Wright Morris Morris, Wright (Vol. 3) - Essay

Morris, Wright (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 kicking. He stays with his characters, letting them have time and space to grow, change, become until finally the best of them are suddenly all there, as solid and three-dimensional as bronze figures. And like great sculpture they are finally and forever mysterious. They appear first of all as people do in life (and art), veiled in familiar and gauzy clichés. Morris gets the music going, and they start to dance and peel the veils away and down to skin and bones. When the striptease is over, we see human nakedness, but it is a nakedness infinitely more mysterious and beautiful than any veiled figure. Only a very few of our writers have ever been able to create characters like that. It is commonplace, easy enough, and often just right for the modern reader to have a character stripped in scorn and exposed in shame. Morris has great compassion for his characters. He gets it without permitting himself or the reader one faint whiff of sentimentality…. He gets it, too, by being a master of every aspect of point of view. Which really means that no matter who is telling the story or how he is telling it, you don't cheat. When you are with a character that's where you are….

The structure of a fiction becomes a world, a meaningful and deeply mysterious pattern, and in that sense it can become, however small and broken by comparison, a creation mirroring the Creation. Morris has come this far. He does it in the individual book. He has done it and is doing it, intricately, when you consider the design of his whole work. Of course this has great risks too. In general this abstract and probably arbitrary scheme of a writer's development—from words to characters to the pattern—can be attended by a diminishing of interest in (and thus ability with) the primary stages. The earlier qualities are refined away, and we expect this to happen, believing, as we do, that growth is as much loss as gain. Somehow (by magic again?) Wright Morris has managed to keep all three qualities alive at once, in suspension, in near perfect balance. And this puts him up at the very top where the air is thin and where a man and his work can be judged by the highest standards we know of, past or present. When he writes a book and it is published we who profess and call ourselves readers had better read it.

George Garrett, "Morris the Magician: A Look at In Orbit," in Hollins Critic, June, 1967, pp. 1-12.

After more than twenty-five years of sustained productivity, during which he has published nineteen books—many of them distinguished—Wright Morris seems to have become arrested permanently on the brink of major reputation. The obvious injustice of this has troubled his admirers for a very long time and caused them to insist, as each new book of his appears, that surely this one will bring him the kind of general recognition he so clearly deserves. Yet when the publication furor dies away and critics have written their usually laudatory reviews, Morris seems to be more firmly established than ever in his position as the least well-known and most widely unappreciated important writer alive in this country. As a result, the effort to obtain justice for Morris has now reached the proportions of a literary Dreyfus case….

Morris … does not write about social problems as such but rather about people who, insofar as they relate to society at all, have spiritual roots in the frontier past or are burdened by a nostalgic obsession with society as it was when they were young, and whose problem is most often their inability to feel, the old-fashioned dilemma of the frigid Anglo-Saxon puritan which so fascinated Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis—writers, incidentally, whom Morris in some ways resembles far more closely than he does any of his contemporaries. This is to say that Morris has never been a social observer or reporter of the contemporary scene in the sense, for example, that Mailer has been. He appears to be altogether lacking in political consciousness and the instincts of the journalist….

Morris … is not a modish or eccentric writer in the manner of Nabokov, Pynchon, or John Barth. He has a strong and individual style, but he would never attract attention because of the bizarre nature of his language or the grotesqueries he uses it to describe. In fact, it is one of his basic working premises that literary style should be heard but not seen, should serve no purpose other than to advance, as inconspicuously as possible, the story it is designed to tell. His novels are similarly self-contained and self-effacing. They are not really about anything except themselves. They are finely textured, discrete images of reality which do not depend for their meaning on social externals any more than they depend for their evocative power on the embellishments of style….

There is excellence in [this] work, a very great deal of excellence, certainly more than enough to entitle him to the major reputation he should have had years ago.

John W. Aldridge, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 11, 1970, p. 4.

As [Wright] Morris makes his eleventh trip back to the home place in Nebraska [in Fire Sermon], readers of his earlier work, alert to his recurrent use of images and phrases from previous novels, will sense once again the author's almost ritualistic compulsion to re-experience the past while simultaneously capturing the spirit of the immediate present. As in several other novels, one of the finest scenes in Fire Sermon comes when the returning native explores the house….

The reader new to Morris' field of vision should not begin with Fire Sermon, but with In Orbit (another brief novel) or—if he is fortunate enough to be ambitious—with Wright Morris: A Reader; published in 1970, it contains two of his best novels complete, The Works of Love and The Field of Vision, along with choice sections from most of his other novels, including Ceremony in Lone Tree and The Deep Sleep. Morris' novels show a remarkable rate of growth; many are exploratory, but Fire Sermon does not seem to take the familiar elements into new territory.

Morris can be compared only with himself; and by standards set by his own distinguished work, Fire Sermon is the slightest of his novels. Even though its power carried me through to the end in one sitting, there is about this novel a static quality that not even Morris' dynamic style can quite activate. Since I have on my shelves great cause for continued faith in Morris (more than in any other American writing today), and since I believe he is America's finest writer, I feel no compunction in noting that Fire Sermon is the master's least effective work. But the least of Morris' novels is better than most fiction published today.

David Madden, "A Master Nods," in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1972, pp. 81-4.

The burden fiction about the Midwest has to carry is that the place for many of us is an essential blank: blank land, blank language, blank faces. People read Southern writers, one would believe, because the South is full of a fascinating clutter of insane people. They read about California because California is bizarre. They read about Connecticut because it is close. But the Midwest, oh my!

Wright Morris, like Willa Cather, has written mostly about Nebraska; and like her he has to suffer the kind of snobbery that people like Mencken aimed at her: "I don't care how well she writes, I don't give a damn what happens in Nebraska."…

[With] the kind of flinty stubbornness that his writings reflect, Wright Morris keeps turning out books that take on the Midwest straight. He gives us its near blank nearly undiluted: bleak, dusty, windbeaten towns—seven people, 10 churches, a silo—dead cars on cinder blocks next to the houses, handles for screen doors made of empty spools. Morris's own words feel as empty as the place he writes of….

Morris's way of writing … is on the one hand discreet, almost diffident, and on the other it's loaded with resonances….

One has to approach "A Life" with the same kind of stub-born persistence that one would have to use in approaching [the protagonist] himself. It's a slow, meditative book, but it's not a laborious one. It is also revealing and very wise.

Newton Koltz, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 26, 1973, p. 6.

[A Life] is all pure Morris: the best (the sidelong wit and the marvelously supple prose, now gold, now grit) along with the worst (the wooden dialogue, the coy hints at profound meanings that never quite come out from behind the prose screens). More than any of his 17 previous novels, the story takes off from the workaday world in search of the ineffable. The familiar trappings of Wright's baroque realism turn up: the taste of switch grass and cord grass, the loom of grain elevators, the feel of a kitten dropped by wanton boys into a country-school privy. But the subject is myth. Old, unbelieving, literal-minded Floyd Warner takes on immortal longings. Having defied common sense by taking a herd of sheep and a wife to the banks of the Pecos where God intended neither species to live, having defied humanity by his whole mean, solitary life, he finds himself stumbling on to an end that his rheumy eyes can hardly make out, with some of the defiant dignity of a Greek hero.

This is a cold, autumnal book. The question is never deemed worth asking, whether this life was worth living. There is nothing here of the noble Willa Cather nostalgia for a Nebraska full of giants, or the facile Hemingway nostalgia for a Michigan of pliant girls and truly good trout. By the time Floyd is murdered for his watch, he has swollen into a huge and lonely figure. His death can stand for that of the white man's America, or of the whole human race. He never has had much use for that latter one anyway.

Robert Wernick, "Gold and Grit," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1973 by Time Inc.), September 24, 1973, p. 126.

Mr. Morris has always had a baroque impulse behind his plain-spoken style, and in this regard [A Life] is no different from the rest….

What begins as a moving, interesting novel is given over to shoddiness toward the end and to an all-too-familiar cast of mind. Cruelty is the ever-present companion to sentimentality; one goes where the other goes, and it is not altogether surprising that these two things should have ruined the novel in perfectly equal measure.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review/World (© 1973 by Saturday Review/ World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 9, 1973, p. 28.

A Life is carefully modulated and scrupulously controlled, a brief book that pays attention only to "large" themes, as if space didn't permit acknowledgement of the ephemeral. It is a skillful work, but its craftsmanship makes it also a very austere one….

A Life is perhaps too tidy a package, too closed a world.

Still, despite this limitation (if it is one; there are those who find this kind of formalism highly appealing), A Life is not a thin work. The drowsy Nebraska towns and the windy prairies are beautifully evoked, and if Warner is the only real "character" in the book, the only person we know more than superficially, he is a very finely drawn one and, even given the novel's schematic structure, no mere doormat for "fate." He is a moving, vital man—shrewd, cantankerous, brave and proud—and most of A Life's strength derives from him. If the rest of the novel provided the depths and resonances that this single character does, it would be a fine work indeed rather than one that is admirable but ultimately rather cold.

Alan Hislop, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 14, 1973, p. 6.

That astonishingly fecund, abundantly endowed, and curiously neglected contemporary American craftsman, Wright Morris, here [in A Life] presents the hegira of his eighty-two year old protagonist seeking a return to his childhood home on the Nebraska plains, a house symbolically abandoned and derelict, where a ritualistic death awaits him, neither wholly unexpected nor unwanted. Utilizing all his considerable skill the author evokes a profound and moving portrait of a man moving inexorably toward his fate in the land of a half-forgotten youth and a fading past. As a study in teleology Mr. Morris' book is a thoughtful analysis at once nostalgic and deeply affecting.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), p. viii.

Five memorable, richly rewarding, and infinitely varied short stories [Here Is Einbaum] by the accomplished Mr. Morris show his remarkable facility and ingenuity to splendid advantage. His ability to project mood continues to astonish with its ease and surety; hardly a superfluous word is allowed to obscure his purpose in achieving the single effect short stories should convey, along with sharp delineation of character and high emotional content. All this the author attains effortlessly in an art that conceals art.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), p. x.