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:
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.
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):
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.