Wright Morris: The Home Place
This work has been considered a classic of US literature for many years. However, critics have had difficulty defining what it is. The general term used is photo-text but I would prefer to call it a novel with photos. It is clearly written as a novel, albeit an autobiographical novel, though some of the main characters have fictional names. It tells of one day in the life of the narrator, clearly Morris himself. His real name is Clyde Muncy but as a child he says, he was called Spud Muncy, sometimes known as “the little fart”.
Clyde is married to Peggy and they have two children, Peggy and Bobby. They have been living in New York, where Clyde has been working as a writer (where he has been known as the creative native). However, he now wants to come back home – home being Lone Tree, Nebraska – for various reasons. The main reason seems to be is that he does not want his children to grow up to be New Yorkers but wants them to know and appreciate country living. We see this early on when they arrive. Bobby finds something in the ground and is unable to identify it. His father tells him that it is a croquet ball and the rough ground where they are standing used to be a croquet lawn. (Yes, as you can see from this link, croquet is still played in Nebraska.) Bobby has no idea what cro-kay is. There’s two or three hundred thousand boys in the city who never heard of croquet, his father comments. We get more of this idea that the children have no idea of how the country functions and bring a New York vision to much of what they see.
The book tells of how the Muncy family spend their day, with a photo (taken by Morris) on each page. (He wanted to use this technique in later work but was discouraged from doing so by his publisher.) Clyde is, of course, being nostalgic, catching up with both family news and country life. They are staying with his Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara (his parents are dead), just as Morris himself spent much of his childhood with an uncle and aunt. Life is hard for them and most of the people we see are older people, the younger generation having fled to the cities.
In the relatively short space of a day, the children, while certainly not fully adapting to country life, certainly grow to be more interested in it, not least because they are somewhat in awe of Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara (whom they call Grandpa and Grandma). The various animals are an added attraction. Peggy, however, has one concern only, her babies as she continually calls them. She is not terribly enthusiastic about the place (The least you might do is try to understand how I’m feeling. I wasn’t born out here). It seems that the family has given up their New York life and plans on moving permanently to Nebraska. Obviously, finding somewhere to live is a key issue. They learn that Uncle Ed, who has the farm nearby, is seriously ill and is expected to die within the next week or two. Peggy thinks that the house would be ideal for them. However, another relative, Ivy (a man) and his life Jenny also have their eye on it but seem prepared to give it up for the Muncys.
Apart from the issues regarding family and where they will live, there is little plot. The Muncys come to stay and Peggy and children learn something of the harshness of life there, though, for the children, it is still at the level of an exciting new experience. Uncle Harry has to go into town and takes Clyde and the children. He still drives an old Model T and we get a vicarious experience of his starting it and their driving in it. In the town, the plan is for the children to have a haircut and we meet the barber, who cut Clyde’s hair when he was young. (The actual barber’s chair is now in a museum.) The issue is forced on both the children when they get flypaper stuck to them (as with croquet balls, flypaper is a new experience for them) and have to have their hair shaved to remove it. Back home, they meet the grandmother who gives her version of the family history, several generations back.
This is an affectionate and somewhat nostalgic portrait of the country way of living, without being too sentimental. Clyde/Morris is well aware of the difficulties though, presumably for a writer, having to make a living on the dustbowl land is not a problem as it is for the older generation. The Muncys live hard an’ the Croppers live long (the Croppers are Clyde’s mother’s family), Clyde’s cousin Viola says. But for Clyde, this is real homecoming and one he clearly welcomes.
For thirty years I’ve had a clear idea what the home place lacked, and why the old man pained me, but I’ve never really known what they had. I know now. But I haven’t the word for it. The word beauty is not a Protestant thing. It doesn’t describe what there is about an old man’s shoes. The Protestant word for that is character. Character is supposed to cover what I feel about a cane-seated chair, and the faded bib, with the ironed-in stitches of an old man’s overalls. Character is the word but it doesn’t cover the ground. It doesn’t cover what there is moving about it, that is. I say these things are beautiful but I do so with the understanding that mighty few people anywhere will follow what I mean. That’s too bad. For this character is beautiful.
Clyde is back home and he means to stay and, despite his assertion, while not fully sharing his vision, we can understand what he means and appreciate Clyde/Morris’s loving portrait of a way of life that has now, presumably, disappeared.
First published 1948 by Charles Scribner’s Sons