Wright Morris Morris, Wright (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Morris, Wright 1910–

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 comes to see various versions of "truth."…

In [some respects] little has changed during four generations of Scanlon history. Violence was and is at the center of American life. (p. 205)

With violence and potential violence everywhere, it will not surprise the reader that Morris's central symbol for contemporary America is "the bomb." This motif is introduced early in the book, when Boyd, on his way to Lone Tree, stops over in a Nevada town near an atomic test site. The bomb detonation that he anticipates witnessing is postponed at the last minute, creating an ominous expectation of some sort of explosion throughout the novel. And, of course, it comes in the final climactic scene, when Lois, the oldest Scanlon daughter, fires a shot from one of her father's ancient pistols into the air…. For Lois, this long-delayed act of revolt and defiance has less to do with her father than with her husband, McKee, who had never been able to turn her on sexually or emotionally. This act also has a good deal to do with Boyd, whose wild antics Lois is imitating. It might also be considered her reply to the passionate kiss that Boyd forced upon her forty years earlier, the act against which she has always measured her life with McKee.

The important sexual theme in Ceremony is thus linked closely with the themes of time and violence. Sexual passion, or the absence of it, extends from Tom...

(The entire section is 2028 words.)

George Garrett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Each of the thirteen stories in Real Losses, Imaginary Gains has the refined and beautiful simplicity that only a master artist can achieve. Nothing is wasted. In art there is no such thing as perfection, but it is the peculiar magic of art that the fully realized work cannot be imagined as other than it is. That sleight of hand is the equivalent of perfection. These stories are magic. There is a glorious American variety of form and content here, a handbook in the ancient and persistent possibilities of short fiction.

George Garrett, "Fables and Fabliaux of Our Time: 'Real Losses, Imaginary Gains'," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXV, No. 1, Winter, 1977, p. 110.

R.H.W. Dillard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kelcey [the narrator of The Fork River Space Project] enters a world imagined by others…. These overlapping imaginations, overlapping realities, give Kelcey the distance to see the world, to see life, to see time, whole and perfect—just a glimpse, of course, the glimpse of art, the lasting brief experience of the imagination. What he sees, tornadoes or hovering space ships, he sees truly at long last, alone and lost, alive and living for the first real time.

I imagine Wright Morris sitting down to write this novel and exclaiming, "Just imagine!" And the product of that imagining, The Fork River Space Project, is a brilliant achievement that encourages and enables its readers, those who can bear it, to think and to see … "On the mind's eye, or on the balls of the eyes, or wherever it is we see what we imagine, or imagine what we see."

"We have no choice," Morris said in his book, About Fiction, in 1975, "but to imagine ourselves more human than we are." It's all in a manner of seeing, the right pressure on the lids, and this small novel written in that familiar and inimitably lucid prose applies that pressure carefully, gives us what we dare ask of fiction, a more than suitable model of how things really are. (p. 18)

R.H.W. Dillard, "Books in Brief: 'The Fork River Space Project'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), Vol. XIV, No. 5, December, 1977, pp. 17-18.

Robert E. Knoll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Morris novels] are not in the fashionable mode. Morris is less interested in an event, a happening, than he is in its implications. Lots of exciting events occur in his stories—tornadoes strike, bombs threaten to explode, old men die, young men assert their manhood—but we are not asked to participate in them. We are invited to search them for meaning. (p. ix)

The modern American novel is urban and peopled with sophisticated city types. Morris writes characteristically of westerners, small communities, open areas. Frequently very funny indeed, his novels are closer to the frontier tall tale than to the wisecracking anecdote of the standup comedian…. The stories suggest something of the epic sweep of the West; and like the talk of frontiersmen, the comedy and tragedy are both deadpan. Its subtlety can be missed by those whose ears are deafened by the screaming headlines of an insistent present. (p. x)

When the novels are viewed in conjunction, even as they retain their integrity they are seen to be interrelated. The Morris world is not fragmented, discontinuous, or rootless. It is of a piece. It has an overarching unity of imaginative vision.

In addition to lyric intensity and epic unity, the Morris fiction has several classic qualities. Morris considers and reconsiders only a selected number of human relationships: an old man and a boy, a middle-aged man and his old friends, a husband and his remote wife. He reuses a single situation until he has extracted its full implications. He deliberately repeats himself, for some situations seem inexhaustible to him. Like Degas, who found the ballet dancer inexhaustible as an artistic subject, Morris repeatedly returns to the dream of the American West. (pp. x-xi)

Morris is a classical writer in another sense. His novels are not judgmental. He presents his characters in their situations, but he does so without designs either on our emotions or on our convictions. The author stands dispassionately aside from his people, simply exhibiting them. We exist and they exist and together we share an imagined, created landscape. (p. xi)

Robert E. Knoll, in his introduction to Conversations with Wright Morris: Critical Views and Responses, edited by Robert E. Knoll (reprinted by permission of University of Nebraska Press; © 1977 by the University of Nebraska Press), University of Nebraska Press, 1977, pp. vii-xiv.

John W. Aldridge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wright Morris may well be the last of our novelists to write with a sense of the whole of America in his blood and bones, to possess a vision of the country as both a physical place and a metaphysical condition. The literary tradition from which he seems most directly to descend—and it is a tradition shared with some incongruity by James, Twain, Edith Wharton, and Sherwood Anderson—may have passed on to him the materials of this vision, and it may be said to have been reconstituted in his work with very little likelihood that it will survive beyond his work. (p. 3)

Morris alone among these writers has had the distinction of preserving a creative connection with a larger and essential America. Yet...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

Laurence B. Holland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wright Morris's Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments turns, in a backward glance that he deftly links to Whitman's, to survey glancingly but surely his own career and the course of American writing in the context of a popular culture that threatens the life of the imagination.

Morris's procedure, as often as not, is to present a telling though seemingly unexceptional quotation, without identifying the work or the author until casually mentioning it later, so as to fix attention on the language at work, and the aptness of the countless quotations is one of the book's striking features. If he runs the dangers of the nostalgia tempting American writers that he warned against in his earlier...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

You might call [the writing in "Plains Song"] linoleum nostalgia. It is something like going through your grandmother's family album and trying to imagine what was not photographed.

While you read it, you wonder whether this era of our history can have been quite as stark as Mr. Morris makes it sound, or whether he is not practicing something like Minimalist art or the theater of poverty. Were people so really unconscious? There is always a temptation to think that the author failed to penetrate them.

Six feet tall, resembling Abraham Lincoln, flat as an ironing board and with eyes like a Russian icon, Cora Atkins is "implacable," just as almost all fictional wives in novels about...

(The entire section is 484 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A mature and steady craftsman, [Wright Morris] never writes badly; but in order to write compellingly he has to return to the plains. No landscape moves him so deeply as the somber, muted plains country: for nowhere else is his depth of reference so nearly absolute. And nowhere in his fiction does emotion emerge from detail so beautifully as in this precise and vivid book.

Though "Plains Song" is comparatively short, it is very much a story of generations—specifically, generations of women. (p. 3)

The triumph of the book, in terms of craft, is that we experience the sense of the slow passage of time so necessary to such a story. Yet it is told subtly and with economy: the textures of farm life on the plains are beautifully rendered. Animals are important in the lives of farm people, and contribute to the novel's quiet humor, if only because Wright Morris has managed to show the men with whom these women are involved as benign, domesticated beasts…. (pp. 3, 18)

The heart of the book is its tactful rendering of the emotional history of several women, but woven in with this is the social history of a particular part of the country…. Neither the changes nor the women are viewed sentimentally. The textures of emotional, social and physical experience merge; the sense of experience is precise, satisfying and complete. (p. 18)

Larry McMurtry, "Generations of Women," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1979, pp. 3, 18.

Bruce Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A summary description of [Plains Song: For Female Voices] suggests that this sophisticated "regionalist" has forsaken the impressionistic visual emphases that distinguish his best fiction (The Works of Love, The Field of Vision, Ceremony in Lone Tree), for a more conventionally narrative picturing of life in Nebraska's "middle Western plains"; the method, let's say, of Conrad Richter or Willa Cather….

We infer that this new tide of "womanly independence" offers a satisfying culmination to the long-unrewarded labors of Cora Atkins and her descendants. Yet we must suspect irony—when museum replicas of extinct creatures provoke speculation on "the future of man in a world of women";...

(The entire section is 340 words.)

Jack Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Until we get to know them, the characters in [Plains Song] are about as flat as their setting. The first generation settlers in particular seem "less persons than pieces of nature, closely related to cows and chickens."…

To Sharon Rose, the first woman in the family to flee to Chicago for a wider life, this world comes to represent an incredible oppression…. To the characters who stay, it is a world entirely self-contained and self-sufficient, in which endless unfinished chores provide meaning for existence.

Wright Morris … refuses to take sides or allow one of the voices in Plains Song to outsing another. As the point of view subtly shifts from character to...

(The entire section is 205 words.)

William H. Pritchard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Plains Song is] as solid and clever a piece of work as [Morris has] produced in the last twenty years since Ceremony In Lone Tree…. Morris is a tease, is both fond of his people, of their circumstances, and appalled by them; as in Empsonian pastoral, in one way he's better—at least smarter—than they are, but in another way not so good.

This doubleness plays around under a perfectly cool surface on which the deadpan narrator operates…. Morris' vice has always been, both in his fiction and his essays, a tendency toward whimsy and superciliousness, indulged in this book by asking too many of these rhetorical questions no character could ever have asked. It means that at such...

(The entire section is 243 words.)

Robert E. Knoll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Plains Song for Female Voices] is the culmination of a lifetime devoted to fiction. Funny and moving, realistic and visionary, symbolic and factual, it shows the hand of the practiced master.

Readers get two views of reality in Morris's novels. On the one hand they get a transcription of appearance, an almost naturalistic fidelity to physical detail…. On the other hand readers of Morris are repeatedly caught up in a vision which transmogrifies ordinary life….

In this most recent novel, Plains Song for Female Voices, the ordinary and the extraordinary are almost perfectly synchronized. The persons and the places are presented with notable fidelity to appearance,...

(The entire section is 653 words.)