much of the same material that went into The Works of Love, a book with which Morris struggled through seven drafts between 1946 and 1951. However, in the more recent reconsideration of his boyhood, Morris for the first time makes a nonfictional attempt to resurrect his past. By limiting the scope of Will’s Boy to the years between 1910 and 1930, Morris is able to trace significant events in his life from his birth in Central City, Nebraska, through his boyhood in Schuyler and Omaha, his teen years in Chicago, and on to his eventual enrollment in Pomona College.
In terms of action, Morris had a remarkable youth. His mother died shortly after he was born, and his father, William Morris, a rambler with an eye for women, fine clothes, and money, moved from one town to another, married again, and drifted ever eastward. He dragged his son with him through a world of hotel lobbies, cafés, other women, foster parents, cars, and cross-country trips from Chicago to California and back again. Along the way, Morris showed an uncanny ability to take care of himself, finding a variety of jobs, including one at a Chicago YMCA that brought him into direct contact with street gangs and mobsters. Miraculously, he managed to make friendships, finish high school, and survive with almost no monetary or moral support from his father.
Concerning Will Morris, who is one of the central foci of the book, Morris passes subtle judgment, often relaying the pain of estrangement and conflict caused by his father’s curious habits and ideas. For example, during Will’s brief bachelorhood after the departure of Gertrude, his second wife, Morris, in a characteristic understatement, remarks that “we were almost companionable.” His father rarely speaks candidly to his son, and Wright is repeatedly “farmed out” to relatives and other families. While staying with one such set of surrogate parents, the Mulligans, Morris’s pride is severely injured by the fact that his father pays them either with bad checks or with nothing at all. Most of all, Wright is repelled by his father’s loose ways with women and vividly recalls an uncomfortable moment when he caught him in bed with a young floozy. Although Morris calls his father a “kind man,” he has “scorn” for him and recalls looking forward to living on his own.
The other major focus is Morris’s missing mother, who haunts his memory. Her nonpresence represents an important gap in his experience. Morris puts it this way: “Six days after my birth my mother died. Having stated this bald fact I ponder its meaning. In the wings of my mind I hear voices . . . I see the ghosts of people without faces . . . My life begins, and will have its ending, in this abiding chronicle of real losses and imaginary gains.”
Although the absence of his mother is painful, it is also a potent stimulant to the budding writer’s imagination. Though Morris cannot replace her, he recognizes that had she lived, his life would have taken a different course, perhaps filled with “more than the wings of fiction.”
Such memories as Morris has of his father and mother would seem to be fit materials for a sad, somber tale rather than one about the flights of youth. Morris, however, refuses to let the negative elements obliterate the positive ones. Consistent with a trend in his later fiction, Morris dwells on that which is life-enhancing, frequently using comic sections such as those about his stay with the Mulligans as a means to counter the senses of shame, dread, and grief that are found in his accounts of his father. The last pages of the book offer testimony to this tendency and give a sense of beginning rather than ending when they herald young Morris’s arrival into adulthood with the engraving on the gates of Pomona College, “INCIPIT VITA NOVA”: “Here begins a new life.”
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