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Wright Morris

By John Updike

My own literary life and that of Wright Morris crossed, as best I can remember, three times. In 1959, at the height of his reputation and prestige, he gave my first novel what is called in the trade a puff, which appeared on its jacket. I do not know how this kind of quote was solicited, since Morris and I had no connection—we did not even share a publisher—but I knew, young as I was, that this gesture of his was a generous and rare one; the years since have hardened my early suspicions that, for writers with any claim to the term “established,” no importunity is more frequent and thankless than the plea for a puff. Next, in editing the so-called Best American Short Stories of 1984, I was happy to make one of my twenty picks a story by him, “Glimpse into Another Country,” a casually surreal evocation of the confusions and trepidations of aging. More years went by, and one day an unsolicited manuscript arrived in the mail. It was from Wright Morris, who in an accompanying letter explained that this short novel had met resistance from his usual editors and he appealed to me for my own opinion; what was wrong with it? Opening himself to my verdict like this, like bestowing his phrase of praise of my novel decades ago, was a more direct and innocent gesture than one expects in the literary jungle. I read it, and felt constrained to tell him that, though the prose showed the usual Morris bright economy and whirling liveliness, it didn’t in the end add up, or quite make sense. It pained me to express this opinion, but he wrote back swiftly a cordial and thankful letter, saying it was as he had suspected, and that I had helped him. The novel, which might have been his last, never appeared.

I have the strong impression that, amid these purely literary contacts—achieved coast to coast, since I lived north of Boston and he north of San Francisco – the impression that I somewhere met him, shook his hand, and put a seal, so to speak, on our so intermittent association. But I cannot place the encounter, and it may simply be a hallucination induced by his later dust jackets, which show a rather truculently handsome man with beetling black eyebrows and a whitening mustache and thick, wavy, straight-back hair—the flamboyant hair of an orchestra conductor, or of a tugboat captain facing into the wind. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1970, but excused himself from attending his inauguration—he did not like to fly, he said—and indeed visited these premises only once, in 1972. Had he been more of a presence in cosmopolitan literary circles, he might have won more notice, but then he would have been less of what he proudly was, a writer of the America west of the Mississippi.

He was born in Central City, Nebraska, in 1910, and died in Mill Valley, California, in 1998. Six days after his birth, his mother died, and he became, in his phrase, “half an orphan.” His father’s attempts to provide him with a stepmother and make a living in the chicken and egg business were at best half successful, and in 1925, when Wright was fifteen, they moved from the Platte Valley to Chicago. In this motherlessness and adolescent migration to Chicago he resembles another of our commemorees today, William Maxwell; Maxwell became a Manhattanite, but both men in their writing consistently reverted to their Midwestern boyhoods, the terrain of the essential enchantment and sorrow. Morris is sometimes spoken of as a Nebraska writer, much as Faulkner is a Mississippi writer and Steinbeck a California writer; but in fact his fiction often takes place elsewhere. His most celebrated novel, The Field of Vision, of 1956, takes place at a Mexican bullfight and has as its epigraph Milton’s “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” In his fiction the Great Plains appear in a rather withering, desolating light. Whatever happened there—Indians, pioneers, farming—happened long ago, leaving dusty relics. In The Field of Vision Tom Scanion, who came west with a wagon train, lies in his bed in an otherwise deserted hotel in the ghost town of Lone Tree, waiting to die, looking out the window with failing eyes at a view “every bit as wide and as empty as a view of the sea… The hotel faced the plain, once called a square, where… it was believed that the town would appear like the orchards in the seed catalogues…There was nothing to see, but perhaps that was what he liked about it…The truth was, he didn’t know he was so blind until they came for him. In Lone Tree, where nothing had changed, he saw things in their place without the need to look at them.”

In the 1971 novel Fire Sermon, another ancient survivor, Floyd Warner, achieves an epic drive in an antiquated Maxwell from California to his Nebraska home town of Chapman, where his dead sister’s house and barn, unchanged since his boyhood, are crammed with artifacts of the old days—oil lamps, buggy harness, oak iceboxes, corn shellers and grinders, “numerous machines supplied with cranks”—that were bequeathed to her by neighbors as they died off. Morris’s small towns are filled not with the boosterish bustle of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and Zenith but with the dreaming torpor of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg: a psychiatrist in The Field of Vision, Lehmann, reflects on “small towns… where the lights burned over empty corners, the houses dark with the dreams they would ask Lehmann to analyze… They left, but never got away. Trailing along behind them, like clouds of glory, were the umbilical cords. On his mind’s eye Lehmann saw them like the road lines on a map. Thousands stretched to reach Chicago. Millions stretched to reach New York.” With an unmatched particularity and itemizing patience Morris renders the professional tics and private cogitations of small-town men like The Field of Vision’s McKee, who lead “a simple frame-house sort of life with an upstairs and a downstairs, and a kitchen where he lived, a parlor where he didn’t, a stove where the children could dress on winter mornings, a porch where time could be passed summer evenings, an attic for the preservation of the past, a basement for tinkering with the future, and a bedroom for making such connections as the nature of the house would stand.”

Beginning in the Depression, Morris photographed the houses and furniture, the musty interiors and stark exteriors, of America, producing frontal images of an uncanny quiet, which were bound into experimental hybrid books like The Inhabitants and The Home Place; some of his photographs are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Only Eudora Welty, to my knowledge, used both the typewriter and the camera with such distinction; her photographs, however, are of human beings, whereas Morris’s are by and large still lifes, haunted rather than inhabited by humanity. Though he can be merry—his comedy comes in novels like Love Among the Cannibals and short stories like “Since When Do They Charge Admission”—his voice has a pawky dislocated tone, a stoic facticity, like the conversation of a farmer who has known his share of drought, which perhaps prevented a larger public from warming to it. The Field of Vision won the National Book Award in 1957, and Plains Song, Morris’s unsentimental tribute to the women of the male dominated prairie, won the 1981 American Book Award. He taught in a range of colleges from the early 50s on, and published a number of lilting, opinionated books of criticism, and three wry volumes of autobiography. Of his writing, he told an interviewer, “writing has made me rich—not in money, but in a couple of hundred characters out there, whose pursuits and anguish and triumphs I’ve shared.” He took the American character as he found it, with its dry and bleak stretches, its nagging air of hopeful dissatisfaction, its enigmatic blend of bluntness and reserve, and the sometimes colorful complexity bred by psychological isolation. Morris said bluntly of himself, “I’m a spokesman for people who don’t want to be spoken for and who don’t want to read about themselves.” In his life he was always leaving Nebraska, but in his writing he kept the quizzical, wary, far-seeing eye of a plainsman.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 3, 2001.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters