Wright Morris Morris, Wright (Vol. 7) - Essay

Morris, Wright (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Morris, Wright 1910–

Morris is acclaimed for the controlled prose of his self-contained novels, especially as he writes of Midwestern America's past and present. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Morris published his first novel in 1942, has written fourteen others since, many of them superb, yet he somehow manages to remain perhaps the best-kept literary secret in the land. Morris's unique ability to explore human destiny in a subtle, self-effacing style is as strong as ever in this poignant and amusing little book ["Fire Sermon"]. (p. 120)

Arthur Cooper, in Newsweek (copyright 1971 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 25, 1971.

All of [Morris's] considerable skill and cunning have been compressed in [War Games,] a novella written twenty years ago and never published for reasons as bewildering as they are incomprehensible, for here he has crystallized those facets of his writing that have distinguished his memorable career as a literary artist. His ability to suggest a story immeasurably deeper in significance than the words themselves convey, his facility in projecting a sense of foreboding and angst, his capacity for clothing his deceptively simple tale in prose concealing more than it reveals, all plainly show the hand of an expert craftsman well equipped to dominate his readers much to their esthetic advantage. (p. xcviii)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1972, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 48, No. 3 (Summer, 1972).

Like one of Wright Morris' many extraordinary novels, [About Fiction] is not easy to package for a review. The problem for the reviewer (and reader) lies in the fact that Morris' mind is not inclined toward philosophic or systematic thought. He does not work his way through a topic (or a novel) in a consecutive, linear fashion. His mind tends toward mosaic configurations. He does not provide one with a series of encapsulating statements that deliver the conceptual concerns of his books to us in a few dazzling sentences. His dominant mode of perception (so rare in America) is the ironic imagination: it causes him to discount some part of every statement he makes, to resist final conceptualization of anything, and to vary the words to an old song, to dance around every topic with tears in his mind. He refuses to oversimplify reality.

The book is almost maddeningly accurate in its title. The 19 short sections (they vary from one to 13 pages) are, indeed, all about fiction, both in the sense that fiction is the central concern of the book and Morris' discussions of it move (dance) all about within this "immense subject." A complete descriptive listing of the topics he discusses in some way would run to many pages. He settles none of them; in fact the point seems to be to unsettle (that is, to fictionalize) as many as possible so that the book keeps opening outward upon alternatives and the illusion it creates is of great length. Though the book can easily be read in one day, it really never seems to end.

The same thing is true of many Morris novels, and of his brilliant book on American literature, The Territory Ahead: they end opening up; they come to closure, but the mind can't close them off. Their end-result is not settled being but unsettled becoming. (pp. 26-7)

It's a very pithy book. The mind behind it is so mature, playful and civilized (in the best sense); and the control of the language is so sure and artful that, among other things, it is simply a pleasure to read and think about what Morris has written. He is a living exemplar of the vitality of native American fiction. (p. 28)

William Rueckert, "Vein of Irony," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 5, 1975, pp. 26-8.

Wright Morris's "About Fiction" … tackles this moot subject with the pawky, resistant prose of his own fiction…. The opening chapters have, as a whole, the air of a "big subject" essay assigned on an exam; the bright but flustered student fills his blue book with ingratiating archness…. However, as Mr. Morris begins to examine specific authors, books, and sentences, in the kind of dry and loving light that illumines his photographs of Nebraska feed mills and bureau tops, the discussion gathers confidence and becomes a personal but credibly specific analysis of just what happened to American literature. (p. 124)

"About Fiction" should be read not only for its searching-out of the problematical but for its pithy appreciations of the achieved. As a responder to writing, Mr. Morris is bracingly virile—he grips each book like a man shaking hands with another—and aphoristic. He ends his long compound essay (was it ever a series of lectures?) with a sampler of modern fiction he likes; his sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued observations hold the life of truth that just evades his general theorizing. (p. 126)

John Updike, "Wright on Writing," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), April 14, 1975, pp. 124-27.

In spite of its extent, [Wright Morris's] work has displayed a remarkable cohesiveness in subject matter as well as technique. One of the central concerns of his fiction has been the relation of the material, physical world to that of the timeless, the eternal. From his first novels in the early 1940s up to and including his two most recent, Fire Sermon and A Life, his characters have been engaged in a search for what T. S. Eliot termed in his Four Quartets the "still point of the turning world."

In what I regard as Morris's first important novel, The Works of Love (1952), the protagonist, Will Brady, searches for the eternal through participation in the works of love. Brady's story is told as a series of relationships in which the overall movement is from sexual to mystical love. (p. 154)

Will Brady succeeds in attaining the eternal; his failure is that he cannot reconcile it with the physical world. It is helpful [at the novel's end] to recognize that Morris is alluding to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land in leading his holy man to a watery grave. In the "Death by Water" section of The Waste Land Phlebas the Phoenician, a symbol of the fertility god, though drowned, will arise again to promote the fertility of land and people. Likewise Brady is drowned in the novel's last section, entitled "In the Wasteland," but without any implication of resurrection. The problem, then, that Morris presents in The Works of Love is, according to Marcus Klein in After Alienation, "how in the world to engage the Reality that is the definition of another world, and the end, simply, is that you can't." Will Brady, at least, cannot.

This apparent dichotomy between the two worlds is partially resolved in The Field of Vision (1956). A National Book Award-winning novel, it concerns the collective vision of a group of people gathered at a bullfight in Mexico, each of whom narrates part of the proceedings. This means, in effect, that there are as many bullfights as there are characters since each of them interprets the ritual in terms of his own solipsistic past. (p. 155)

Of these narrators it is Boyd who provides the key to The Field of Vision. His psychological growth from stasis to lucidity is the only action per se in the entire novel. At the end he accomplishes an "imaginative act," and thereby brings a "pattern of meaning" to his life. Boyd refers to these acts of the imagination as transformations…. Such transformations facilitate the moment of truth, the insight into what is permanent and timeless. Morris's metaphor for this phenomenon is the bullfight: in the bullring man and beast come together in a ritual of life and death; with the pattern of their movement, their art or style, they transform the ritual into myth which is timeless, eternal. In describing the bullfight Morris borrows extensively, both language and theme, from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, specifically "Burnt Norton": "In his mind's eye—if he turned the flow backward, bull and cloth flowing away from one another—Boyd could see the still point where the dance was." (p. 156)

Morris and Eliot are working with the reality which transcends mere physical reality. In "Burnt Norton" Eliot contrasts the reality of mortal consciousness, time and memory, with the absolute reality of the Timeless Eternal—the still point. Normally only the "Saint" is able to comprehend "The point of intersection of the timeless/With time." The rest of us, as he explains in the third quartet, "The Dry Salvages," are doomed to "only the unattended/Moment, the moment in and out of time,/The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight" which is only "hints and guesses." Likewise Morris's characters are not saints. Many of them have no vision of the eternal at all. The more perceptive among them, such as Boyd, are among those doomed to occasional, illusive glimpses of the eternal. Thus Morris's "imaginative act" is very similar indeed to Eliot's "hints and guesses": a partial reconciliation of the physical and eternal worlds. (pp. 156-57)

The metaphor of the dance is significant [in In Orbit]. I would call attention … to Eliot's concept of the dance in "Burnt Norton." Jubal and the other characters in In Orbit are moving perpetually in their own respective orbits (the turning world) until they are attracted to Charlotte and her dance (the still point). In the dance both Alan and Hodler are given a glimpse of the timeless, the eternal, yet neither can verbalize the significance of his experience. Even Alan, a poet by profession, can only describe it as "wind, rain and the fitful movement of things that blow." Revelations of the eternal, in other words, are not translatable into physical terms, except perhaps by symbols which evoke rather than describe.

Fire Sermon (1971) and A Life (1973) are, I believe, not only the quintessence of Morris's work, but the completion of his search for the "still point of the turning world." In these two novels he brings together all of his early heroes into one life, Floyd Warner. Warner's cross-country journey, beginning in California and ending in New Mexico, is a symbolic quest for the eternal world. Like that of Will Brady in The Works of Love the quest is linear, death waiting at the end; unlike Brady, Warner succeeds in reconciling the two worlds.

Fire Sermon is the first part of Warner's quest. Here the title is significant, alluding to the Buddha sermon of the same name and perhaps to section 3 of The Waste Land. In his sermon Buddha warned against surrender to the senses which are "on fire": "With passion,… hatred,… infatuation,… birth,… old age,… and despair are they on fire." Buddha then preached that only when one's passions are purged is one free, can one be reborn. Fire Sermon is such a purging of the old man, Floyd Warner; A Life is his rebirth. (p. 158)

[It] is evident that [Morris's] search for the "still point of the turning world" has evolved considerably in the course of his career. The search began in The Works of Love with Will Brady's quest to leave this world for another and his subsequent death. Then it developed in The Field of Vision and, later, in In Orbit, into the "imaginative act," the transformation of self which allows one to momentarily participate in the eternal while existing in the physical world. Finally, it matured in Fire Sermon and A Life, its sequel, where Floyd Warner participates in the eternal not only through various moments of revelation, but also actually attains that state of being (or of knowledge) where he is at one with the eternal: ripeness. In that enlightened state he recognizes the forces that be, accepts them, and realizes that he has been driven by them always and thus is at one with them unwittingly. Such is Wright Morris's resolution of the irresolvable: the apparent end of his search for the "still point of the turning world."

This theme of the two worlds is by no means the only concern unifying Morris's fiction. His is an enormously rich, complex body of work. It is also unique in this age of pop literature, concerning itself usually with the spiritual rather than the worldly side of human existence. (p. 163)

J. C. Wilson, "Wright Morris and the Search for the 'Still Point'," in Prairie Schooner (© 1975 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1975, pp. 154-63.

[One] of Morris's 17 novels is titled "The World in the Attic," and since 1942 he has made good use of the objects, castoffs and monuments alike, that everybody sees and nobody notices, creating for them a high esthetic value through the relentless application of his will and his imagination. To translate junk into an antique much is required: an apprehension of the nature of the object, and a capacity for winning display. These are Morris's principal, though by no means sole, virtues….

[In] his previous book, "About Fiction" (a statement of intention and a review of performance), he quotes from Samuel Beckett: "From things about to disappear I turn away in time. To watch them out of sight, no, I can't do it." This stands also as the introductory epigraph for "God's Country and My People," and it should be read as above all a creed of preservation. Just as Morris carries it from book to book, unable to junk it, so does he save detritus of all kinds, restoring it, putting to it a high finish. And so it is natural that many of these stories [in "Real Losses, Imaginary Gains"], written from 1948 to 1975, are about survivors….

No story explicitly treats a writer, yet all are about making and shaping, the work of simple sight and of memory. They are about the uses to which objects—junk, if not placed at a high value—may be put. This inflation requires contact between the object and living flesh, and two of the stories ("Here Is Einbaum" and "Green Grass, Blue Sky, White House") refer to the patina achieved by coins or jewels held against the flesh, welcomed and absorbed. (p. 8)

Perhaps [the lack of] response to his work is less mysterious than it is regrettable. For Morris has no single voice, nothing like the kind of assertive style that marks a paragraph, wherever it is found, by Stanley Elkin or Saul Bellow or Vladimir Nabokov. And this is his grace: he will not be a star; he allows all ties to be subsumed by the matter at hand, the object under his care. And as there are so many objects in his junkshop, in the world, so are there many voices, the arch and zippy quips and homilies of "A Bill of Rites, A Bill of Wrongs, A Bill of Goods," all paradox and oxymoron and forced contradiction (like the title itself), and the scrupulous and attentive compressions to be found as captions to "God's Country and My People." These loving restorations are in the manner of this collection of stories, this display of jewels aged by the touch of flesh and entirely ageless, and never mind that Morris's pockets are empty; his stories are full. (p. 12)

Geoffrey Wolff, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 25, 1976.