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Wright Morris: The Works of Love

The blurb on the flyleaf of my edition (the first edition) reads In this novel he establishes irrevocably his right to join the company of Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson and the very few others who have imaginatively come to terms with the American experience. Publishers’ blurbs always exaggerate, of course, and I am not entirely sure what come to terms with the American experience means but it would surely include Dos Passos, Dreiser, Farrell, McCullers, Welty, Wharton and Wolfe as well as other US twentieth century writers who were were already published by 1952 (not to mention nineteenth century writers). However, leaving all that aside, how does Wright Morris compare with Faulkner and Anderson? Not well, I think, would be the answer. The very wonderful Neglected Books Page includes him and states his name rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great 20th century American writers, adding a quote from The Washington Post by Stephen Goodwin, No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris. Certainly, compared to Faulkner and Anderson, he is well down the pecking order. However, I will go along with Brad at the Neglected Books Page. I had not read him before starting recently, not least because of his diminished reputation, but I am finding that he is a very fine writer. No, he is not Faulkner, of course, but he certainly compares favourably to Anderson and others with a greater reputation.

This novel tells the story of William Jennings Brady (presumably named after fellow Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan). Will Brady was born on a river without water, in a sod home, near the trading post of Indian Bow. In time he grew to be a man who neither smoke, drank, gambled, nor swore, we are told at the beginning of the novel. We start with his father, Adam, who was living on his own at Indian Bow. He realised, to get a wife, he needed to do some work. So he put on his dark suit, hat and military boots and set off for Calloway, eighty miles away. He had his photo taken and ten prints made. Six were sent to friends in Ohio and four to strangers passing by. Only one elicited a response but that was enough. She was Caroline Clayton from Indiana and she came out to Indian Bow and they were married. Will was soon born. When he was four months old, Adam was killed in an accident. Will grew up and went to work for the local stationmaster. His mother planned to return to Indiana but, before she could, she died. There was nothing keeping Will in Indian Bow so he got on the train. At Calloway, he saw some attractive young women and got off the train. This will not be the last random train journey he makes.

While looking around, he was offered the job of night clerk at his hotel by the local hotel owner, Ralph Bassett. Will took it and worked six nights a week. On the seventh, he visited Opal Mason, the local prostitute, and spent the night with her. Eventually, he proposed to her. She laughed in his face. He then asked if any of the other prostitutes wanted to marry someone. They suggested Mickey. But Mickey, who was clearly pregnant, said that she already had someone. Some time later, he saw her on the station platform with a young man, ready to depart.

A few months later, he received a call from the station to say there was basket for him. When he opened it up, it contained not a picnic hamper, as he had hoped, but a baby, with a label saying My Name is Willy Brady. Clearly, it came from Mickey. Mrs. Blake agreed to look after it and Will visited regularly. He tried to track Mickey down but without success. Three years later, Ralph Bassett suddenly died. Mrs. Ethel Bassett needed a man to help and Will was available. He moved in but, initially, they did not marry though, eventually, they did.

Will was one of those people to whom things happened, more than a person who made things happen. The one key business opportunity he had fell into his lap. Though he took advantage of it, by hard work, only one other opportunity was presented to him and he ignored it. Though he neither smoke, drank, gambled, nor swore, he did womanise. Ethel went and a younger woman took her place. Again, most of the women – and there were a few – he had sexual relationship with took the initiative rather than the other way round. Equally, it was the woman who left, rather than him. One of the women comments that he knows how to give but not to receive.

However, he continued to bring up Willy, a boy and then young man who was not always well-behaved. Indeed, he struggled more with fatherhood than anything else, being completely at a loss to work out what was behind Willy’s thought process. At the suggestion of a local librarian, he tries reading books to try and understand him, Tom Sawyer, for example, and, while it helps a little, he still never really understands him. He does pretend to others that he does, but we know that this is not the case.

Will’s main problem is that he lives in a world of his own. He daydreams a lot. He finds it difficult to communicate with others. As we have seen, both in business and sex, he rarely approaches others, they approach him. When he does approach them, e.g. with Opal Mason and then Mickey, it generally turns out to be a total failure. Morris comments that Will tends to feel more at home with men he describes as wacky.

Part of this problem may well stem from his childhood. However, surprisingly, Morris tells us little of his childhood. He is born, his father dies and then he is working as the stationmaster’s assistant. What happened in between is not explained. How did his mother cope, out in the remote town of Indian Bow, on her own? How did young Will cope? Was he a mummy’s boy or did he have friends? We simply do not know, even though this period of his life must have coloured the rest of his existence. Similarly, later in life, he seems to go from being a successful businessman to being an ordinary working man, with only rudimentary information on how this happened. Lack of initiative when things went wrong is partial explanation but only partial.

Despite these minor criticisms, this is a very fine novel. Will is not your typical hero of the US novel. In some respects he reminds me of George Hurstwood in Theodore Dreiser‘s Sister Carrie though Hurstwood is not, of course, the hero of the book. The daydreamer, the man who cannot connect with others unless they take the initiative and even then often fails, the man whose only child is not his biological child and is very different from him, all of this make Will Brady a most interesting hero. Morris tells his story very well, describing Will’s daydreams and and inability to communicate, but also the landscape of his beloved Nebraska (In the dry places, men begin to dream is the opening sentence of the book). The book is still more or less in print and is well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1952 by Alfred A Knopf