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Morris, Wright 1910–

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An American novelist and essayist, 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 CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Robert D. Harper

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Ceremony finds its thematic material in a past much deeper than that of the pioneer West and traditions much older than those of the local color novel. It fuses three major elements that can be traced back to the very first American fiction and that loom large in the work of both serious and popular novelists of the early nineteenth century. The title of the novel and its general setting would suggest that it belongs with the literature of the American frontier…. But a closer look at the town of Lone Tree in all its decay strongly suggests also the Gothic tradition…. Decidedly Gothic is the picture of the Lone Tree Hotel, with its sole aged inhabitant sleeping beside the stove, while beyond the rattling window panes a lone dead tree is visible against the moon. A third major tradition in early American fiction, by way of the English novelist Samuel Richardson, was the seduction of a young woman with consequences usually fatal for her. (pp. 200-01)

If Morris has utilized, consciously or unconsciously, three of the most traditional subjects in American fiction as the backbone of his novel, he has given them anything but traditional treatment. To earlier novelists the western frontier has usually been a place of hope, a place of freedom, a place of new beginnings; for Morris it is the end of something, the ultimate illusion, a veritable will-o-the-wisp. Lone Tree is "the home place," but what a home! The Gothic elements are also handled in a very untraditional manner. Morris's horrors are brought about without the aid of the supernatural, thus intensifying them through the reader's easy belief in their translation to real life. (p. 201)

The title, Ceremony in Lone Tree, contains two essential elements of the novel—the town and the ceremony—which are basically opposed. Lone Tree in the late nineteen-fifties, with its decayed buildings and its single remaining inhabitant, is an unlikely place for a ceremony, but Morris manages, in the space of about twenty-four hours, to bring off a series of ceremonial acts which have symbolic significance for both the past and the future of the American West and the world beyond. (p. 202)

Ceremony has almost no plot in the usual sense of the word. There is little physical action or character development, and the ending, which brings together death and marriage, is ambiguous…. [The] past is linked to the present and the future and time emerges as a major concern in the novel, as it does in so much of the fiction of the American frontier, including all of Morris's novels. (p. 203)

It is true that in Ceremony there are abundant symbols of pioneer life and there are many direct references to "the good old days"; but on more careful examination of the passages that take him into the past, the reader must conclude that Morris's Golden West exists only in the minds of characters attempting to escape from a grim present into illusion and nostalgia….

The sole surviving member of the pioneer generation, Old Tom Scanlon, is anything but a heroic figure. We get enough glimpses of his youth to realize that his life has been unfulfilled in about the same way as those of his children and grandchildren, and for about the same reasons. (p. 204)

Time, for Morris, is not divided neatly into past, present and future from any particular moment of observation, but rather moves backward or forward in the minds of the nine observers through whose eyes the reader gradually...

(The entire section contains 6304 words.)

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