In his long and productive literary career, Wright Morris’s fictional practice remained consistent with the theoretical concerns he expresses in his essays and interviews. Morris was one of the few to combine the roles of novelist and literary critic, roles which frequently tend to diverge among twentieth century writers. His books on literature—The Territory Ahead; a Bill of Rites, a Bill of Wrongs, a Bill of Goods; About Fiction; and Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments (1978)—are perceptive studies that reveal many of his literary origins and aims. His novels, which are in many ways extensions of his theory, testify to Morris’s unwavering belief in technique as an indispensable tool of the successful writer.
Although Morris’s critical comments about fiction tend to be understated and somewhat implicit, they do suggest his profound interest in a number of artistic concerns. Foremost among these concerns are the nature and role of the artist, the writer’s way of handling his material, the writer’s relationship to literary tradition, the value of realism as a literary approach, and the importance of technique.
The best working definition Morris provides of the artist’s role is found in this statement from The Territory Ahead:Life, raw life, the kind we lead every day . . ., has the curious property of not seeming real enough. We have a need, however illusive, for a life that is more real than life. It lies in the imagination. Fiction would seem to be the way it is processed into reality. If this were not so we should have little excuse for art. Life, raw life, would be more than satisfactory in itself. But it seems to be the nature of man to transform—himself, if possible, and then the world around him—and the technique of this transformation is what we call art.
The passage introduces two key terms in Morris’s theory—“transformation” and “reality.” Generally speaking, Morris used transformation to signify the process through which unformed events, emotions, and memories—the writer’s raw materials—are shaped into structured experience by the artist’s imagination. The writer’s role is thus to articulate experience and through such articulation build a form of reality that transcends the common plane of ordinary experience, resulting in the permanent capturing of transitory experience and feeling in the form of a work of art.
One of the reasons Morris made such strong claims for the imagination is that he sensed that the reservoir of raw material is dwindling. The workings of art, geographic expansion, and the mass media have all contributed to the exhaustion of untouched, virgin experience that fueled many early American writers. In creating material in the modern age, Morris sensed that many American artists too often have been guilty of misplacing artistic energy. To compensate for a dwindling supply of experience, too many writers have escaped into nostalgia to supply themselves with raw material missing from their own experiences. For Morris, the results of any sort of sentimental overindulgence in the past produces cliché, not art. Thus, all of his fiction represents a concerted effort to gain control over his material and to escape nostalgia by avoiding frozen and worn-out patterns of expression and behavior.
This is not to suggest that Morris completely eschewed literary tradition. In his view, tradition functions to prevent disorder and the pursuit of novelty for its own sake. He noted that an exclusive concern with newness often fails to produce the kind of art from which subsequent writers can learn. He felt that new artists must transmute their literary inheritances through technique and imagination so that what is of value is preserved and what is exhausted is not.
Even though Morris believed that literature should be in some sense representational, he was...
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