Whether the question “Who am I?” is answered before one writes an autobiography or after the fact, the answer is as important to the writer as to the reader. Wright Morris, found crying at a carnival because he had lost fifteen cents in the sawdust, was comforted by a voice, “You’re Will’s Boy, aren’t you?” And seventy-year-old Wright Morris answers, “And so I proved to be.” After reading Will’s Boy, one wonders whether it has taken Morris more than six decades to realize fully the implications of that answer or whether he has always known intuitively what he expresses in “To the Reader.”
Each drop that falls is the center of a circle that is soon overlapped by other circles. The apparent obliteration of the circle does not eliminate the radiating vibrations. This image of endlessly renewed and expanding circles is my own ponderable cosmos.
Wright Morris began his career in 1942 with the publication of My Uncle Dudley and for forty years he has continued to write novels of consistently high quality, photo-texts, short stories, and collections of critical essays. In his style and in his subject matter, Morris may be considered a modern, sophisticated Mark Twain—an authority on Americana and the American Dream. In technique, both in his photographs and in his writing, he surpasses Ernest Hemingway, who said he exposed one tenth of the iceberg; often, Morris exposes nothing, but by a deliberate focus on what is not there, he evokes with an illuminating flash what was once there.
Most literary biographers would say that the work is the life, with the suggestion that the work proceeds in chronological order as the life proceeds. Wright Morris’ life and work however, are proof that, at least for him, the work is grounded in the early formative years of childhood and that his works, though they come throughout the life, are formed out of impressions and beliefs of those early years. “If growing up meant to abandon these sentiments,” he says at the end, “Will’s boy would be slow to grow up.”
Morris has said that in his early years, he “led and was led by, half a dozen separate lives.” The thread running through those different lives was Morris’ imagination. To attain some sense of distance and objectivity and to develop the conceptual vision he held of his work, Morris processed the raw material of his early life and the circumstances surrounding the various events in fragments. Morris wants to “use a minimum of words for a maximum effect,” and this intention, especially in Will’s Boy, allows him to create what David Madden calls “a fiction of moments,” densely charged with implications. This stylistic device gives passages, like photographs, a stop time effect. These moments are like lost objects that Morris retrieves in memory’s fiction in “lampglow and shadow,” a repeated phrase. Significant in Will’s Boy is the number of lost articles: Joey Mulligan’s St. Christopher medal, Wright’s two chameleons (they turn up in One Day, (1965), the foul ball that Babe Ruth hit and Wright caught and, more important, the pocket he tore from the champ’s uniform (these turn up in The Field of Vision (1956), and many more. These lost objects are retained in the memory and imagination of the author as literary artifacts, focal images in his fiction. Concrete things may get lost, but memories never do. They always coexist in future times and places. Morris’obsession with these fragments, moments, artifacts make each seem equally important.
An evolving pattern gives unity to Morris’ work. Will’s Boy is evidence that Morris has finally reached the point where he can relate the events of those first twenty, formative years in a straightforward, chronological fashion.
To show how his imagination over the following fifty years has transformed those episodes, all those people, and those separate Morris selves, Morris weaves into the narrative of his memoir more than twenty-five passages from his novels, short stories, and personal essays. For example, as Morris talks of his father’s attempt to run a chicken farm, he works into the flow of the narrative a long passage from The Works of Love (1952), his fictional rendition of his father’s life. The many facets of this technique enrich the reader’s response. Genres are juxtaposed, memoir to fiction; point-of-view techniques are juxtaposed, Morris’ first person to Morris’ omniscient voice.
In another instance, Morris, recalling his school days with Joey Mulligan, juxtaposes his own first person point of view with a passage from The Man Who Was There (1945) in which one of Morris’ fictional selves speaks in the first person. This technique literally demonstrates that the center of Morris’ “cosmos” and thus of each of his novels is his childhood.
Will’s Boy supports Morris’ claim that most of his fiction evolves out of the first twenty years of his life and that each new fiction evolves out of previous works. To some extent all writers draw on their early years, but Will’s Boy is a unique and intriguing literary phenomenon in the way Morris mingles his memoir of those years with key images from the fiction those years produced. Why does he end the story of his life at twenty? The technique of weaving passages of his fiction into his memoir in itself seems to declare that once a person becomes a writer, the major events in the life thereafter are acts of imagination in the daily process of writing—“the ceaseless, commonplace, bewildering interlacing of memory, emotion and imagination.”
First we make these images to see clearly; then we see clearly only what we have made. In my own case, over forty years of writing what I have observed and imagined has replaced and overlapped what I once remembered. The fictions have become the facts of my life. (Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments, 1978)
Morris begins his memoir with his birth to Grace and William Henry Morris on January 6, 1910, in the Platte Valley of Nebraska. From a farm near Zanesville, Ohio, Will Morris went to Chapman, Nebraska, to work for the Union Pacific Railroad; Grace Osborn, born on the bluffs south of the Platte, met Will in a barber shop in Chapman. Six days after Morris’ birth, his mother died. At her death, members of the family debated as to who should rear infant Wright; it was decided that, with the help of Anna, his mother’s friend, he would remain with his father.
Morris did not realize what it meant to lose a mother until years later. He calls Will’s Boy an “abiding chronicle of real losses and imaginary gains.”
Much of my life would be spent in an effort to recover the losses I never knew, realized or felt, the past that shaped yet continued to elude me. Had Grace Osborn lived, my compass would have been set on a different course, and my sails full of more than the winds of fiction. Am I to register that as a child’s loss, or a man’s gain?
In the opening section (there are no chapter numbers), which covers eight years of Morris’ life, the style is complex and rich in description and epiphanies; the vision of childhood is one of a somewhat fairy-tale existence: “The voice the child attends to is the one that speaks without the need of an answer—the voice of fire, of thunder, of wind, rain and silence.” Morris inserts a passage from Earthly Delights relating the child to all small creatures who “are only at their ease under something”—a culvert, a table, a piano box, seats of wagons and buggies, low bridges, dark hiding places under front porches. He uses the technique of calling up a living image by describing what is left after the departure of the physical: “but I preferred the shimmering fragment of suspended time that I saw through the porch slats where the train had just been, but was no more.” He enforces the image of his busy father: “the bicycle he rode to and from his work often lay on its side, the front wheel still spinning.”
In another passage from Earthly Delights, Morris emphasizes an important point about his work, and one which should be important to all writers, especially those who claim that only what is real is valid.
One reason I see it all so clearly is that I have so often put it into writing. Perhaps it is the writing I remember, the vibrant image I have made of the memory impression. A memory for just such details is thought to be characteristic of the writer, but the fiction is already at work in what he remembers. No deception is intended, but he wants to see clearly what is invariably, intrinsically vague. This gives rise to the image....
(The entire section is 3600 words.)