Wright Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska, on January 6, 1910, the son of William Henry and Grace Osborn Morris. Morris’s mother, the daughter of a Seventh-day Adventist preacher, was born on a farm near the south shore of the Platte River. Six days after Wright’s birth, she died, leaving an emotional scar that would in one way or another shape the direction of all of his fiction. Morris never knew his mother, and she becomes a nebulous figure in his writings, often made conspicuous by her absence and frequently suggested by way of contrast with the many shallow, distant, and largely dysfunctional motherly types who people his novels.
William Morris had come to Nebraska from Ohio, lured west to work as a station agent for the Union Pacific railroad. The “jovial good-natured” man to whom Morris refers in his memoirs was also something of a speculator, never sticking with one job for long. Shortly after Grace’s death, Will was remarried, to a young woman named Gertrude, left his position with the railroad, and took up chicken farming in an attempt to make a fortune supplying the railroad with day-old eggs. The enterprise failed when Morris’s father lost his entire stock of pullets to a fatal disease. This episode appears, thinly disguised as fiction, in The Works of Love (1952).
In 1919, Morris relocated with his father to Omaha. William’s fortunes continued to be bad, eventually leading Gertrude to abandon him and nine-year-old Wright, who by now was spending most of his time with the Mulligans, a foster family. In 1924, Morris and his father moved on to Chicago. Forced to live without much help from his father, who was struggling to find steady work, Morris learned rugged self-reliance the hard way, by supporting himself doing odd jobs and working at the local YMCA.
In 1926, in response to his father’s need for a “new start,” Morris made the first of several unsuccessful trips to and from California in search of better prospects. After returning to Chicago, Morris, though faced with virtually no home life, somehow managed to graduate from high school. In 1930, he enrolled in Pomona College in Claremont, California. In 1933, however, he left Pomona after deciding to spend some time traveling in Europe. After a soul-searching, adventurous year spent wandering in France, Italy, and Austria, Morris returned to the United States in 1934, convinced of his calling to become a writer.
By 1934, Morris had also married his first wife, Mary Ellen Finfrock, a teacher and native of...
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