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Wright Morris: The World in the Attic

This is the third book in Wright Morris’ Nebraska Trilogy. The first was a book of photos (with descriptions) called The Inhabitants. The second was the novel The Home Place. The blurb on the back of my copy of this book maintains that it is a very different book from The Home Place. However, apart from the fact that this book does not include photos, they seem to me to be very similar.

As with the previous book, the book tells of Clyde Muncy, his wife, Peg, and his son and daughter, on a visit to the small town in which he used to live in Nebraska. Muncy, of course, is based on Morris himself. They seem to have come for the day to the town, called Junction, because it is the junction between two railways systems. Clyde’s father used to work for the railway, so Clyde has an affection for it. The point of the novel is twofold. The first is to show Muncy/Morris’ affection for his old home town, for rural Nebraska and the Nebraskan ways, which are naturally very different from New York, where they now live. The second is to emphasise the difference between Nebraska and the rest of the world, particularly New York.

We start with the second, as Peg comments, as they arrive, there is too much sky, while their son asks his mother Is this God’s country or is it Daddy’s? Clyde soon shows that, while he may know more than his family, he does not know it all. When his son points out what he sees is grass, Clyde corrects him and tells him that it is wheat. Clyde, in turn, is corrected, when a local tells him that it is, in fact, rye. On more than one occasion, he is accused of being an outsider or a New Yorker (which seems to be a generic term for anyone not local) and he has to defend himself and say that he is from there.

Clyde is eager to visit the places he knows in the town and more than once essentially abandons his family to Peg’s disgust and annoyance to explore. Things have changed. The local restaurants have all disappeared and the family, all hungry, except for Clyde, end up at Mabel’s Diner. His request for ice coffee is met with a look of bemusement, approaching contempt.

Naturally, he reminisces. He visits the railway where his father worked and a railway worker manages to dig out some of the old telegrams that his father had written down. He remembers his first failed kiss. A ten year old girl tried to kiss him when he was nine. He slapped her in the face. He tracks own his old friend, Bud, whom he had not seen for fifteen years, though Bud already knows he is in town, as the local bush telegraph is very efficient. They immediately start arguing about whether he is now a city boy. (Clyde points out that Bud was born in a big city – Omaha – while he, Clyde, was born locally.) However, they also reminisce about such things as outbillies (outside toilets) and, of course, the various people they knew. He even visits an old lady, Aunt Angie, Bud’s grandmother.

The second part of the book concerns the death of another of Bud’s relatives, his aunt by marriage, known to everyone as Miss Caddy. Bud and his family had been somewhat estranged from Miss Caddy and her late husband, Clyde, but stand to inherit her large house. For some reason, Clyde, becomes involved in the funeral arrangements, once again abandoning his wife and children, to his wife’s fury. He even takes on the role of notifying Aunt Angie of Caddy’s death, made difficult by the fact that Aunt Angie is continually seeing what she calls the Death Wagon, driving past her house.

The whole book lasts just under two days, though during that period Clyde (generally sans family) packs in a lot, visiting old friends, looking around at places he knew and reminiscing about the charms of living in rural Nebraska. As with The Home Place, it is an exercise in nostalgia but one that works very well. We cannot helped but be amused and fascinated by the colourful characters, even if, as Aunt Angie says People who don’t know a hawk from a handsaw all come from here.

Publishing history

First published 1949 by Charles Scribner’s Sons