Wright Morris Morris, Wright (Vol. 1) - Essay

Morris, Wright (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Morris, Wright 1910–

American novelist, winner of the National Book Award, 1957. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)

Many reviewers and critics who have long been impressed with Wright Morris rank him high among serious novelists. Some believe he is one of America's few finest writers, certainly one of her most original…. In view of this critical acclaim … it is difficult to account for the fact that he is one of the most neglected writers of our time.

Why the neglect? [There are] certain features of his novels which tend to frustrate even the most literate reader. Why is there so little action or narrative? Why is it so difficult to acclimatize oneself to Morris' seemingly simple style so that one knows what he is talking about? For instance, why the use of so many sentence fragments, and especially the conscious use of so many clichés? Why the techniques that require such effort from the reader and seem to be appropriated from Joyce, Woolf, and James, although, admittedly, adapted to Morris' own purpose? Why isn't he clearer as to whether his attitude is one of satire, irony, paradox, comedy, burlesque, or tragedy? Is he as nihilistic as he appears? Is he nostalgic for or nauseated by Nebraska and the view of America he sees there? (p. 7)

It is as true of Morris as it is of Faulkner that full appreciation and understanding require a thorough reading of all the novels, which are connected by a single vision and design; each book evolves organically out of preceding ones; and his short stories and articles explore aspects of this development. (p. 8)

The composite landscapes—inscapes as well, in a sense, since place shapes character in Morris' field of vision—form a single locale: the Nebraska plains, the navel of the world…. (pp. 17-18)

One senses in Morris' novels the abiding presence of his Nebraska childhood. That the dust caked his teeth, that the wind lashed his youth, his characters are not allowed to forget. That he spent only his first nine years on the Great Plains attests to the immensity of their effect upon him. (p. 25)

It is necessary to point out that Morris is neither a regionalist nor a local colorist. While the Great Plains provide vivid counterparts for every aspect of his work, even in what might be called the urban novels, Morris renders the past only in its effects on the present; and he writes about Nebraska only as it represents conflicting extremes in American land and character. (pp. 25-6)

What is Morris' field of vision? Bringing into focus a representative part of America, he has sought the meaning of the legends, myths, and realities of America as they survive and prevail today in the minds of common men; the uncommon exist for the edification of the common. (p. 28)

On the arid plains, man may have achieved intuitively a kind of existential knowledge. Where he [confronts] nature stripped to essentials and is forced to live on essentials alone, man, reduced to what he is, standing on the frontiers within—often as empty as a private Hiroshima—must face sooner or later the imperfections of his dreams, and end in either suicide or stoic endurance—the Kierkegaardian gambit. Destructive and creative, rather than ethical, forces are loose in Morris' world. He does not seem to cast blame. How does one blame a cyclone or a dust storm, or the land for being flat and obdurate? (p. 30)

Drawing heavily from the store of memory common to the first five novels in which Will Brady is prefigured in Dudley, Will Ward, and Will Muncy, The Works of Love is a symbolic narrative that gives mythic expression to most of the previous themes and elements. Although some critics regard this book as a failure, I agree with those who feel it is one of Morris' most convincing.

The Works of Love is a pivotal volume in the author's grapple with his raw material and his developing sense of craft…. [This work] is perhaps more in the nature of a tone poem than a novel, introducing elements and characters that give rise to later books. (p. 64)

Three major themes in The Works of Love are: (1) the "blighting" effect of a single-minded pursuit of the American Dream of Success; (2) the consequent frustration of various emotional works of love whose failure may lead one to a limited success in (3) mystical works of love. (p. 65)

Morris is not, as he has sometimes been called, a Realist…. Realism as a genre cannot escape the clichés produced by the rendering of character and event in sequential time…. Morris' under-writing often results in seeming superficiality…. His style is simple but rich in nuance. He has remarked on the "resonant density" of James's mind; the phrase applies as well to his own. Like James, Morris uses the parenthetical phrase with masterful effectiveness as a device: to complicate, to delay, to create a humorous tone, to convey a sense of mock dignity, and to maintain a sense of objectivity. This device and the one of reversing the normal syntactical structure of sentences create subtlety or point up crucial words or phrases; they often help create a rhetorical tension that sustains interest in the absence of overt action. As he is never really out of, though never entirely in, the minds of his characters, his frequent and effective use of the sentence fragment is one of the dictates of his style. (pp. 76-7)

Some readers lament the absence of action in Morris…. But most of the so-called dramatic events in Morris occur off the novelistic stage; onstage is enacted the drama of human consciousness. Within narrow limitations of time and place, the sensibilities of his characters, infected with "the virus of suggestion" and involved in the process of conceptualizing, actively respond to ordinary events: the active sensibility is action. Conflicts between inner attitudes generate internal action, rendered in such a way that external action would be distracting. Not narrative action, but relationship, revealing meaning, is important. The particular fascination is in Morris' manner of relating the outer lives and the psyches of his characters, of creating a congruence of outer and inner reality. This is essentially a triumph of style. (p. 77)

Unity in some of Morris' more intricate novels depends upon an organic point-of-view structure for which time is the generative force. To understand theme, character, symbolism, and narrative sequence, the reader must follow carefully the complex operation of time…. In most of Morris, time is out of joint. Flowing, erratic, static, sometimes seemingly confused, it often operates within a single novel in several ways; time differs as the points of view of the characters differ…. Morris has created a fiction of moments; his photographs testify vividly to this aspect of his vision. He emphasizes the importance of seizing the immediate present in highly concentrated moments of love, audacity, or imagination, often in the hero-witness relationship…. Redefined from moment to moment, time is the ambience in which the novels take form. As time and character point of view function intricately together in a free-associational continuum, point of view reorganizes and structures time. For time is a creation of consciousness; it exists in and for consciousness. Passing through the evaluating consciousness, answering to psychological conditions, time becomes a frame and a quality of mind. (pp. 78-9)

To readers unfamiliar with Morris' total vision, the repetitions and what appears to be looseness of form in the early novels may seem artistic flaws. But, just as they are related in a general way by their themes, all Morris' novels are also specifically and intricately related by repetitions of and variations upon certain characters, incidents, minor ideas, motifs, gestures, artifacts, places, and forms. This relationship is less apparent in the urban novels than in those of the plains. (p. 80)

In each novel Morris approaches his raw material from a different perspective. Fresh contexts are created for pieces of the puzzle which either have not yet found their most revealing fit or which fit in various combinations. Some of the same scenes reappear and whole passages from other books are repeated almost word for word. But, although he is haunted by these fragments, he alters or combines…. Since his raw material is rooted in mythic ground, its features reassert themselves and only variations are necessary…. According to Morris, he did not calculate these repetitions and variations, which derive from what I call the common memory store of the central characters. They evolved out of his constant effort to arrange the pieces of the puzzle, which begin to fit in The Field of Vision and finally take shape in Ceremony in Lone Tree. Their cumulative effect is to give a sense of unity to the works as a whole and to reflect the nature of his vision. (pp. 80-1)

Man's desire to know himself is the universal element most actively felt in Morris. Amid all perishables of man's existence, the one imperishable is his faculty to process, to order, to insinuate himself into the realm of meaning. In it he realizes that wholeness is all and that, even though that "all" is perhaps unattainable, its pursuit is what makes life meaningful and, above all, bearable; clichés make life tolerable for those who lack the stronger imaginative impulses toward the attainment of meaning. Morris' most conscious characters are faced with the dilemma of what to make of a diminished thing. (p. 82)

David Madden, in his Wright Morris, Twayne, 1964.

Wright Morris is one of the liveliest talents in the American novel today, and of his dozen or so novels one could scarcely pick out any single one as absolutely typical of his work. But he is always a formidable technician, able to bring past and present together in a single moment of time, and a writer in whom the bizarre, the pathetic and the comic exist cheek by jowl….

The Huge Season, however, seems to me his best novel to date…. A remarkable quality of this novel is the way in which the feel of the twenties is captured and the way in which it dominates the characters into the fifties…. One has the sense in this novel not only of the rich young man as sacrificial hero but also of the enacting of a ritual of exorcism to which all associated with the hero must submit.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 315-17.

A holdover from another generation, a late rose from an earlier summer, [Morris] is a Midwesterner writing about the vanished trail, chronicling the moral erosion of our sterile and sterilizing civilization. Unlike many of his fellows, prodigious infants whose first words are so phenomenal they are unable to learn new ones, Morris' twelfth novel, Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960), is by and large his best, incomparably better than his first. Without pandering to popular taste, without mimicking himself, Morris has continually improved, defining and intensifying his vision….

Morris' novels are written as if perceived by a slow-motion camera. In all but The Huge Season, Love among the Cannibals, and What a Way To Go, almost nothing happens, but what does is lingered over, seen in photographic close-up, illuminating the patterned grain of experience. The rhythms of his writing are deliberate, inhibited, drugged, at times hardly perceptible, evoking the slow pulse beat of the atrophied life he renders. Ironically, his world is most active in still life….

Less obviously talented than the most exciting of his contemporaries, Morris has in many ways, through the concentration of his craft and his ability to define and articulate the comic despair of his nihilistic vision, outperformed them—if not with any single book, with the bulk of his achievement. He has had the courage to say no in a civilization whose euphemistic yea-saying in the face of potential annihilation has been indicative in itself of the profound reaches of its selfdenial….

Although Morris' universe is nihilistic, his theme impotence, his characters fools and madmen, he renders experience with great richness of detail and evocation, bringing it to life to expose its essential deadness. If his view of reality is limited, it is no more limited than Hemingway's; it is only less simple, less readily appealing. Though in recent years Morris has received a fair amount of critical approbation, he is still undervalued. He may see life through a narrower window than the greatest writers, but he sees its incompleteness distinctively and he sees it whole.

Jonathan Baumbach, "Wake Before Bomb: Ceremony in Lone Tree by Wright Morris," in his The Landscape in Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 152-69.

The age demands that the Devil-Mom replace the saint-Mom; but no one asks that real women replace allegorical lay figures in the maternal role. The new stereotype is redeemed for literature, however, the anti-mother made flesh in a single distinguished novel, Wright Morris' Man and Boy (1951)…. Nowhere in our literature is the castrating mother-wife, shaving her legs, getting into her girdle, spreading newspapers on the newly washed floor, studied with less hysteria or self-pity.

Leslie A. Fiedler, in his Love and Death in the American Novel, Stein & Day, revised edition, 1966, p. 332.

[Morris] discovered early that life, from any rational point of view, was absurd but took the discovery as a matter of fact rather than as a revelation of philosophical truth. He developed a sympathy for common humanity and an eye and ear for its peculiarities without becoming an alienated or angry young man. He realized that the American archetype of the self-sufficient hero was inappropriate to the modern world and simply avoided the traditional character instead of preserving the cliché with an "anti-hero" or some other man of straw. He lit out for the Territory, in the words of Huck Finn, ahead of the rest and made it, in his own play on the words, a territory in time rather than in space. Because of this he may prove to be not only the most original but the most important American novelist of the mid-century. (p. 5)

No other American novelist has approached him in the rich variety of his raw materials and in the ability to keep them raw enough to seem real while they are being handled with an art as sophisticated as that of Henry James. (p. 6)

The first two of his novels [My Uncle Dudley and The Man Who Was There] were exploratory in their attempt to discover a point of view which would enable him to handle material in which he was emotionally involved with a detachment that would control any impulse he might have to base art on emotion. (p. 7)

His next three books [The Inhabitants, The Home Place, and The World in the Attic] were primarily concerned with the problem of man's identity in time and space, and for them he developed a medium which made artistic use of the stability of vision and the suggestiveness of words. (p. 10)

The Home Place marked the climax of Morris' search for identity through the discovery of the past which "inhabited" him and gave him the individual character he was always to maintain. He accepted his destiny as a midwestern novelist as completely as Faulkner accepted his as a southern one. As a writer he kept going to where he was from. But the Midwest to which he had returned at the end of the Dust Bowl era was a static world in the attic which he refused to abide in. If the West had declined instead of advancing with the twentieth century, he would explore the East—though not without nostalgia for the masculine world of his childhood. (p. 13)

There is a certain mythological unity in [the next] three novels of the early fifties: Man and Boy is a comic prelude to a drama of the fall of man. Showing man in his fallen state, it is appropriately staged in a bourgeois setting far removed from the Great Plains where man was dominant and woman merely endured. The Works of Love is a representation of the fall, which is synchronized with Will Brady's migration eastward and toward greater material prosperity until he was forced to give it up. And The Deep Sleep is Morris' attempt to justify the fall in the Miltonic sense of asserting that whatever passes for Providence in twentieth-century metaphysics is free from guilt. For there is no God in Morris' imaginative universe—and no Satan, in the form either of a serpent or of a social system…. [Man] needs challenge and love while woman wants security; and if he meets his challenge well enough to fall into the deep sleep of security, out of it will come the woman, bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, who will tempt him to destruction through his works of love. (pp. 18-19)

The Huge Season is a haunting book because it deals with a form of human bondage more subtle than that portrayed in the trilogy on the fall of man. Yet the theme is the same, with much larger implications…. The composition of The Huge Season appears to have been a turning point in Morris' literary development. The first of his novels to be focused upon a character (Lawrence) who was entirely a product of his imagination, it was also the first to end on a note—underplayed though it was—of assured freedom. (p. 20)

There is more tension in Ceremony in Lone Tree than in any of the preceding novels: Morris had shucked his Nebraska characters out of the husks of his previous fiction and brought them to renewed life in his imagination. (p. 28)

In Ceremony in Lone Tree and What a Way to Go, Morris apparently found his creative inspiration in the attempt to do for himself what he had attempted to have his characters do in The Field of Vision—to gather up the durable fragments of his experience and come to imaginative terms with them. (p. 31)

Cause for Wonder is the most difficult of Morris' books because it is (with the possible exception of The Works of Love) the most private and because it required the most complex technique to come to imaginative terms with the durable experiences on which it was based—so durable, in fact, that the published book represented his fifth attempt to deal with them over a period of twenty-six years. More completely concerned with the author's individual past than either of the other two novels of the early sixties [Ceremony in Lone Tree and What a Way to Go], it also brought him closer to a concern for the future; and, in doing so, it marked the culmination of another major stage in his literary development. The two which were to follow [One Day and In Orbit] were to be free from the signs of struggle with his own past which had marked his work for two decades. Better than any of his other novels, they were to show where he stood in the uncertain and insecure present.

One Day … not only marks the release of Morris' field of vision from those spots of time which attracted it toward his own past but displays the full development of a fictional technique which enabled him to bring into almost perfect balance the two qualities which distinguish him among modern American novelists: the extraordinary range of knowledge and sympathetic understanding he can apply to the representation of human beings in the infinite variety of their comic humors, and the seriousness and honesty of his search for meaning and hope in a world that so many of his contemporaries have been content to present as absurd. (pp. 33-4)

The imaginative richness and vitality of One Day is much more powerful than its intellectual despair, and it was an expression of Morris' faith as a novelist: he must be true to the present in which he lives, even though the implications of that present may be tragically inscrutable to the intellect. (p. 38)

[Morris'] own unique medium is the high seriousness of brilliant comedy in which the absurd is laid bare without bitterness and perhaps with as much faith in the past and hope for the future as a sensitive and well-informed intellectual in modern America can manage. (p. 43)

Leon Howard, in his Wright Morris ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 69), University of Minnesota Press, © 1968 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).