(I’m still writing away, although I feel a bit like a medieval monk locked in the scriptorium. What’s the opposite of illumination?)
In 1981, Wright Morris won the National Book Award for his elegiac, lyrical novel of hard-scrabble Nebraska women, Plains Song. It was his second time winning the top writing award.
Plains Song follows multiple generations of women in the same family, through a huge chunk of the 20th century. His women are hard-working, quiet, dignified. His women don’t complain; they endure. Here we meet Cora, the matriarch of this clan of tough women, as she spends her wedding night with her stranger-husband, Emerson:
In Burlington, after a heavy meal, she put herself to bed. He came back from his bath smelling of soap, his face nicked by the razor, his hair wild from his scrubbed scalp, his thick body tight in a suit of oatmeal-colored flannel. For some time, as if alone, he sat on the edge of the bed rubbing his scalp. His hair needed cutting; his head, seen from the back, was like that of a plucked chicken. Nor was he in a hurry. Her heart pounded as he stopped to trim his nails. The words of the seamstress came to her with such force that she saw him as an utter stranger. Before he puffed the lamp out and rolled toward her, the bed creaking like the body of the wagon, her dismay had given way to a dread that paralyzed her will. When he moved on her, his groping hands confusing the sheet with the nightgown, she had already put her clenched fist into her mouth and stared sightlessly as the ceiling. What did she experience? It might be likened to an operation without the anesthesia. Horror exceeded horror. The time required by her assailant to do what must be done left her in shock. In the dawn light she found that she had bitten through the flesh of her hand, exposing the bone. Emerson’s bafflement moved him to speech . . . . he seemed to doubt what it was he saw. H was able to escort her to the lobby, however, and inquire where they might find a doctor.
That is crackerjack writing, detailed, precise, disturbing, fiendish even, yet humane.
This first—and the novel implies, only—coupling leads to the birth of Beulah Madge. Emerson’s brother has daughters of his own with another woman, and the years pass in the lives of these farm women as they work, marry, bear children, and die, locked in a disillusioning struggle with the confines of their lives. Only one of the farm women, Cora’s niece, Sharon Rose, escapes. Here we see her traveling to Chicago:
. . . . what Sharon saw through the soot-smeared window was like a continent under water. There had been heavy rains; deep ruts fouled the roads, water sat in pools that reflected the sunrise. A sway-backed white horse stood like a specter in a field of corn stubble, its head drooped as if too heavy to support. The dip and rise of the telephone lines, which she had once found so distracting, seemed wearisome and monotonous to her, like the click of the rails. It might have been an abandoned country. Even the towns seemed curiously vacant. It seemed incomprehensible to Sharon that people continued to live in such places. Numbed by the cold, drugged by the heat and the chores, they were more like beasts of the field than people. Where a lamp glowed a woman like Cora would be lighting a fire, setting a table, or gripping the cold handle of a pump, the water rising with the sound of a creature gagged. Only work that could not be finished gave purpose to life.
Sharp and poetic and unnerving and wise, and part of Morris’s larger theme in his work: a reaction to the realities of the present day, and a rejection, of sorts, of modern technologies and conventions. The book is also a rejection of conventional plotting, conflict and drama. Instead he offers us a poetic, often moving, interpretation of real life.
The texture of daily lives. The gravitas of toil and suffering. And the element so many novels lack, dignity!, is here in spades.
Other novels follow a similar passage of time: The Shipping News, Love Medicine, Them, Stoner. And like these others Morris mines the banal for something heartbreaking and (almost) profound.
He dances over tragedies with a sure, light touch. A baby dies—and holy god, as my children get older, I find incidents like this absolutely horrifying—and it happens inside a single paragraph. And then he moves on. He is more concerned with work and stoic suffering than drama or tension or uplift.
His sure, confident touch with the passage of time becomes tedious. He dances over dramatic scenes, and near the novel’s end the story seems thin. And the shifting narrative points of view are intricate and clever, but also irritating. As he leaves Cora behind—with her befuddlement and horror at the crass, mechanized and alien world she lives in—he inhabits more conventional characters. And he never gives Cora’s granddaughter, Caroline—the most intriguing character in the novel, a near-genius who has trapped herself in a conventional, provincial life, and she hates it—her own voice.
Morris is one of the few writers to win the National Book Award twice, along with Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Philip Roth and William Maxwell. (Not Annie Proulx, not Thomas Pynchon, not Don DeLillo!, not Cormac McCarthy!, not Denis Johnson, and so on and so on.)
Morris wrote some twenty novels, won dozens of grants and awards, received an avalanche of praise from critics and top writers. Yet now he’s gone, dust, fingertips on broken stones, barely a trace, almost a ghost, as elusive as the characters he so hauntingly creates. He’s brilliant, his novels are artfully constructed, spare and evocative. I kept thinking, how has he not made the cut? I keep looking for reasons. He’s mercurial enough to be interesting, and weird enough to be memorable. His work holds together. So why is he being passed over, while some of his contemporaries are studied, re-published, re-contextualized, re-energized, not forgotten?
Yet this is part of it, too—this slipping into the pit of time, this forgetting, that seems so fitting in Morris, who details failure and forgetting in his fabulous novels. It’s as if, in writing about the passing, never-to-be-recovered days of his characters, he was detailing his own diminishing stature in the world of letters.
There’s something of Cormac McCarthy about his style—beautiful, rugged landscapes; a focus on work and tasks and processes; terse, often brilliant dialogue. (Only, Morris leaves out the blood-letting and rapine and murder.) There’s something of Annie Proulx, too, that struggling against the daily despair and the continual passing of time. Morris feels like a lot of other writers, yet he’s also wholly his own.
Part of his originality lies in his devotion to the lives of Nebraska settlers in various times of American history.
Morris’s attachment to the Nebraska plains settles him directly in one of the major trends of post-war American fiction: regionalism. Regionalism is fiction rooted in the folklore, foibles, colloquialisms, landscape and people of a region. They are mostly realistic, focusing on small moments. Many fine writers fall into this (admittedly rather broad) category, including Welty, Kennedy, Carver, Proulx, Harrison, Watson and Haruf. They are all writers who obsessively detail their specific terrain (although each would probably be irritated with the label). They weave an inter-textual tapestry between their own novels. Morris’s novels aren’t inter-dependent, but rather provide a deeper, richer glow when taken together. In this way, Plains Songs is best read as part of a larger story.
Regionalism is partially a response to other movements in literature, as a movement away from the high-low, pyrotechnic hi-jinks of the postmodernists, for one example, or a rejection of the grotesque gothic horror stories often set in the American South. Many academics and critics have tried to pin down a set of rules or guidelines for regionalism, but I think the major characteristic is realism on a small scale. These small moments are narrowly focused on small, daily stuff: washing dishes, taking out the garbage, arguing with a neighbor. A good cognate is Italian neo-realism, life with all “the boring bits,” left in. It’s a rich, varied tradition, including comic novels, like The End of Vandalism, to more dramatic fare, such as Provinces of Night. Novelists in this vein often have less at stake—there are rarely murderers skulking about—in any kind of dramatic sense but strive to capture the way people actually live their lives. Morris mostly succeeds, although I wonder if in an earlier draft there weren’t a little more bickering or strife.
I haven’t yet fully formulated an opinion on regional fiction—I do think a very good argument could be made that a regional American cinema, where regions and states would develop movies situated within their localized cultures, would be a godsend to our national movie culture—as it has become intertwined with my thoughts on southern fiction over the years. I get tired of endless descriptions of the land; I want to traverse the bumps and ridges of the characters’ souls. And only very fine writers can get away with quotidian stuff and make it interesting for very long. But when a writer captures the banal in an exciting way—that’s magic.
Anyway, 1980 was a very fine year for American fiction. Shirley Hazzard published The Transit of Venus. William Maxwell released So Long, and See you Tomorrow. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was published, posthumously. Walker Percy put out The Second Coming. Powerhouse short story writer Eudora Welty released her Collected Stories. Although no one saw it at the time, one of our finest contemporary novelists, Marilynne Robinson, appeared on the scene with her first novel, Housekeeping. Pat Conroy published another autobiographical novel, The Lords of Discipline. E.L. Doctorow, Stephen King, Thomas Disch, Walter Tevis, and Woody Allen all published new fiction.
An impressive list. I don’t see a trend. The eighties were a fertile time for American subcultures, with punk rock, metal, and rap all appearing at the beginning of Reagan’s decade. A new wave of literary outlaws surfaced, many in direct opposition to the new president. But I’m straying from my topic.
Around the world, J.M. Coetzee published one of his many grim, elegant novels, Waiting for the Barbarians. Umberto Eco released his very fine medieval detective story, The Name of the Rose. Salmon Rushdie put out his epic (and highly overrated) novel of the formation of India, Midnight’s Children. Anthony Burgess published what many consider to be his magnum opus, Earthly Powers. William Golding, P.D. James, John Le Carre, Haruki Murakami, Graham Greene, and Douglas Adams all released new novels.
I don’t know if Plains Song is the best novel of the year, but it is rich and deserving of re-discovery.
 The conundrum is that the lifestyle he is eulogizing was one of constant work, and therefore anathema to the act of writing fiction.
 Or an outright rejection of the high modernism of Joyce, Stein, etcetera.
 More on this in a later post.