Wright Morris Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How does the tension between past and present create conflict in Wright Morris’s fiction?

How does Morris use fiction to create a sense of time and place?

How do photography and fiction commingle in his photo-texts?

Why does Morris use multiple narrative techniques in his work?

Many of his characters struggle to come to grips with experience (for example, Charlie Munger, Lois McKee, Cora Atkins, Tom Scanlon). How does Morris use such characters to develop themes in his fiction?

Many of Morris’s novels are comic. How does he create humor in his fiction?

Morris has been called one of America’s most original writers. What is original or novel in the way he creates fiction?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In a career that began in 1942, Wright Morris has published everything but plays and poems. Known primarily as a novelist, he is also a photographer and has created books of photographs such as The Inhabitants (1946), with accompanying text, which present his view of the artifacts of American lives. He has even incorporated his photographs into a novel, The Home Place (1948). He is an essayist, offering his interpretations of literature and culture in general in works such as The Territory Ahead (1958, 1963). The first fifty years of Morris’s life are examined in A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life (1985). He has also published Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (1989), a nonfiction work.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Though often compared to Midwestern writers such as Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather, Wright Morris is hardly a mere regionalist. He has written about all sections of the United States and many parts of Mexico and Europe. What most distinguishes his fiction is a distinctly original American writing style rooted in the vernacular and a consistently amused response to the efforts of his characters to cope with the daily reality of an increasingly complex world. Frequently categorized as unfairly unheralded, Morris has been given many honors by the literary establishment. The Field of Vision (1956) received the National Book Award, and Plains Song, for Female Voices (1980) won the American Book Award. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1970 and was made an honorary fellow of the Modern Language Association in 1975 and a senior fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1976. He won the Western Literature Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 1979 and the Robert Kirsch Award of The Los Angeles Times in 1981. Morris’s most notable achievement is the consistent quality of his writing. He is one of the few American authors to have written as well after he turned fifty as he did before.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Several of Wright Morris’s books, including The Inhabitants (1946), God’s Country and My People (1968), and Love Affair: A Venetian Journal (1972), are photo-texts. They feature photographs accompanied by brief prose passages. In the first of these, Morris describes the “inhabitants” of the United States from coast to coast through photographs of their structures—buildings that have affected the “indwellers.” Pictures of porch fronts in the West, for example, reveal New England influences, as do the inhabitants of the dwellings. The photographs, although not synchronized with the text, appear on facing pages and combine with it to make a larger statement than would be possible from either medium used alone—a statement about America and its people and their place in the changing world. Fences, privies, and churches are among the other artifacts pictured on unnumbered pages and bearing a poetic relationship to the human characters described in the text; it is up to the reader to determine the truths thereby conveyed.

God’s Country and My People, more autobiographical yet less nostalgic than its predecessors, suggests present-day values and their usefulness to a later generation. Love Affair, utilizing color photographs taken in Venice in 1969, presents the problem of “shouting” that everything is of interest, while the black-and-white pictures of the photo-texts of the plains are more...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While a few of Wright Morris’s books have European settings, he is most effective when writing about his native Nebraska and characters returning home to try to recapture memories or relive the past. That Morris was unusually concerned with his craft is evidenced by his several books of essays on the writing of fiction and the readers thereof. A prolific writer, Morris was primarily a delineator of character, rather than a constructor of intricate plots. He pays considerable attention to the “artifacts” of his characters’ worlds and to the workings of their minds, most particularly to the kinds of thoughts that are never expressed aloud.

Morris is inevitably compared to both James Agee and Walker Evans because of his poetic, reflective prose about the dignity of rural life and because his photography is reminiscent of Evans’s in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Morris combines the talents of both Agee and Evans in his photo-texts, conducting a search for the meaning of America through word and picture.

Although Morris always received critical acclaim, he did not enjoy popular success. Robert Knoll suggested that the reason may be Morris’s failure to involve the reader in the exciting events of his fiction. He rather invites the reader casually, as did Robert Frost, to come along and clear the leaves away. His poetic style is as far removed as prose can be from the popular journalistic narrative mode. Although Morris knew that readers do not want fictive distance, he created novels that question rather than confess, that disturb rather than reassure.

Morris received three Guggenheim awards, two of them for photography and the third for fiction (The Deep Sleep); the National Book Award for The Field of Vision and Plains Song, for Female Voices; and the National Institute for Arts and Letters Award for Ceremony in Lone Tree. He received a National Institute Grant in 1960 and was fiction judge for the National Book Award in 1969.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bird, Roy K. Wright Morris: Memory and Imagination. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. An excellent appraisal of self-consciousness in Morris’s fiction. Bird moves from a discussion of Morris’s use of the past, namely the author’s ambivalence toward it, to an analysis of his linguistic technique. The final chapter contains a detailed analysis of The Fork River Space Project and Plains Song, for Female Voices. Contains a bibliography.

Booth, Wayne C. “The Shaping of Prophecy: Craft and Idea in the Novels of Wright Morris.” American Scholar 31 (1962): 608-626. An excellent reappraisal of Morris’s work, focusing on Love Among the Cannibals, The Territory Ahead, and Ceremony in Lone Tree. Booth argues that Morris’s fiction is structured around a distinction between the everyday time-bound world of “reality” and a more timeless world of platonic reality.

Crump, G. B. The Novels of Wright Morris: A Critical Interpretation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978. In an effort to demonstrate Morris’s importance and clarify his contribution to modern fiction, Crump begins his study by addressing the major critical positions toward Morris’s writing, thus isolating significant features of the author’s work. Then he offers a new theoretical groundwork for criticizing the author’s fiction: a major dualism between the real and the ideal.

Hamilton, James. “Wright Morris and the American Century.” Poets and Writers 25 (November/December, 1997): 23-31. In this extended interview, Morris discusses his decision to stop writing, his...

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