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.
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.
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.
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.