Photographs of Abandoned Spaces and Reflections on a Neglected Novelist

Huffington Post recently ran a series of photographs of an abandoned farmhouse in which all of the previous occupants’ furniture and other belongings have been left to gather dust. Here are several of those photos:

Farmhouse 01

Farmhouse 02

Farmhouse 03

The rest of the photographs in this series can be found at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/28/abandoned-farmhouse_n_3163713.html

These photographs reminded me of the haunting photographs of abandoned Nebraska homesteads included in Wright Morris’ nonfiction “photo-narrative” The Inhabitants and his “photo-novel” The Home Place. In both books, produced early in his long and distinguished career, he sought not just to accent his prose with photographs but to integrate as completely and meaningfully as possible the prose and the photographs.

Morris 01

Morris 04

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Morris 03

Here is a profile of Morris and an overview of his work that may, perhaps, stimulate some interest in it.

Most surveys of the contemporary American novel that were published between the late-1950s and the mid-1980s would have included a chapter on Wright Morris (1910-1998).  Morris was prolific, authoring 20 novels, six collections of short fiction, four volumes of his own photographs and accompanying text, six volumes of essays on literature, and four volumes of autobiography.  In 1957, Morris received a National Book Award for his ninth novel, The Field of Vision, and in 1981, he received an American Book Award for his last novel, Plains Song: For Female Voices.  In addition, he received a number of awards for his whole body of work, including a Common Wealth Award from the Modern Language Association in 1982 and a Life Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986.  His work has been the subject of four books, nine chapters in books, 35 journal articles, and 16 dissertations.

Still, since the early-1990s, Morris’ work has received very little attention, and he seems to have slipped quite suddenly into that category of author whose work is known primarily by specialists in his period or region.  Certainly Morris’ work has always been something of an acquired taste.  Although he was often grouped in the 1960s and 1970s with the metafictionists, his experiments with point of view, form, and style are a good deal less dramatic than those of most of the writers in that group.  Like those in John Hawkes’ novels, Morris’ narrative experiments typically involve subtraction and diminishment of conventional elements, rather than the absurdist exaggeration and replicative elaboration that has been characteristic of the works of John Gaddis, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon.  Morris’ detail is, however, more clearly drawn from the mainstream of American experience than Hawkes’ is, and it might be said, figuratively, that whereas Hawkes gropes his way through the murky depths of the human spirit, Morris is feeling his way through the sunny glare of fairly transparent but crystalized self-delusions.

In truth, Morris’ style is especially difficult to categorize.  In its narrative mixing of an almost archaic formality and a broad range of colloquial expression, Morris’ work is broadly similar to that of James Purdy.  Indeed, both Morris and Purdy have mainly explored the unsettled expectations and unsettling truths just under the surface of middle-class Middle-American life.  But, whereas Purdy’s work pulls the reader into macabre realms beyond the mundane, Morris’ work remakes the mundane into stark artifacts of the imagination.  In this sense, Morris’s black and white photographs of weathered and often abandoned prairie barns and houses very much provide a visual corollary to his narratives.

Although many of Morris’ novels have been set in the American West–most frequently but not at all exclusively on the Nebraska plains–and although Morris was the recipient of a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association in 1979, he has never been looked upon as a regional writer in quite the same way that Walter Van Tilburg Clark, A.B. Guthrie, Jr., Wallace Stegner, and Frank Waters have been regarded as major Western American writers.  Because some of his better-known novels have been set in Europe and other places outside of the United States and because they have often treated culturally sophisticated and sexually free-spirited characters, Morris has seemed a more cosmopolitan than regional writer.  Still, the distinction is not quite so simple.  For, in its settings and subjects, Stegner’s corpus in particular provides an equivalent mix of the cosmopolitan and the regional.  Nor can it be argued that Morris’ work lacks the historical depth that one finds in the most pointedly regional novels of Stegner and the others.  For Morris is very concerned with the ways in which both the American landscape and the American imagination contain and conceal historical artifacts and historical truths.  It may again be more of a matter of style.  Whereas Stegner’s prose is the very embodiment of eloquent directness and is clearly well-matched to the treatment of the frontier mythos, Morris’s prose is elliptical and idiosyncratically mannered in a way that may suggest personal obsession rather than the exploration of shared heritage.

The biggest drag on Morris’ critical standing may be that, in a career that spanned much of five decades, he did not produce an incontestably major work, a novel that was a watershed in the popular and critical response to his whole body of work.  Although The Field of Vision has been his most frequently written about and most frequently taught work, it never created anything approaching a “sensation.”  Indeed, for a novel that features Mexican bullfights, it is a remarkably un-sensational work.  Given the range of settings and subjects in Morris’s novels, as well as the pointed topicality of several of them,  it is surprising that none of them has truly stood out from the rest; it is also unfortunate that critics have had one fewer means of orienting themselves to and thereby entering into his work.

Wright Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska, on January 6, 1910.  Within a week of his birth, his mother died.  Until Morris was in his mid-teens, he and his father lived in various towns and cities in the Platte River region of Nebraska.  Then, for three years, they lived in Chicago, where Morris’s father pursued ever-elusive success as an entrepreneur and Morris himself held his first steady job at the YMCA near Lincoln Park.  In the last two years before the onset of the Great Depression, Morris and his father peripatetically crisscrossed the country, with a visit to one of Morris’s uncles in Texas representing their only extended residence in one place.  After the stock market crash, Morris briefly enrolled at Adventist College in California before transferring to Pomona College, where he completed his baccalaureate degree and contributed prose poems and short narrative pieces derived from his experiences in Chicago to the school literary magazine.  After college, Morris spent more than a year in Europe, wandering through Austria, Italy, Germany, and France.

When he returned from Europe in 1934, Morris married his first wife, Mary Ellen Finfrock and dedicated himself to establishing himself as a photographer and an author.  In 1940 and 1941, he estimated that he traveled some 15,000 miles around the United States, taking the photographs and composing the prose pieces that would eventually be published in his first book-length photo essay, The Inhabitants (1946).  In 1941, he would live, in turn, in residences at the opposite ends of the country, in Los Angeles and in Brooklyn.  In the midst of all of this traveling, he found time to write drafts of several novels.  He also began to receive grants to support his work–most notably Guggenheim Fellowships in 1942, 1947, and 1954.  In the late 1940s and 1950s, his writing helped him to secure positions as a visiting lecturer at Haverford College, the University of Southern California, and Amherst College.  In 1961, he and his first wife divorced, and he married his second wife, Josephine Mary Kantor.  In 1962, he accepted a professorship at California State College in San Francisco, where he would teach until 1975.  During this period, he also held brief visiting professorships at such institutions as Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College, Swarthmore College, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Utah.

Morris’ first six novels exhibit his steady progress toward the realization of a distinctive novelistic voice and method.  His first novel, My Uncle Dudley (1942) is a road novel and an initiation story.  Its adolescent narrator recounts a formative automobile trip he took with his uncle, the title character, eastward across the Southwest in the 1920s.  The Man Who Was There  (1945) focuses paradoxically on a soldier named Jonas Ward who has been reported misssing-in-action.  In the uncertainty surrounding his fate, his family and friends attempt to “fix” their memories of him in order to maintain a sense of his “presence.”  In a manner that is ironic on many levels, he may exert more influence as an MIA than he did in the flesh.

In between his second and third novels, Morris tried to fuse his photographic work and his fiction into a new form.  The result was two books that almost defy classification and that, for lack of a better term, have been described as “photo-novels.”  The Inhabitants (1946) superficially resembles a conventional photo-text, but Morris pairs the photos of people from throughout the United States with vignettes of such poetic intensity that the effect is at times quite startling and at other times closer to bewildering.  In The Home Place (1948), Morris inserts the photos into a more conventional narrative focusing on a writer named Clyde Muncy who returns with his family to Lone Tree, Nebraska.  But, because of the clearer integration of the photographs and text, The Home Place lacks some of the creative spontaneity that distinguished The Inhabitants and must have seemed to Morris to represent more an exhausted experiment than a successful innovation.  Although he would continue to produce a large number of photographs, which would be showcased in several conventional photography books and in several major gallery exhibitions, Morris would maintain a clearer separation between his interests in photography and in fiction.

The World in the Attic (1949), Morris’ third novel, is a sequel to The Home Place, but a conventional novel.  When Clyde Muncy reconnects with an old friend, he discovers that the folk traditions that are a major part of his high-plains heritage have unexpected gothic elements.  Incorporating the story-within-a-story device, the novel tells of the absurd test of wills that played out over decades between a Nebraskan mother and her Southern daughter-in-law. After the premature death of the son and husband, they two women claim separate parts of the house, each determined to outlast the other.

In Man and Boy (1951), Morris focuses on a woman, Mrs. Violet Ames Ormsby, whose overbearing personality permits only two responses from the men in her life–acquiescence or rebellion.  Although her husband self-effacingly defers to her, her son Virgil has frustrated her intentions for him by dying heroically in the Second World War.  The novel presents this strained domestic situation against the backdrop of the public dedication of a destroyer in Virgil’s name.  In an obverse take on the basic situation presented in Man and Boy, The Works of Love (1952) tells the story of Will Brady, a kind-hearted man who builds a successful egg business but ends up as a transient working as a department-store Santa Claus.  Close to a caricature of disabling sensitivity, Will Brady survives a series of relationships with hardened women, but each failed relationship wears away his resiliency but not the core of his inexplicable hopefulness.

The Deep Sleep (1953) was a finalist for the National Book Award.  It reshuffles some of the situational elements, the character types, and the themes from the first five novels, exploring the workings of a respectable family seen in crisis following the death of the patriarch, Judge Howard Porter.  The novel reveals that the women in Porter’s life–his mother, his wife, and his daughter–have surprisingly superficial understandings of who he was, even though he has been the defining masculine presence in their lives. In The Huge Season (1954), Morris continues to examine the private paradoxes in public personas and public events.  This novel is told in two time frames by a professor of the classics named Peter Foley. As one of his college friends testifies before the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities, Foley recalls their college years, when they had all come under the charismatic influence of a determined but physically limited tennis player named Charles Lawrence.  Through its juxtaposition of the two most unsettled periods in Foley’s staid life, the novel explores a complex mix of issues related in one way or another to the themes of collective response and personal responsibility, of calculated deference to authority and unexpected, private epiphanies, of public misconstruction and personal regret.

As I have indicated earlier, Morris received the National Book Award for The Field of Vision (1956).  Employing multiple points of view, the novel follows a group of middle-aged Nebraskans to Mexico, where a bullfight becomes an exotic symbol of all the potentially transformative moments that they seem to have coincidentally or deliberately avoided in their lives. The novel explores and connects issues rooted in the contrasts between youth and age, adventure and responsibility, romance and repression, spontaneity and habit, self-assertion and acquiescence.  In striking contrast, in Love among the Cannibals (1957), Morris enters into a Mexican terrain visited by a very different cast of characters.  The novel focuses on a working vacation in Acapulco taken by two Hollywood songwriters named Macgregor and Horter. They are accompanied by two women, Macgregor’s “Million Dollar Baby” and Horter’s “the Greek,” whose relationships with the men seem to depend on their finding a comfortable place between accepting and not-quite-believing the disjointed romantic cliches of the popular culture.  The central symbol of the novel is their red convertible that is gradually vandalized for parts until little remains but the frame.

Morris returns to Nebraska in Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960).  But, through the focal event, a family reunion in what essentially is a ghost town, Morris juxtaposes the quaint aspects of a multigenerational family gathering with the absurdly banal blood spectacles of contemporary life.  These violent interludes include: accidental killings so casually accepted that they suggest an underlying sociopathology that almost no one seems any longer capable of recognizing for what it is; vendettas carried out with cars;  and murder sprees modeled on actual events that have become so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that their awful details have the familiarity of immediate, daily reality.  An atomic test that is advertised as a tourist attraction provides an eerie backdrop.

What a Way to Go (1962) is set in Europe among American expatriates and transients of other nationalities.  Told largely through the point of view of an emotionally detached professor named Arnold Soby,  the novel comically suggests how each of a large cast of eccentric characters projects his or her obsessions and needs onto the person of an adolescent girl named Cynthia Pomeroy, who is seemingly suspended in the transition between the innocent ignorance of childhood and the corrupting knowledge of adulthood.  The central, recurring motif of the novel is the failure to capture Cynthia’s essence in various representational forms, including paintings and photographs.  Cause for Wonder (1963) is set in an equally idiosyncratic European environment.  A middle-aged American writer named Warren Howe returns to Europe for the funeral of a lunatic Austrian nobleman who had once kept him a virtual prisoner in his castle.  In an atmosphere that is infused with a carnival energy and the whimsy of charade, Howe finds that the past, despite the seeming fixedness of memory, is as elusive as the present and as uncertain as the future.

In his next two novels, Morris returns to pointedly contemporary American settings.  One Day (1965) is set on the day of the Kennedy assassination, in a northern California town in which everything seems, at least for the moment, to revolve around the activities at the centrally located dogpound, which is supported largely through the beneficence of a local woman of means.  In the novel’s large and diverse cast of variously preoccupied characters, Morris manages to represent the paradox that America is metaphorically and psychically both Kennedy’s and Oswald’s country.  In Orbit (1967) similarly treats the events of a single day in a small community.  In this instance, a small Indiana town is visited by a hoodlum on a stolen motorcycle named Jubal Gainer.  The novel is more the story of the townspeople’s responses to Jubal than it is a case study of what possesses him.  Literally and metaphorically, Jubal is represented as a twister that hits town and leaves everything unbelievably transformed.

In Fire Sermon (1971), Morris returns with a more mature sensibility to the premise of his first novel.  A ten-year-old boy named Kermit accompanies his eighty-two-year-old guardian, Uncle Floyd, from their trailer home in California to a town in Nebraska for the funeral of their last surviving relative, Floyd’s sister Viola.  Along the way, Floyd picks up a hitchhiking hippie couple named Stanley and Joy, and is disturbed by the recognition that his nephew has much more in common with them than with him.  After Viola’s home, a storehouse of family artifacts, burns to the ground in a symbolic representation of the combustibility of even the most ordinary passions, Floyd abandons Kermit to an uncertain future with Stanley and Joy.   A Life (1973) is a sequel to Fire Sermon, revealing what lies in store for Floyd after he has seemingly disappeared into the open, empty spaces of Nebraska.  Given the room to reminisce, Floyd indulges in an unhurried but intensely nostalgic reconstruction of his family’s and his own past.  So, when he hooks up with a transient Indian, Floyd is doomed by his immersion in the past, by his inability or unwillingness to continue to anticipate time.

The Fork River Space Project (1977) is an off-beat novel.  It enters into the rumors of the preternatural that seem to fill the vacant spaces in a largely abandoned Kansas town and in the psyche of the main character, a writer named Kelcey whose wife seems to have run off, leaving him to commune with their unusual plumber.

Capping a career full of quiet surprises, Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980) is a truly remarkable achievement.  Treating “feminist” themes with great sensitivity and subtlety, the novel counterpoints the stories of four generations of women in a Midwestern family.  Framed by the impending death of Cora Atkins, the novel suggests the ways in which the national life and the lives of American women have been transformed over the historically dramatic–and sometimes personally dramatic–decades of Cora’s long life.  Morris seems to be taking measure of what is lost, as well as gained, through change, even if that change represents progress.

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