Wright Morris Morris, Wright - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Wright Morris 1910–-1998

(Full name Wright Marion Morris) Midwestern American novelist, photographer, photo-textualist, short-story writer, essayist, memoirist.

For more than half a century, beginning in the late 1930s with his “photo-texts,” which incorporated written character sketches and photographs, Morris was a limner of American consciousness, a chronicler of American experience, and a biographer of American character. Mixing allegory and symbol, realism and absurdity, clichés and gallows humor, characterization and caricature, his novels probe persons and places, consciousness and perception, memory and imagination, desire and resignation over plot development and action. He frequently wrote about the Midwest, particularly Nebraska, his home state, and about the pioneer stock who wrought out of the land a culture, and out of their relation to the land an identity. In a score of novels and more than two dozen short stories, in photographs, essays, and memoirs, Morris explored the effects of the values they created, the conflicts they endured, the accommodations they accepted, the follies they committed, the losses they suffered, and how they came to terms with the past and coped with a present he usually characterized as lonely and empty.

Biographical Information

Within a week of Morris's birth in Central City, Nebraska, his mother died and he was left in the care of a neglectful and vagabond father, who became a prototype for many of the men in his books. Morris lived with his father in Omaha and Chicago, and in his teen years worked on an uncle's farm in Texas. In the early 1930s he enrolled in Pomona College in California, but left in 1933 before graduating and went to Europe, seeking adventure, with dreams of becoming a writer. Bicycling through fascist Italy he was briefly incarcerated for being a spy because of the camera he had picked up in Vienna. In Paris, his money was stolen. In 1934, he returned to the United States, married his first wife, and began writing and taking pictures in earnest. He held his first photo exhibit at the New School in Manhattan in 1941, and was awarded the first of his three Guggenheim fellowships in 1942. (Two, in 1942 and 1946, were in photography; one, in 1954, was in literature.) He was a prolific writer, and published steadily from 1942, the date of publication of his first novel, My Uncle Dudley, until a few years before his death in 1998. He was a lecturer in literature and writing at Haverford, Princeton, Sarah Lawrence, Swarthmore and several other colleges, and taught at California State College in San Francisco from 1962 to 1975.

Major Works

Morris has the reputation not only for being a prolific writer, but for having written so many first-rate books. His first novel, My Uncle Dudley, is a picaresque story of a car trip through the Western United States. The Home Place (1948) sets photographs and text on facing pages in order to form a work whose completion comes from the interactivity of the parts in the reader's perception. He developed the novel Man and Boy (1951) from his short story “The Ram in the Thicket” (1948), and then rewrote the novel, reconsidering the character of “Mother,” in The Deep Sleep (1953). The Huge Season (1954) employs subjective and objective narration contrasting 1920's hero worship with the realities of McCarthyism in the 1950's; he dealt with the violation of sexual conventions in Love Among the Cannibals (1957); and with sexual vitalism in In Orbit (1967). Although it garnered mixed reviews when it was published, The Field of Vision (1956), a complex study of character, meaning, truth, and justification set in Mexico at a bullfight, won the National Book award in 1957, and has come to be regarded as one of Morris's major works. His last novel Plains Song was the American book award winner in 1981. Because defeated men dominated by frigid women had been one of Morris's characteristic themes, Plains Song is regarded as another major achievement both for its presentation of three generations of women struggling with the frontier experience, and with their own definition as women. The novel also demonstrates the ongoing development of Morris's vision and of his craft in complexity, variety, and range. Although Morris opposed the hyper-consciousness of the twentieth century, which he believed abstracted people from an immediate and essential “non-conscious” relation with nature and each other, his essays on art, society, writers and writing reveal he was a most conscious and conscientious craftsman.

Critical Reception

Morris has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards for his books and photographs, including a retrospective of his photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a Life Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mark Twain Award, the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association, a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a National Institute Grant in Literature. His stories have been printed in magazines including Harper's Bazaar, Esquire and The New Yorker, and his books have always found major publishers, and have been kept in print after first publication by presses such as the University of Nebraska and Black Sparrow. Nevertheless, his books, with the exception of The Field of Vision and Love Among the Cannibals, have enjoyed little popular success. Reviews of his books at the time of publication often were mixed, but in a large body of criticism, which has grown up around his work, Morris's work is seen as a unified and interdependent whole. Morris is studied as one of the major American writers and photographers of the twentieth century.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

My Uncle Dudley (novel) 1942

The Man Who Was There (novel) 1945

The Inhabitants (photo text) 1946

The Home Place (photo text) 1948

The World in the Attic (novel) 1949

Man and Boy (novel) 1951

The Works of Love (novel) 1952

The Deep Sleep (novel) 1953

The Huge Season (novel) 1954

The Field of Vision (novel) 1956

Love Among the Cannibals (novel) 1957

The Territory Ahead (essays) 1958

Ceremony in Lone Tree (novel) 1960

What A Way To Go (novel) 1962

Cause for Wonder (novel) 1963

One Day (novel) 1965

In Orbit (novel) 1967

A Bill of Rites, A Bill of Wrongs, A Bill of Goods (essays) 1968

God's Country and My People (photo text) 1968

Green Grass, Blue Sky, White House (short stories) 1970

Fire Sermon (novel) 1971

Love Affair: A Venetian Journal (photo text) 1972

War Games (novel) 1972

Here Is Einbaum (short stories) 1973

A Life (novel) 1973

About Fiction: Reverent Reflections on the Nature of Fiction with Irreverent Observations on Writers, Readers, and Other Abuses (essays) 1974

The Cat's Meow (short stories) 1975

Real Losses, Imaginary Gains (short stories) 1976

Wright Morris: Structure and Artifact: Photographs 1933-1954 (photography) 1976

The Fork River Space Project (novel) 1977

Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments: American Writers As Image Makers (essays) 1978

Plains Song: For Female Voices (novel) 1981

Will's Boy: A Memoir (memoir) 1981

Picture America [with James Alinder] (photo text) 1982

Photographs and Words (photo text) 1982

Solo: An American Dreamer in Europe: 1933-1934 (memoir) 1983

Collected Stories 1948-1986 (short stories) 1986

Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (photo text) 1989

A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life (memoir) 1993

Edwin Seaver (review date 1942)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of My Uncle Dudley, in Direction, Vol. 5, No. 2, April-May, 1942, p. 19.

[In the following review, Seaver finds Morris's first novel My Uncle Dudley lacking in depth.]

American is the word which emerges immediately from this story of a young man's trip across the country with a remarkably shrewd and yet casual Uncle, who is able to inveigle a number of other men to come along as paying guests, to cover the expenses of the trip. The tale is certainly realistic, but it has not the variety nor originality of other work by Mr. Morris. The characters he has chosen are convincing but have little to make them linger in the mind. Tire trouble and the continual breaking down of the car they ride in make an artificial drama, rather than a human one. We know that Mr. Morris has a much deeper feeling for American types of men and women than he has put in this book.

Harvey Breit (essay date 1951)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Talk with Wright Morris,” in The New York Times, June 10, 1951, p. 19.

[In the following essay, Breit reports on a conversation in which Morris distinguishes between the processes of revealing and exposing.]

Wright Morris, author of the recently published novel, Man and Boy, is a fully matured, civilized, hard-thinking, friendly 41-year-old fellow. He is the possessor of a compact, stocky frame, as well as of a hazardously upright and virile thicket of hair that must be, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the cynosure of all wearers of toupees. This crowning glory may have something to do with the fact that Mr. Morris comes out of Nebraska (sometimes...

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Delmore Schwartz (review date 1951)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Man and Boy, in Partisan Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 5, September-October, 1951, pp. 575-76.

[In the following review, Schwartz focuses on Morris's treatment of the domineering and indomitable mother figure in Man & Boy.]

The attack on the American Mother attains a new intensity and dimension in Wright Morris' Man & Boy. Mrs. Ormsby, the mother of the novel, rules with an iron hand not only in the region of emotions and mores, but she commands and transforms language as well. Mr. Morris has dramatized the extent to which much of her power comes from a mastery of language, an aspect of the American mother which has...

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Albert J. Guerard (review date 1952)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Works of Love, in Perspectives USA, No. 1, Fall, 1952, pp. 169-70.

[In the following excerpt, Guerard praises The Works of Love as a “vision of American loneliness.”]

The America of Wright Morris might seem, at a glance, as remote from a European consciousness: the Midwest and West of the early twentieth century, the baked plains and lost towns and snowy wastes of Nebraska. How explain to this European consciousness the romance of a freight train seen thirty kilometers away? Or the glamour attached to even the smallest restaurant and hotel? Or the very fact that a distant cloud of dust may mean a small town, other human beings?...

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Delmore Schwartz (review date 1952)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Works of Love, in Partisan Review, Vol. XIX, No. 3, May-June, 1952, pp. 357-58.

[In the following excerpt, Schwartz argues that The Works of Love is an incompletely realized novel.]

Innocence is the theme of Wright Morris' new novel, The Works Of Love. The hero is the truly good and truly pure man who is doomed to give all that he has and to love all that he can without receiving gift or love in return. Morris has a beautiful sympathy for this kind of human being, and he masters more and more, in each new book, the gift of a colloquial poetic style. Unlike Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein, who often wrote from the point...

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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1954)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Crossroads, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2737, July 16, 1954, p. 453.

[In the following excerpt, the unnamed reviewer notes the importance of the American landscape and “the terrible American female” in Morris's fiction.]

To read an American novel after several English ones is to rediscover with a sort of surprise the sense of place. While our own writers for the most part develop personal relationships or states of mind in a vacuum, the Americans present their vivid background almost as a deus ex machina moulding and controlling their characters' lives. Thus Mr. Wright Morris, one of the most interesting and personal...

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Louis O. Coxe (essay date 1954)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Huge Season, in Partisan Review, Vol. XXI, No. 6, November-December, 1954, pp. 690-91.

[In the following review, Coxe argues The Huge Season is a failure.]

Mr. Morris' new novel begins auspiciously with a strong evocation of atmosphere and a promise of exciting events to come. The reader feels that here is a real attempt to explore the secret, the power, of those fabulous men of the '20s he has read and heard so much about. One of the first pictures Mr. Morris limns is the shadowy one of a figure before a Congressional investigating committee, a figure who will become, one is made to feel sure, of crucial importance. One cannot...

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The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1955)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Huge Season, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2794, September 16, 1955, p. 546.

[In the following unfavorable review of The Huge Season, the reviewer concludes that Morris's “pretentiously cultivated climate contains more air than imagination.”]

The Huge Season is a kind of study of the effects of hero-worship, and for a hero Lawrence seems as good a name as any other, though in this book the name is more apt than the character is convincing. Lawrence is the son of a Barbed Wire tycoon, compact of the usual virtues and vices of such sons, who soon takes himself off to Europe to see the sights and get the feel of...

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Wayne C. Booth (essay date 1957)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Two Worlds in the Fiction of Wright Morris,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXV, 1957, pp. 375-99.

[In the following essay, Booth examines the roles and the meanings of heroism, imagination, and love in Morris's novels.]

Wright Morris has published ten books, all of them critical successes. Many would agree with Mark Schorer that he is “probably the most original young novelist writing in the United States.” Yet nothing seems to happen, nothing, that is, of the kind that ought to happen. His books have never been taken up by “the wider public”—assuming that there is still such a thing for serious literature—and critics have left his praise...

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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1957)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Field of Vision, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2896, August 30, 1957, p. 517.

[In the following review of The Field of Vision, the uncredited writer criticizes Morris for the novel's diction and “elaborate symbolism.”]

Mr. Wright Morris's The Field of Vision won the 1957 American National Book Award, whose judges wrote, “he is the voice and conscience of provincial America.” If undistinguished prose and jargon constitute their provincial voice and conscience, they are right. Or it may be that American and English writing are now so far removed from one another that an Englishman cannot appreciate American...

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R. W. Flint (review date 1957)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Field of Vision, in Partisan Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Winter, 1957, pp. 142-43.

[In the following excerpt, Flint dismisses The Field of Vision as overblown and empty.]

Wright Morris, says John W. Aldridge, is “the most important novelist of the American middle generation” and The Field of Vision “brilliantly climaxes his most creative period. It is a work of permanent significance. …” Well, leave us face it, as the TV comics say. It just ain't so. Morris handles the romantic figures of tabloid legend and the mythical Reader's Digest-reading average man with a star-struck wonder that's just a wee bit hollow...

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Wright Morris (essay date 1957)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Letter to a Young Critic,” in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. VI, No. 1, Autumn-Winter, 1964-65, pp. 93-100.

[In the following letter, originally published in 1957, Morris talks of his own work, and of other writers.]

David Madden was in 1957 a graduate student at San Francisco State College contemplating a master's thesis on the novels of Wright Morris. In December of that year he sent Morris a list of questions relating to the novels. This letter is Morris's reply to most of those questions. It has been edited slightly by Morris and Mr. Madden, whose questions and comments are noted within brackets.


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Ray B. West Jr. (review date 1957)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Six Authors in Search of a Hero,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXV, 1957, pp. 498-508.

[In the following review, West uses Morris's The Field of Vision as a touchstone for evaluating several other novels published contemporaneously with it.]

Reading as many as six novels at a time cannot fail to give one a generalized sense of what might be happening to the novel form. When all six are by American authors and when they all appeared within a few months of each other, the impact is likely to be more concentrated and, we might hope, more trustworthy. The impression may be of hope or of disappointment, without regard for the merit or failures of...

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Robert Gorham Davis (essay date 1958)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Readers and Writers Face to Face,” in The New York Times, November 9, 1958, p. 4FF.

[In the following essay, Davis reports on a symposium discussing the writer's role in mid-twentieth-century America, in which Morris was one of the participants.]

Recently Esquire magazine and the Writers Club of the School of General Studies, Columbia University, both celebrating anniversaries, joined in inviting four highly articulate writers to take part in a two-day symposium at Columbia. The results were dramatic but puzzling. The writers expressed very vividly feelings of alienation, feelings they found difficult entirely to explain.

At such...

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Benjamin DeMott (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fiction Chronicle: Wright Morris,” in Partisan Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Fall, 1960, pp. 754-59.

[In the following excerpt, DeMott praises Morris for showing the “quality of life” of mid-twentieth-century mid-western America.]

The Nebraska plains and towns where much of his [Morris's] fiction is situated have little on the capacity of metropolis for suggesting the uncontrollable. On those occasions (The Deep Sleep or Man and Boy are examples) when Morris approaches the city, he does so only to concentrate on middle figures whose awareness of crisis ranges from minimal to non-existent. And as for his voice: it is invariably relaxed, wry,...

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Alan Trachtenberg (essay date 1961)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Craft of Vision,” in Critique, Vol. 4, Winter, 1961, pp. 41-55.

[In the following essay, Trachtenberg argues that Morris's work as a photographer informed his technique as a writer.]

Again, the mind must think of itself, of the conditions of its existence (which are also conditions of growth), of the dangers menacing its virtues, its forces and its possessions, its liberty, its development, its depth.

—Paul Valery

The American literary inheritance has not been a comfortable one for modern writers. Often a burden with its preponderance of metaphysical themes, its shadowy people,...

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Paul Levine (essay date 1962-63)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of What a Way to Go, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XV, No. 4, Winter, 1962-63, pp. 601-02.

[In the following excerpt, Levine praises Morris's novel What A Way to Go as “shrewd, funny, and beautifully written.”]

Twenty years separates Wright Morris' first novel, Man and Boy, from his eleventh, What a Way to Go. Why in those two decades Morris' distinctive talents have been enjoyed by only a small coterie remains a mystery to me. Perhaps the secret lies in his great versatility which allows him the freedom continually to change his focus but denies us the liberty of ever pinning him down. More likely it has something to do...

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Wright Morris with John W. Aldridge (interview date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The American Novelist and the Contemporary Scene: A Conversation Between John W. Aldridge and Wright Morris,” in Conversations with Wright Morris: Critical Views and Responses, edited by Robert E. Knoll, University of Nebraska Press, 1977, pp. 14-33.

[In the following interview, Morris discusses his place in mid-twentieth-century fiction.]

[Aldridge]: In your critical book, The Territory Ahead [1958], you talk about the American writer's difficulty in turning his experience into usable literary material; and you imply that he simply has too much material. I'd suggest that this has been the problem for American writers right up to your...

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G. B. Crump (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introduction: The Two Sides of Wright Morris's Fiction,” in The Novels of Wright Morris: A Critical Interpretation, University of Nebraska Press, 1978, pp. 1-27.

[In the following essay, Crump discusses the conflict between the ideal and the actual, the relationship of time, memory, and imagination to each other, and the influence of Henry James and D. H. Lawrence in Morris's fiction.]

Granville Hicks begins his introduction to Wright Morris: A Reader with a familiar lament: “Those of us who strongly admire the work of Wright Morris … are always wondering why everybody doesn't see his writings as we see them, as one of the most imposing edifices...

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Randall K. Albers (essay date 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Female Transformation: The Role of Women in Two Novels by Wright Morris,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 53, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 95-115.

[In the following essay, Albers examines the way Morris treats the conflict between desire and repression in The Field of Vision and Ceremony in Lone Tree.]

They came in covered wagons, in buckboards, on horseback, on foot. They ate what they could when they could. They cursed and prayed and fought, their fear and terror overcome by a dream. Many died; some survived. Everything tasted like dust. They left a trail of their possessions and their dead across the land.

“Circle the wagons...

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Raymond L. Neinstein (essay date 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright Morris: The Metaphysics of Home,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 53, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 121-54.

[In the following essay, exploring the interplay of words and pictures, and of fact and fiction in Morris's Nebraska novels, Neinstein argues that Morris's characters taint the perception of the actual with a dreamlike vision.]

They say that “home is where the heart is.” I think it is where the house is, and the adjacent buildings.

—Emily Dickinson, Letters

Repeatedly, in the course of Wright Morris's large work (at last count, eighteen novels, three collections...

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David Madden (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Character as Revealed Cliché in Wright Morris's Fiction,” in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Summer, 1981, pp. 319-36.

[In the following essay, Madden argues that Morris's “manipulation of clichés” is at the root of his power to render “the sensibilities of articulate and inarticulate characters” effectively.]

Morris says, in The Territory Ahead, “Every writer who is sufficiently self-aware to know what he is doing, and how he does it sooner or later is confronted with the dictates of style. If he has a style, it is the style that dictates what he says. What he says, of course, is how he says it …” (137). No...

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Marilyn Arnold (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright Morris's Plains Song: Woman's Search for Harmony,” in South Dakota Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 50-62.

[In the following essay, Arnold discusses Morris's depiction of gender roles and gender conflicts in his novel, Plains Song.]

Perhaps smarting a little under the criticism that his books rarely center around women, Wright Morris, in his recent novel, Plains Song, may be trying to correct the imbalance. His title page indicates that the “song” he is presenting is “for Female Voices.”1 And indeed it is. The two principal voices are those of Cora Atkins and Sharon Rose Atkins, a niece Cora reared as...

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A. Carl Bredahl (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Outsider as Sexual Center: Wright Morris and the Integrated Imagination,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 66-73.

[In the following essay on Morris's novel In Orbit, Bredahl examines “the outsider” as a sexual force infusing creative energy into the lives of Indiana townspeople who have become static in their habits.]

When the narrator of Wright Morris' In Orbit tells us that his joyfully named protagonist, Jubal E. Gainer, “makes old things new,”1 he places Jubal in what to Morris is a mainstream of American life: “Pound may have been the first to give the thrust of doctrine to the...

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Linda M. Lewis (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Plains Song: Wright Morris's New Melody for Audacious Female Voices,” in Great Plains Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 29-37.

[In the following essay, Lewis discusses Morris's treatment of women and feminism in his last novel.]


“Man's culture was a hoax. Was there a woman who didn't feel it? Perhaps a decade, no more, was available to women to save themselves, as well as the planet. Women's previous triumphs had been by default. Men had simply walked away from the scene of the struggle, leaving them with the children, the chores, the culture, and a high incidence of madness.” The lines are...

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Joseph J. Wydeven (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Focus and Frame in Wright Morris's The Works of Love,” in Western American Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 99-112.

[In the following essay, Wydeven offers a “photographic reading” of, and shows the operation of “photographic strategies” in Morris's novel The Works of Love.]

Through the dusty lace curtains at my hotel room window I spied on passersby I secretly envied, as Sherwood Anderson spied on his neighbors in Winesburg. They were dream-drugged, these people, and I envied the depth of their addiction.—

Wright Morris

The passage above, from...

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A. Carl Bredahl (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright Morris: Living in the World,” in New Ground: Western American Narrative and the Literary Canon, The University of North Carolina Press, 1989, pp. 126-34.

[In the following essay, Bredahl examines how Morris “establishes contact with the energy of living processes” in his novels.]

Poststructuralist criticism responds to the modernist sense of alienation by rejecting the assumption of essential individuality. Replacing the belief in essences has been the assertion of codes and texts with and within which man operates. From that perspective, the effort of Ernest Hemingway or Harvey Fergusson to place the individual within a world of creative force...

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G. B. Crump (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright Morris: Author in Hiding,” in Western American Literature, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 3-14.

[In the essay, Crump analyzes the significance of Morris's image, in his memoir, Will's Boy, of himself hiding under a porch as a psychological key to Morris's work as a photographer, and to his narrative strategies as a novelist.]

In Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments [hereafter abbreviated as EDUA], Wright Morris presents a telling portrait, or at least thumbnail sketch, of the artist as a young child, and he repeats it at the start of Will's Boy [hereafter abbreviated as WB], the first of his three volumes of...

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Reginald Dyck (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Revisiting and Revising the West: Willa Cather's My Ántonia and Wright Morris's Plains Song,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 25-38.

[In the following essay, Dyck discusses attitudes towards the pioneer experience of the American west as depicted in Willa Cather's My Antonia and Morris's Plains Song.]

The best days are the first to flee.

—Willa Cather

Is the past a story we are persuaded to believe, in the teeth of the life we endure in the present?


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Joe Hall (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright Morris' The Field of Vision: A Re-reading of the Scanlon Story,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 53-7.

[In the following essay, Hall offers an allegorical interpretation by using a character's story in Morris's novel The Field of Vision.]

Interpreters of The Field of Vision agree with characters in the novel in dismissing Scanlon as “a mummified effigy of the real thing,” more dead than alive (The Field of Vision [hereafter abbreviated as FV] 101).1 While these descriptions are correct, they fail to account for Scanlon's nevertheless remembering a tale which conveys the...

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Wright Morris with Olga Carlisle and Jodie Ireland (interview date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Art of Fiction,” in The Paris Review, Vol. 33, No. 120, Fall, 1991, pp. 54-94.

[In the following interview, Morris discusses his books, his method of composition, and the work of other writers.]

Morris lives with his wife Josephine in Mill Valley, California, in a small contemporary wooden house tucked into a steep hillside, amidst a profusion of climbing ivy. The house, with its wide balcony, is sheltered by fragrant laurel trees and feels isolated although it is located in the center of Marin County, an area affected by relentless urban growth. Even as the interviewers drove out of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge, they passed shopping...

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Rosemary Ranck (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Pact with the Bygone’,” in The New York Times, November 24, 1991, p. 20.

[In the following review, Franck praises a collection of Morris's Nebraska photographs.]

The pull of things past is felt at surprising times and in unexpected ways. The act of dipping a small, sweet cake in a cup of herb tea elicited volumes of prose from Proust; the smell of pickling beets coming from a Nebraska kitchen released a powerful longing in the American novelist and photographer Wright Morris, which he spent years transforming into images and words. Mr. Morris has attempted before, not always successfully, to use his photographs to complement his writing, as another...

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Joseph J. Wydeven (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dualism and Doubling in Wright Morris's War Games,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 415-28.

[In the following essay, Wydeven discusses the use of the doppelganger in Morris's fiction, and especially its use in his novel War Games.]

[Colonel Foss] slept, … and he dreamt that he carried a small black bag which contained the leg, the arm, and the tongue of a person who was following him.

War Games (74)

Where the double is, the orphan is never far away, with secrecy and terror over all.


(The entire section is 5289 words.)

Mary Price (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright Morris: Three Photographs,” in Raritan, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 19-28.

[In the following essay, Price interprets two of Morris's photographs in the context of his writing.]

What can be seen in a photograph of corncobs by Wright Morris, the novelist? The problem might present itself as how to respond to the obvious. This photograph is apparently devoid of associations that would make it interesting, and devoid also of the photographic criteria, the chalk whites and deep blacks, that Morris often explicitly aimed for in his photographic work.

John Szarkowski, Director Emeritus of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, has...

(The entire section is 2336 words.)

John Hollander (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Figure on the Page: Words and Images in Wright Morris's The Home Place,” in The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 93-108.

[In the following essay, Hollander discusses the relation of the visual to the verbal in Morris's photo-text The Home Place.]

Ecphrastic treatments of photographs in modern literary verse and prose construe their images as invented pictures in themselves as well as confronting their documentary status. Until very recently, most photographs to which poems have been addressed have been portraits, and the text speaks to their subjects as rendered, and perhaps to the occasion of the taking of the...

(The entire section is 3601 words.)

Alan Trachtenberg (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright Morris's ‘Photo-Texts’,” in The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 109-20.

[In the following essay, Trachtenberg attempts to derive the significations of Morris's photo-texts through comparisons with photos by Walker Evans and a poem by Donald Justice.]

Wright Morris's inspiration in the 1940s to combine words and photographs resulted in several unique works of fiction, “photo-texts,” he called them, in which image and text stand to each other in quite unexpected ways.1 In The Inhabitants (1946), The Home Place (1948), and God's Country and My People, (1968) picture and word cohabitate...

(The entire section is 3778 words.)

Joe Hall (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Three Consciousnesses in Wright Morris's Plains Song,” in Western American Literature, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 291-318.

[In the following essay, Hall discusses the three varieties of consciousness he sees represented in Morris's work.]

Wright Morris's forty-year career as a novelist has been haunted by the loss of a distinctive rural life, a loss which occurred for the most part during his lifetime.1 One result is that the search for meaning in Morris's characters nearly always leads back to the home place, usually a Nebraska farm, symbolically at “the navel of the world” (Madden 47, 131). Yet, when characters think about...

(The entire section is 11973 words.)

Laura Barrett (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The True Witness of a False Event’: Photography and Wright Morris's Fiction of the 1950s,” in Western American Literature, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 27-57.

[In the following essay, Barrett examines the vicissitudes of photographic reality according to Morris, and how Morris uses photography to influence our understanding of the actual world.]

The photographer's power lies in his ability to re-create his subject in terms of its basic reality, and present this re-creation in such a form that the spectator feels that he is seeing not just a symbol for the object, but the thing itself revealed for the first time. Guided by...

(The entire section is 11132 words.)

Joseph J. Wydeven (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘No Place to Hide’: Biographical and Critical Backgrounds,” in Wright Morris Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1998, pp. 1-17.

[In the following excerpt from the introductory chapter of Wright Morris Revisited, Wydeven offers a thumbnail summation of Morris's major themes and techniques.]

Throughout his active career, spanning the half century from 1942 to 1991 (when he stopped writing) and more than 30 books of fiction, commentary, and photo-text, Wright Morris remained resolutely independent, gradually establishing respectable reputations as both writer and photographer. He has resisted labeling as a realist or as a regionalist, and his...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Quantic, Diane Dufva. The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995, 203 p.

A reading of Morris's reading of the West inside a study of the region as a place in literature.

Wydeven, Joseph J. Wright Morris Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998, 212 p.

An important volume of Morris scholarship: in-depth discussion of individual novels and photographs which also considers the whole work they constitute, with an excellent chronology, biography and annotated bibliography.

Additional coverage of Morris's life and career is...

(The entire section is 129 words.)