NO WRITER IN AMERICA is more honored and less read than Wright Morris. The author of 20 books of fiction, four volumes of criticism and four books which combine his prose and his photography, he has received nearly every award worth having. Acclaimed by critics, esteemed by other novelists, he is often compared to major American writers, most frequently to Sherwood Anderson. His work is equal to the comparison -- but none of his books has become a "classic," and not a single one is readily available in a popular paperback edition.
Why not? One reason, I think, is that Morris has created a fiction without heroes. His characters are ordinary men and women, the descendants of the pioneers who settled the Great Plains; they are people who stayed put long after the romance of the frontier had expired. They are not rich, famous or glamorous; they are not larger than life -- as if anything could be -- but merely life-sized. They are the citizens who at election time are courted as "forgotten" Americans.
They have been neglected if not entirely forgotten in literature as well, and to understand why, he have only to remind ourselves that the two most famous midwestern novelists are Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In pursuit of the American Dream, Fitzgerald went to New York, Europe and California, and Hemingway, while less of a dreamer, was an even greater traveler. The migration to take up the rich, tempting land of the Midwest is one of the great themes of our history; the migration away from that land is one of the great themes of our literature.
Morris, however, stayed at home, and since the American Dream had decamped, he concerned himself with something less grandiose -- American reality. His work possesses a documentary aspect that is especially evident in his photographs. On film Morris has catalogued many of the artifacts of Great Plains life, the houses and their furnishings, the implements and the clothing, objects that have been marked, shaped and made familiar by daily use. These photographs are not, in the usual sense, beautiful; they are focused with austere clarity upon the things themselves. Yet Morris is an artist, not a cataloguer, and he is articulate about the difference. "Reality is not a thing but a conception," he wrote, "and the camera cannot conceive."
That simple warning also applies to his fiction, for Morris' prose style is so deceptively simple that it sometimes seems virtually anonymous. Like his photographs, which appear so natural, so obvious and so real that we forget someone had to snap the picture, the images in his fiction have the appearance of perfect actuality. They are, we feel, exactly what we might have seen for ourselves. They make us believe that we are looking at things precisely as they are.
Morris' art is so self-effacing that we hardly notice it, yet it is art of a very high order, and Morris is so fully in command of it that his new book, Plains Song, reads as if it had resolved itself out of the raw materials of the plains.
The novel distills the experience of several generations of women in the Atkins family, beginning with Cora, who comes to Nebraska early in the century, traveling by wagon with her husband. This is her wedding trip, but her hand is bandaged; she bit through to the bone when the marriage was consummated. That self-inflicted wound, borne in silence (her husband is not aware of it until the following morning), is an omen; the Atkins women will suffer, and they will bear their suffering in solitude and in silence. The full title of this novel is Plains Song: For Female Voices, but the voices of the Atkins women have been suppressed.
Cora bears a daughter, her only child, for she never submits again to sexual intercourse. He life becomes governed by the rhythms of her work -- washing, cooking, gardening, tending the chickens -- and before long the farm is divided between her yard and her husband's fields. The encampments are not exactly hostile, but they are not amicable either. In this novel the relationship between the sexes is a relationship of necessity.
The family grows when Belle, a spirited woman from the Ozarks, becomes Cora's sister-in-law. Belle has a daughter of her own, and she raises her child and Cora's as sisters. The "curse" in the family -- "that the women bear only daughters, if anything at all" -- applies to Belle, whose second daughter dies; and Belle herself dies giving birth to a third daughter.
The novel follows the Atkins women up to the present, and the saga which began with Cora's westward journey ends with the westward journey of Sharon, Belle's daughter, to attend Cora's funeral. When Cora's granddaughter tells Sharon that the farm has been razed -- "Nobody wanted it," she says -- the shock for the reader is almost physical. That place had become so real, so saturated with experience, that it seemed permanent.
But the farm is subject to time, and times is change. Morris is not optimistic about change -- he doesn't mistake it for progree -- nor is he nostalgic about what has disappeared. He does not appeal any changes, not even death:
"Two days before Christmas Orion was off somewhere, hunting, when Belle began her labor. Before Emerson could fetch anybody, she gave birth to a child with Orion's blond hair, a birthmark on the left forearm. It seemed so frail and lifeless Cora feared it might be dead. Dr. Geltmayer arrived, but nothing he could do would stop Belle's internal bleeding. She died peaceful, looking like a young girl with tangled hair and a deathly pallor. She shouldn't have had another baby so soon, Dr. Geltmayer said."
No emotion, no rhetoric, no drama. There is nothing to mask from us the awful truth.
The narrative power of this novel is based on restraint, but even as we admire it, we may wonder at the lack of feeling among the Atkins women. Morris' detachment is esthetic, but theirs seems an affliction. They seldom express grief, rage or love, and their vocabulary of lesser emotions is equally restricted. Sharon speaks for all of them when she realizes, late in the novel, that she might have become something different, "but the pain of an early rejection had seemed stronger than a future attraction."
The real curse of the Atkins women is that they are estranged from their passions. I do not doubt the veracity of Morris' vision in this controlled, masterly novel; nor do I wonder, having read it, why so many sons and daughters of the plains left there as soon as they could.