As a rule, I limit this site to out-of-print books and long-unpublished authors, but I want to break that rule today to take a little time to celebrate the work of one of my favorite writers, Wright Morris. To some extent, Morris does qualify for mention on the Neglected Books Page, for while most of his books are still in print, thanks to the outstanding support of the University of Nebraska Press for a favorite native son, his name rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great 20th century American writers. While Morris was still living, in fact, a reviewer in the Washington Post once wrote, “No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris.”
I first learned of Morris through a PBS documentary from the mid-1970s, one of a series of half-hour films on selected American writers. The show concentrated on Morris’ roots in the great plains and dry lands of central Nebraska, a place where, as Morris put it, “The man drives and the woman sleeps.” My grandfather, who was born about a hundred miles west of Morris’ home town of Central City, was still living at that time, and I had a strong interest in understanding the culture he grew up in. He had a remarkable patience and persistence that seemed a little mystifying to a kid who’d spent his days watching TV and going downtown to the movies.
Although Morris left the state when he was fourteen, lived in Chicago with his father, attended colleges in southern California, spent a year traveling around Europe, resided in Pennsylvania and California, and often visited Europe and Mexico, Nebraska remained strongly associated with him, and reappeared in his novels and stories throughout his career. Two of his earliest books, The Inhabitants (1946) and The Home Place (1948), were pioneering works of photo-fiction, combining Morris’ stark black-and-white photographs of deserted, wind-scarred buildings and abandoned interiors in rural Nebraska with stories of the odd people, mostly of few words, who survived there.
Where others might see emptiness, Morris found the source for intense imaginings. “In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in a man that begins to flow.” So opens The Works of Love (1952), which I consider one of the very best American novels of its century. For me, to steal an opening line from Ford, this is the saddest story I’ve ever heard. Morris tells the story of Will Brady, a man of the plains, who achieves a great success as an early corporate poultry farmer yet always seems a Grand Canyon away from the people he loves. One of his wives wraps herself up in their sheets to keep away from Will, and when, later, he is broke and working as a department store Santa Claus in Chicago, he writes long letters to a stepson who will never see them.
Morris’ first novel, My Uncle Dudley (1942), was a comic account of a trip from Nebraska to California that Morris made at the age of sixteen with his uncle Dwight in 1926. My favorite Morris novel–a pair of novels, to be correct–takes that journey in reverse. In Fire Sermon (1971), a wizened, straight-backed old man, Floyd Warner, aged eighty-three, takes his orphaned eleven year-old grand nephew and returns to his family home in Nebraska to settle the affairs of his sister, Viola. Floyd fixes up the 1927 Maxwell he’s had up on block for decades, and, driving well below the speed limit, slowly works his way East. Along the way, they pick up a hitch-hiking hippie couple, and when they arrive at Viola’s place, they find the same empty rooms and collections of silverware and kerosene lamps that Morris photographed thirty years earlier.
Fire Sermon was followed in 1972 by A Life, in which Floyd Warner continues his journey, leaving behind the young boy and picking up a somewhat mythical character, Blackbird, who leads him to his death. The two novels trace a symbolic path from the hard and innocent days of the 1920s to the energy and anarchy of Vietnam-era America–yet the one thing one could never say is that Morris ever strays from the concrete and tangible into symbolism.
Looking through the list of Morris’ novels, I am struck both by the size and variety of his oeuvre. In addition to his Nebraska novels, there are his expat novels, such as The Huge Season (1954), The Field of Vision (1956), and Cause for Wonder (1963). All feature rich, precise descriptive prose, electic mixes of characters and situations, and Morris’ ironic sense of comedy. Then there are two of the best novels written and set in the 1960s: In Orbit (1967), about the one day racing, raping and thieving spree of one Jubal Gainer, a character of pure energy and violence, and One Day (1965), which looks at a small California town on the day of JFK’s assassination.
In his last novel, Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980), Morris returned again to a Nebraska setting. In his review of the book, Larry McMurtry wrote, “No landscape moves him so deeply as the somber, muted plains country; for nowhere else is his depth of reference so nearly absolute.” Although the book received better publicity than most of Morris’ other books, it remained, like the rest, better spoken of than read. While the sum of his work represents a considerable richness and variety of writing, Morris never aimed to write for a large audience. Asked to describe his ideal reader, Morris said it would be one who possessed, “A well-established and chronic inclination to read slowly, and reread the line you just slipped by.”
As long as the University of Nebraska Press stays in business, there’s a good chance that Wright Morris’ novels will stay in print. But there’s little chance that his name and reputation will ever eclipse that of, say, John Steinbeck or Norman Mailer, given his predilection for spare, unpretentious prose and lean, less-traveled subjects and places. And so I consider him more than worth the time and space required for this modest tribute. If you’ve never read anything by Morris, I’d suggest Fire Sermon–just under 150 pages, dry, tough and funny. I’d recommend The Works of Love as well, but you’d better be prepared to have your heart broken and bled. Few writers have been as adept at speaking softly and wielding a big emotional stick as Wright Morris.