WRIGHT MORRIS has built a reputation on the solid base of more than a dozen novels, some excellent photo-text albums (himself his photographer), several collections of essays, and a number of memorable short stories. In Will's Boy , having reached the significant age of 70, Wright Morris now begins his memoirs. Will's Boy takes us from his first breath of enrollment in the human race to his matriculation at Pomona College, and covers the period from 1910 to 1930, ranging from rural Nebraska, to Chicago to the California coast.
Six days after Wright, who was an only child, was born, his mother died, and so he grew up, from the time of first memory, with her death as a major part of his personal mythology. Whether his "real loss," as he's put it, later turns into an "imaginary gain," or a gain that can be measured, is a matter left to each reader of this memoir, not to mention one familiar with his shelf of work. Morris, however, would be the last, it seems, to make a direct relationship between the death of his mother and his literary career, as some with a psychological bent might be tempted to do.
Certainly growing up on myth, or family myth, at least, as Morris did, gives one a taste for it; and it's an almost invariable rule that the mother is the parent who opens a writer's creative side. And certainly the fictive sense strains to fill with words any vacuum created by life, real or imaginary, or the one simply presented by an empty page. But the person on whom this memoir revolves, other than the "Boy" of its title, is Wright Morris's father, William.
William Morris, or Will (the source of the "Will's Boy" that Wright, when young, takes such pride in being called), is a man of style with a gift for talk, a ladies' man, as such a fellow used to be called -- a lover of women and fine clothes and classy cars, and visionary schemes he seldom has the time or money to attend to. He generally works as a sublunary clerk for one of the many railroads in existence at the time, or at one or another of his chicken-and-egg enterprises, which usually involve the slaughter and plucking of chickens and the candling of eggs.
When Wright is seven or eight, his father marries a woman so young she's often taken for Wright's sister (she treats him as a younger brother, in her teasing and wrestling matches), and "with her arrival," as he writes, "my childhood world expands." A series of moves is entered upon, partly perhaps to keep ahead of gossip; the young wife, Gertrude (shades of Hamlet?), likes to eat out at restaurants, listen to the Victrola and go to movies, and not much else, and has a farm-laborer's tongue. Her ambition is to live in Omaha, and after the first chicken-and-egg affair turns to fiasco, with hundreds of carcasses having to be buried in a pit with quicklime, while carriages drive out from town to observe, she gets her wish; the family moves to Omaha.
Will has the drive and energy and skills (see the pages on his presence and his precision as he works), and the acumen about people, to achieve what he envisions in business, if only his mind would hold there; it seems drawn awry by women. One day the boy of this book, Wright, comes home from the park, where he spends more time than in school, "to find the kitchen floor strewn with broken dishes and glasses. . . .In their upstairs bedroom the bureau drawers had been emptied, some of her clothes ripped and torn, the bedsheets slashed, face powder and talcum spilled over the rugs, trash and towels stuffed in the bowl of the toilet." Gertrude is gone. Wright later sees her advertised on a poster as a hula dancer. This comedy at a distance stills.
Throughout Will's Boy , an engaging sense of pride and shame shift around Will, this shifting central figure and father, and more than once he's observed walking off alone, or in conversation with some woman, anonymously, from a detached distance, by his son. There is both power and pathos in this, but no more is made of it than its image as it's recorded by the one taking it in. There is an interlude in Omaha, when Wright for a while leaves his father, and lives with a family, the Mulligans, during which time one is given a further glimpse into his father, and into the hearts of the kind of people who would take an orphan, or "half-orphan," as Wright thinks of himself, in as a son. On this particular tension the book begins to dance.
Then his father moves the two to Chicago, which, for Wright, becomes home. It's the place where all the railroads lead. His locus is Lincoln Park and the length of Michigan Avenue leading to it from the loop. He works at a YMCA, tries to become a cartoonist, makes friends both young and old, and, with at least two girls, enters into relationships that must be as talkative as his father's. Inevitably, his father has gone into eggs. He marries, or almost marries, a rich widow who might help him out in his newest scheme, until the police appear. He then suspects that there is money in taking people to California by car. Wright by now can drive, and another adventure is embarked upon.
The details are too diverting to reveal, as are those involving Wright's time spent as a hired hand on an uncle's farm in Texas, although portions of both might have made their way, transformed, into one or another of Wright Morris's novels. There is an active sense of such a transformation in this memoir. Parallel passages from published books suddenly appear, in blocks of italics, and resonate through the linear remembering to another recapturing of it. Some readers, undoubtedly, will become involved in guessing which events from Wright Morris's "real" life have been fictionalized over the years, and which haven't. Then, however, the point of this memoir will have been missed.
"Image-making is indivisibly a part of remembering," Morris says, early on in this book, quoting himself from a collection of his essays. Lampglow and shadows are the basis of this book. It's recorded as any good memoir should be, in straightforward and minimal language, the better to keep out of the light and out of the way of the images and events and people who shaped it, so that the shape of the whole can be seen. And although Morris might not write with the precision and poetic density of a contemporary, William Maxwell, in his recent So Long, See You Tomorrow , or with the grainy intellectual stamp of another, Lillian Hellman, yet there's an abiding sense of having remained true to his people and his time, all set down in a shape that contains.
Not as if to say, Here is my life, so much as, This is how it was, it seems, because of thus and thus, or so I now see. A diffidence that the alternating pride and shame have filtered down to. But how a filter purifies, and the shapes a bright container can contain!
One hopes that Will's Boy , which ends with Morris at age 20, is only the first volume of a memoir that will continue to give us a time's shape and sense, and will eventually free its creator into the full image of eternity.