Monday, October 04, 2010

Wright Morris, 1910–2010

On Saturday, the Lone Tree Literary Society will celebrate the centennial of novelist Wright Morris’s birth with a conference in Central City, Nebraska, where Morris was born on January 6, 1910. Otherwise the Morris centennial, which might have occasioned a revival of interest in his work, is going largely ignored in the Republic of Letters. Morris would probably have expected little else. Despite consistently high praise from critics, his thirty odd books were largely ignored during his lifetime. “I find it harder to account for readers I have than for those I don’t,” he said.

At one time Morris was ranked with Saul Bellow—two years his junior—and by some critics even ahead of him. In 1953, the year that The Adventures of Augie March was published, Morris also published a novel, his sixth—or his eighth, if two “photo-texts,” in which a prose narrative and his striking photographs face each other on alternating pages, are counted. The Deep Sleep was the longest of them, coming in at just over three hundred pages. While Bellow was reaching for a novel as large as America (Augie announced the most important things about himself in the book’s six famous opening words), Morris was more interested in scaling back and exploring the inherent limitations of fictional form:

My feeling is that we are going to need more short books. The long book involves us in the very thing we have to get away from. The short book imposes on the author a facing up to the major problems of his craft. No lists, itemizations, accumulations. In the short novel the limitations of realism become evident.The two novels were published the same month—Morris’s by Scribner, Bellow’s by Viking—but the fight was over almost before it began. The New York Times Book Review gave The Deep Sleep seven hundred words on page four; exactly a week later Augie March received page-one treatment and praise in over a thousand words. Both were nominated for the National Book Award. Augie won.

In many other ways, Morris could trade blows with Bellow and remain on his feet (Bellow later said that, for a few years, they had the best of each other). Perhaps no writer can ever hope to match Bellow’s dazzling philosophizing, but Morris was also a novelist of ideas. In Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960)—the place to start if you’ve never read Morris—a man driving home to Nebraska stops for the night at a motel from where a nuclear test can be observed. The clerk asks whether he wants to be up for the bomb. He owes it to himself, she says. After his name in the register, she writes: WAKE BEFORE BOMB.WAKE BEFORE BOMB? How did one do it? Was it even advisable? The past, whether one liked it or not, was all that one actually possessed: the green stuff, the gilt-edged securities. The present was the moment of exchange—when all might be lost. Why risk it? Why not sleep on the money in the bank? To wake before the bomb was to risk losing all to gain what might be so little—a brief moment in the present, that one moment later joined the past. Nevertheless, as the lady said, it was a wonderful sight. There was this flash, then the pillar of fire went up and up as if to heaven, and the heat and the light of that moment illuminated for a fraction the flesh and bones of the present. Did these bones live? At that moment they did. The meeting point, the melting point of the past confronting the present. Where no heat was thrown off, there was no light—where it failed to ignite the present, it was dead. The phoenix, that strange bird of ashes, rose each day from the embers where the past had died and the future was at stake. To wake before the bomb was tricky business. What if it scared you to sleep?Not incidental to this remarkable passage is its handling of a current political question. (The agitation for nuclear disarmament began in the late ’fifties. In a famous incident from 1958, Australian students managed to paint BAN THE BOMB on the deck of the U.S.S. Radford.) Morris may have begun by meditating upon nuclear fears—that is the underlying theme—but his thought develops into a variation upon the theme, which ties it to perennial human concerns and prevents it from becoming merely topical and dated. Contrast Morris’s practice to that of Jonathan Franzen, whose reflections on current politics are little more than the repetition of talking points (“Now came Bush II, the worst regime of all”; “the Bush twins and all the partying and loose morals that the Bush name con­noted”). Yet another reason Morris’s fiction is neglected: its political affiliations are not apparent at a glance.

In a late ’seventies review, Geoffrey Wolff wondered why it was that “[n]o critic has written about [Morris] for years now without mentioning the public neglect, the want of celebrity, the payoff so perversely withheld.” He concluded that Morris “has no single voice, nothing like the kind of assertive style that marks a paragraph, wherever it is found, by Stanley Elkin or Saul Bellow or Vladimir Nabokov.” But this seems only partly correct. It is true that Morris does not have an assertive style, but then he was neither a Jew nor a political exile. On his own testimony, though, his fiction grew out of a voice, which he heard for the first time in the first words of The Works of Love (1952):In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow. West of the 98th Meridian—where it sometimes rains and it sometimes doesn’t—towns, like weeds, spring up when it rains, dry up when it stops. But in a dry climate the husk of the plant remains. The stranger might find, as if preserved in amber, something of the green life that was once lived there, and the ghosts of men who have gone on to a better place. The withered towns are empty, but not uninhabited. Faces sometimes peer out from the broken windows, or whisper from the sagging balconies, as if this place—now that it is dead—had come to life. As if empty it is forever occupied.Morris later said that his concern in his early books was “to establish the tone that would make possible all that followed.” The voice that he finally mastered in his National Book Award-winning Field of Vision (1956) was the “mystifying clue to what was yet unspoken.” It was not only his principle of discovery, the means by which he explored his raw material and found his subject, but also the moral force by which he awakened the slumbering past and brought withered towns to life. The voice is unmistakable, even singular, but does not insist upon its own primacy.

Morris never wrote about writers or literary intellectuals. His alter ego Gordon Boyd, who describes himself as a “self-unmade man,” never talks about writing and is not particularly self-aware. He is a failure, which permits Morris to poke fun at himself, and like all of Morris’s other characters, he must struggle to put together a life out of false starts, less-than-ideal circumstances, different homes in different places, and a miscellaneous inheritance.

Morris’s message is summed up by a character in Love Among the Cannibals (1957), his one popular success: “You’ve got to take what’s phony, if it’s all you’ve got, and make it real.” This is, in effect, the fundamental American experience, since the chief problem in America has always been to make a nation and a culture out of whatever was at hand and best suited to the job. “The realization that I had to create coherence,” Morris said of his own life, “conjure up my synthesis, rather than find it, came to me, as it does to most Americans, disturbingly late.”

His best novels tell how that realization affects the lives of interesting men and women, a good many of them (but not all) from the dry place of Nebraska. Not surprisingly, this is also the problem that faces every novelist in every novel he sits down to write. Small wonder Morris did not write about anguished writers and assertive intellectuals. He realized earlier rather than later that the writer’s task differs in materials, but not in kind, from that of any other man. “It is the function of genius,” Morris wrote in a review, “to make things cohere. The act of coherence is the imaginative act, the rest is scenery.”

Wright Morris died on April 25, 1998, in Mill Valley, California, where he had made his home for many years. The last of his twenty novels, Plains Song: For Female Voices (1981), won the second of his two National Book Awards. “And nowhere else in his fiction,” Larry McMurtry said in a review of it, “does emotion emerge from detail so beautifully as in this precise and vivid book.” Perhaps a new century of readers will discover one of America’s greatest talents.