Wright Morris Morris, Wright (Vol. 3)

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Morris, Wright (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Morris, Wright 1910–

A first-rate American novelist, Morris is something of a literary nationalist. His settings are generally the rural and small town Midwest and his novelistic purpose the development of a peculiarly American myth, tradition, and character. Among his novels are Love Among the Cannibals and The Fire Sermon. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The big trouble with Wright Morris is that he keeps writing and changing. You can't get a line on him. He won't stand there and let them put a name tag on his lapel. By now, already, he has worked up a regular canon, just like a decently dead writer. And still he keeps on. It's some kind of a compulsion or something, the kind of thing that can ruin a man's reputation.

On top of which the books, all of them, aren't exactly easy reading. He couldn't turn out some light summer reading if his life depended on it. He can be funny, sure. In fact he is one of the funniest writers around. But there is some kind of an edge to all his jokes. He can go for the gag line with the very best of them, and you can't help laughing. Then later on you may get the suspicion that the joke is partly on you, too. Just when you think you have somebody or something to laugh at, he comes along and spoils everything by making you wonder, think even, why you are laughing. He has the same problem with his plots and characters. Things start out comfortably enough, even though he likes to play around with time and point of view and won't put it all down straight, and he can be as neatly and tightly schematic as you please. Then just when you settle down to relax and let it all happen the way it usually does, he has to get cute. Blink a couple of times, rub your eyes, and next thing you know you can't tell the good guys from the bad ones. Morris is no New Yorker writer. It is like he wanted to disturb the peace….

[Even] though his novels are individual and separate, they are also built upon each other, as intricately and subtly related in their own way as Faulkner's…. Sometimes it is an explicit relationship of place or character in directly linked novels like The Field of Vision and Ceremony in Lone Tree. Sometimes there is a variation, another version of place, character, or event, and in this sense all the books and stories become complex variations. The result is that the books keep getting better. The more you read and follow the design, the better, richer they get. Very self-conscious, someone might say. Besides which he is a frankly literary writer. He not only admits to having read a book or so and, when it suits him, alludes to same, but also he uses his reading in an odd allusive way to give more dimension to the story at hand. It's all right, of course, to use the old standards—the classics and the myths, the Bible, Shakespeare etc.—but what about a modern writer who uses The Sun Also Rises or The Great Gatsby or Finnegans Wake quite openly as grist for his mill. He is not often exotic and esoteric in the functional use of this device. The books and stories he echoes and uses are, after all, all books and stories that we have read, or anyway ones we are supposed to have read….

[There] is [also] the undeniable fact that he has so much talent, such great and various gifts. He has a superb ear, none better. It is exact, right, and surprising. He has a trained eye. Which is not surprising, for he is a first-rate photographer…. Morris has always shown a rich and various power of close observation, a memory for detail. His fiction is full of things, not just the names, but the look, feel, and texture of them. The surface is dazzling….

Using that strength and his talent, he could easily have gone a long, long way, maybe a much easier way, and nobody would have noticed the difference. But Morris has other things he can do very well, too. He can create characters of all kinds, shapes and descriptions, young and old, men and women, lots of them; and having created them he can keep them alive and...

(The entire section is 2,970 words.)