Works of Love in Nebraska

Wayne Booth

  • Plains Song: For Female Voices by Wright Morris
    Harper and Row, 229 pp, $9.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 06 013047 4

One of America’s three most important living novelists – I’ll let you name the other two – has just published one of the best of his novels. Unlike any other first-class novel we’re likely to see this year, Plains Song sings of life on the American plains. To sing, in the 1980s, about life on the American plains does not exactly put one into the mainstream of American letters. But the pun in Morris’s title is profoundly right: there is, after all, a ‘mainstream’ more enduring than fashions, and this plainsong laments and celebrates lives which in their frequent losses and occasional joys are far less provincial – well, than whatever novel is busting blocks in the week when this review appears. Because Wright Morris accompanies his characters’ beautiful, spare descants with his own loving reminders of why each transient life embodies permanent meaning, we always know that this is not a ‘regional novel’, just as it is not a satiric rejection, like Flaubert’s, of the customs of the provinces.

It is often difficult, in fact, to know whether we are to weep or laugh or groan; all readers of Morris’s novels report that their emotions shift from reading to reading. But nobody claims that these emotions are not powerful. Morris is as far removed as a modern novelist could conceivably be from ‘metafictional’ ploys based on theories that repudiate ‘character’ and ‘story’ and ‘referentiality’. We take his characters seriously, even when we laugh at what they do and say. Both the old-timers and the new-mods are characters, people we care about in the special way that theories of fiction have never been able fully to explain.

Often they are seen for only a moment – for long enough to hint at some hidden message to one of the more important characters. Toward the end of Plains Song, as Morris draws past and present together, Sharon Rose, returning to the plains after a lifetime of trying to escape ‘back east’, struggling to come to terms with the ‘half-submerged’ lives back home, encounters two strangers on the stairs of a horribly plausible convention motel in Kearney, Nebraska.

At the intersection of two hallways, a man and a woman sat on the stairs, the woman sobbing. Her head rested on his shoulder, as he patted her arm. Sharon saw that her clasped hands were trembling ‘Can I help?’ she asked.

The woman shuddered like a cold child. It moved Sharon to take a step closer. The man said, ‘you got any Valium? She’s off it. She’s got the withdrawals.’ Hearing these words, the woman whimpered.

‘What can I do?’ Sharon pleaded.

‘Ma’am,’ he replied, in a gentle voice, ‘what can we do to be saved?’

This astonishing statement startled Sharon, like a sign of life in something believed dead. Much that had happened on this endless day relieved her of a burden she had long carried but had been reluctant to acknowledge.

That’s the last we see of these two lost souls and their mystery. They are here for what they can teach us, by teaching Sharon Rose. ‘She’s got the withdrawals.’ ‘What can we do to be saved?’ The mixture is pure Morris: an eye and ear attentive to the way we look and talk, without ever lapsing into the self-indulgent journalism or sociology that makes up our best-seller lists; a heart and mind determined to face the deepest questions, without ever lapsing into existentialist clichés or easy religious formulae. It is a mixture that has naturally led critics to call him an ‘existentialist’ or a ‘religious’ writer. What other terms do we have for a man who wants us to see every moment, and every detail in every moment – every phrase, every worn shoe or frayed tablecloth or rusted milk pail – as charged with a meaning that nobody, not even the artist himself, can quite articulate? it is not that the characters, whether central or glimpsed only for a moment, are unable to answer questions that their very existence raises. It is that he makes us see why only this kind of narrative can provide a response to such questions without grossly oversimplifying. Like our abiding scriptural narratives, Morris’s novels show us how it is that ‘meaningless’ lives can ‘mean’.

All of the central characters in Plains Song are women. Their menfolk stumble through confused lives on the periphery, while at the centre we overhear, in love and wonder, the women’s voices: haunting, melancholy voices often lamenting, sometimes half-consciously celebrating, life on the American plains. Like Sharon Rose at the end, we are moved steadily to wonder about the spectacle of lives wearing out on the plains.

What there is to lament is clear, as we caves-drop first on the thoughts of Cora, a lonely silent old woman remembering on her deathbed the one thing in her life that could be called an event: her marriage to stolid, decent distant Emerson – remembering her horror on their wedding night, the one and only time he penetrated her six-foot, board-flat frame, bringing them their only child. What happened to her hand, that night? ‘Horse bit her,’ Emerson tells the doctor, ‘tobacco juice oozing at the corner of his mouth.’ Emerson’s lie – in fact, she had bitten her own hand in horror and anguish – had appalled her, but she did not take it as a personal betrayal. He was a man, and spoke this way to other men. As other women had hinted, the time would come when her eyes would be opened and she would be tested. She is to be tested throughout, as life’s losses flow past her.

There is as much to lament in the lives of the other two central women. Madge, Cora’s only child, falls blindly into marriage and child-bearing with a man less taciturn than Emerson, but also less competent and at least as uncomprehending. She moves through another half-submerged life, neither understood nor understanding. Sharon Rose, raised with Madge as a cousin, almost a sister, uses her talent as a musician to escape to higher things: Chicago, Boston, culture. But the escape from the plains – and from the men of the plains – proves illusory. Her song of lament is even bleaker than Cora’s, full of inchoate nostalgic memories of a past that seems blurred, as if it had not quite happened.

The life congenial to Sharon, however melancholy, is the world of phantoms, more alluring than dreams, that impinges on her dreaming. The pervasive tone is a sweet sadness, a pleasurable longing, suffused with drug-like strains of music. Longing for what? Signs are visible. A child is sometimes seen wearing a blindfold, groping about as if for companions. A voice says ‘It is not your longing, but part of the world’s longing.’

What there is to celebrate, for the characters themselves, is thus not an easy matter to explain. But for us the cause for celebration is clear enough: each of their losses is our gain, salvaged from emptiness by Morris’s art. It is a marvellous and mysterious art, an art that makes us feel the loss when things and people wear out. It is an art that has by now produced that strangely old-fashioned phenomenon: a steady following. There has been no meteoric rise and fall here, but a steadily growing number who are as impatient waiting for the next Morris as Dickens’s readers waiting for the next number of Bleak House. We may expect to be entertained or shocked or instructed by other novelists’ next novel – if that next novel ever gets written, as too often it does not. But what we expect from Morris, and what he consistently gives us – every year or so another lovely gift! – is one more work of love, rescuing from bleak oblivion the lives of people like Cora and turning their hidden beauties to the light.

The beauties are not visible, for the most part, to the characters themselves. In the ten works that centre in or circle around his home place,[1] small-town Nebraska, the lives of the home folks are especially spare and dry; those characters who in any way aspire to escape by fleeing to the big world always find it hard to see anything but frustration and misery back home.

As Sharon struggles to comprehend Cora’s life, she talks about it with her niece, Caroline, who sees only its horror:

‘Aunt Sharon?’ Caroline said.

‘Yes.’

‘Did you ever see Wanda?

Nobody of that name came to Sharon’s mind.

‘Wanda who?’

‘It’s a movie... It was horrible... This woman. She’s been married and had a baby. She’s so beat and depressed she doesn’t care about it, or anything else. She’s so beat she’s hardly human. A man picks her up. She’s like a stray dog.’ ...

‘You couldn’t turn it off?’

‘No.’

The finality of the no was disturbing. Sharon could not think of anything so appalling she wouldn’t turn it off.

‘That’s where we’re different,’ said Caroline.‘If that’s how it is, I’ve got to look at it.’

If startled, Sharon might suck in her lip, hold it fast with her teeth.

‘You turned it off because you couldn’t face it, didn’t you?’

‘What are you saying? I couldn’t face what?’

As plain as gospel, Sharon understood this as an accusation. What had she failed to look at? At the back of her eyes, where she couldn’t avoid it, where, indeed, she had to confront it, she saw the iron frame of the bed, the sagging mattress evenly divided into two compartments, as if invisible bodies lay there, beneath the bed the gleaming, lidless night pot, and above it the dangling cord to the shadeless bulb. ‘It’s not so hard to turn it off,’ Caroline said. ‘What’s hard is to admit it.’ In her voice, in her gaze, Sharon felt Cora’s inflexible will. Were they so much alike? Just in time, she cried out, ‘Watch the road!’

One wheel had edged into the ditch grass, sweeping the weeds. The car zigzagged wildly, the tires screeching, toppling the children about like pillows. They shrieked with pleasure. Perspiration filmed Sharon’s face and throat; her lips and mouth were dry.

‘Just think of it!’ Caroline said, gripping the wheel as if to shake it. ‘The two of them together, sleeping and eating together, year in and year out, getting to loathe each other, none of it for the better, all of it for the worse.’

None of it for the better, all of it for the worse. That’s Caroline’s view, and it is the correct view, when the world is seen without the transformations worked by the imagination. But all of the real losses can be turned to imaginative gains[2] – when the artist knows how to approach these forlorn lives with a determination to imagine them into another kind of reality.

How has Morris managed to do that, in novel after novel?

First, I would say, by learning how to express an immense compassion without sentimentality. How do you imagine love, in our world? In the world as it is revealed to anyone who looks about with an open eye, how is a novelist to celebrate the works of love?

In The Works of Love, Morris’s seventh novel, the narrator asks a haunting question about his hero. Will Brady:

A man who headed no cause, fought in no wars, and passed his life unaware of the great public issues – it might be asked: why trouble with such a man at all? What is there left to say of a man with so much of his life left out? Well, there are women, for one thing – men of such calibre leave a lot up to women – but in the long run Will Jennings Brady is there by himself.

And he is there – I’ll return to that word later on – because, though ‘by himself’, he unceasingly attempts to imagine how to penetrate the mysteries of love. He imagines loving act after loving act – all of them, in one sense, failures. Yet as he reaches out, in his ineptitude, toward the unloving world, his creator is reaching out too, expressing for us a longing which, unlike Sharon Rose’s, is not ‘a sweet sadness, a pleasurable longing, suffused with drug-like strains of music’, not a nostalgic longing for a world in which expressions like Brady’s would not be lost. If they meet an answering imagination, they are ‘saved’.

Cora, in Plains Song, is one of those women Brady might have loved, had he known her. She is a good deal tougher than Brady; she does more effectively what has to be done. And she is always seen with the same eye that revealed Brady’s momentary successes – and immense failures – in the works of love. In her own eyes, the business of life is always baffling, even when strange pleasures burst through the barren surfaces – the pleasure of showing mastery over a team of horses, the pleasure of watching Emerson playing with their only child, Madge. At Cora’s funeral, Sharon Rose hears the words of the hymn, ‘Abide with me’, and begins to ‘ponder the meaning of the words’. What had abided?

The liberation from her burdens, the works and meagre effects of Cora had been erased from the earth. It she had guessed, Sharon would have felt her speechless humiliation. Others could, and would, grasp it painlessly as a metaphor. Cora would not have grasped it. The violation, like a shaking of the earth, was too profound. Her death was an incident of small importance compared with this ultimate rejection. Works and days. Her soul had made its peace with things. The comb she had pulled through Sharon’s tangled hair, more than half the teeth missing, had been placed on the bureau. If questioned, Cora would have replied that since she had lost more than hall of her hair, they were well matched.

The ability to see such richnesses in such bleak surfaces is, of course, what Morris would like to grant to us all. And he succeeds, because he is master of a technique that forces us to wake up and perform the works of imagination with him. At his best, he makes one feel that one has never really looked at anyone before. As he looks at those who seldom really look at anything, as he listens to those who do not hear what they themselves are saying, he manages to make us hear what they and we – would ‘sing’ if only we knew how. Plains Song enables us to hear what Cora and Madge and Sharon Rose would sing, if only they could, and it can do this because these voices are always accompanied by the counterpoint of the loving narrator. Presumably, as a male, I should leave it to female readers to say whether his women are women. My own opinion is that he has succeeded in writing for female voices, and that the technical skill which makes the success possible can be matched by few authors, male or female, living or dead.

It is a skill that is not adequately covered in our usual talk about erlebte Rede or style indirect libre. It is a kind of triple voicing that makes the structuralist analyses of narrative that flood our journals these days seem impoverished, despite their immense complexities. Morris manages to give us simultaneously the thought or speech of characters in their own words, loaded with lovely clichés that the characters live by, while, secondly, accompanying them with a narrator’s voice entirely sympathetic and comparatively sophisticated, a baritone bourdon both amused by and loving what he hears and sees, and yet, thirdly, allowing us, along with the implied author, to make more of it than the narrator can manage, hampered as he is by proximity to the characters.

Morris was raised among people like those portrayed in Plains Song. He early tried to ‘escape’, and he has again and again shown characters who flee from the ‘half-conscious’ life of the plains folk, in search of something more than its bleakness, and who then return to the plains to discover more reality there than meets the eye. In The Man Who Was There, we see the people back home living their lives in a reality reflected from the life of the departed hero, now dead. As we might expect from a young author who had only recently escaped from the plains, the emphasis is on the powers of an awakened consciousness. When I first read it – I was young then, too I saw no irony in the contrast between the man who had been there, fully alive in his world and thus capable of waking other people up, and the good but sleepy folks back home. Now, reading it through the lens provided by Plains Song, I can see that already the author’s imagination was going far beneath his own surfaces, and far beyond the explicit awareness of his narrator, and could recognise that some of those home folks are ‘there’ too. They will not become altogether real until the artist salvages, through memory and imagination, the full vision of who they are but because he is the master of a technique that can criticise and love its objects simultaneously, we can celebrate, not just lament, their passing, their ‘wearing out’.

One clue to his success as salvage artist is his grasp of the telling sensual detail. I cannot think of any other novelist who can make us see as much in the worn, discarded objects that our lives leave behind. And these are by no means confined to life on the plains. The Philadelphia Main Line, the Greek Islands, the Bay Area, Mexico and Los Angeles, Venice – whatever he touches comes alive. But the achievement seems less of a miracle when it applies to the livelier places. To make San Marco seem impressive in photograph and text, as he does, may be no mean achievment, but it scarcely surprises us. It is when the unpromising fulfil deep promises that we sense the greatest cause for wonder.

In The Home Place, which like The Inhabitants and Love Affair has a photograph at every opening, the narrator concludes:

Out here you wear out, men and women wear out, the sheds and the houses, the machines wear out, and every ten years you put a new seat in the cane-bottomed chair. Every day it wears out, the nap wears off the top of the Axminster. The carpet wears out, but the life of the carpet, the Figure, wears in. The holy thing, that is, comes naturally. Under the carpet, out here, is the floor. After you have lived your own life, worn it out, you will die your own death and it won’t matter. It will be all right. It will be ripe, like the old man

The final photograph is of the old man, the only human figure in a book with about eighty marvellous pictures of objects wearing out: barns, houses, kitchen tables, linoleum floors, old portraits, privies, bandstands, fenceposts, quilts. The old man is moving away from us, entering an old shed through a dried-out, rotting door-frame, his overalls sagging, his shoulders drooping, his head bent forward into the dark interior. He has lived in the home place, the place that has, as Mortis puts it in The Inhabitants, everything to make life possible but nothing to make it tolerable.

Has the old man been there? Has the home place nourished, improbably, a life? There has never been any question about it, really, though the poignant sense of missed life, of wearing out before learning how to be there, pervades every book. The heroes of these books – and not only in Plains Song are they heroines – are those who, like Cora here and Warner in A Life, have ‘learned to live and make do’ with what they have found. ‘Warnet, too, had been young like him’ the young Indian who has just slashed Warner’s wrist – ‘a good hunter, a killer only when necessary, a man who knew his own mind, his own counsel, and had lived in the manner he believed he had chosen, not knowing that he had been one of those chosen not merely to grow old, but to grow ripe.’ Though ripeness is not quite all, it is enough to make a life, and there is a sense that it is more likely to be found in the home place than in Marin County or Paris.

Cora finds it, somehow; it is what she has that Sharon Rose knows she has missed, into a culture that leaves her suffering from a nostalgia that is self-centred and empty a is not clear that Sharon’s new feminist friend. Alexandra Selkirk, who reminds her of the dead Cora, will ever deserve the epitaph of A Life. It is clear only that Cora does deserve and receive a, ‘half conscious’ though most of her life has been. Sharon Rose, returning to the plains, like Boyd in Ceremony in Lone Tree, for a ceremony that goes deeper than Boyd’s and Sharon’s sophisticated categories can comprehend, may not.

But those who, like Boyd’s young pick-up. ‘Sweet Jesus’, or like Alexandra, speak for the present and future have their own mystery, and their vivid presence is a further protection from the sentimentality of mere nostalgia. Audacity, inventive energy, threatening heed lessness – these are a modern equivalent of what the settlers of the plains at first displayed and then usually lost. And they are in some ways closer to the novelist’s own indispensable virtues than are the qualities of the old timers on whom his vision seems to dwell more lovingly.

Alexandra Selkirk, internationally famous feminist arriving in Nebraska at the end of Plains Sony to speak at a convention of feminists, has that audacity, that hold on the present and future, that escapes most of Morris’s characters. Living in the present and making a dubious future, she somehow can give Sharon Rose the comfort she requires for the losses of Cora’s life. Whether such characters are destroyers of love, like the jazzy Southern Californians of Love Among the Cannibals, fumblers into the mystical and the occult, like the inventive rubes of The Fork River Space Project, relentless pursuers of whatever isn’t ‘bullshit’, like the Fitzgeraldian idol worshipped by the hero of The Huge Season, or battlers against male dominance like Alexandra Selkirk, they all carry a vitality that simply overwhelms the categories by which we ordinary folk – we readers and most of Morris’s narrators – live. He implies that he embodies something of the same audacity in the risks of his art, but he never pretends to understand or to tame these creatures who somehow manage, even when they are destructive, to rev up their motorcycles, like the hoods of In Orbit (1967), and vroom off into the future.

I don’t really know how to talk about these characters; they trouble me, as they have obviously troubled Morris. They seem to come from no home place; they cling to none of the values that the rooted ‘inhabitants’ live by; but they are there, and Morris cannot ignore them. They are absurd in their pretensions, they lead us into temptation and destruction, but they also produce those moments of wonder that make us see them as speaking for a part of reality that can never be tamed, only (at best) ‘realised’ by acts of imagination. And their audacities, never unambiguously satirised, help to save these works from any hint of sentimentality about the past.

In the last few decades, America has developed a small industry in prophetic novels and ‘religious’ criticism. Everyone has recognised the immense drive in American literature, from Melville, Hawthorne and Whitman to the present, to use literature as religious inquiry. Whole academic departments, like the doctoral programme in ‘Religion and Literature’ at my own University of Chicago, have been organised for the serious study of the ways in which literature, or ‘poetry’, has performed, or might perform, or should or should not be allowed to perform, the role once played by canonical scripture. Wright Morris has deservedly received a good deal of this sort of attention (mostly in dissertations), and he will no doubt receive more now that his long years of comparative neglect seem to be over. This is as it should be, because there can be no doubt that he has conceived of his role in something like prophetic terms: for him, the artist’s task is to push forward, or downward, or upward, into a reality inaccessible to most mortals, and to bring back visionary reports that might save us all.

What can we do to be saved?’ Biblical language runs through every work, as characters find secular terms inadequate to their gropings. Perhaps more than any of the others, Plains Song echoes religious language, as anyone will see who reads slowly through the quotations I have given. This density of allusion is not merely a device to give a factitious sense of importance to secular stories. All of these characters are part of a quest that for Morris is something like a priestly vocation. He has lived his life for his art, and his art shows lives lived in search of the meanings that only a ‘spiritual’ art can give. No doubt Morris himself would find this description excessive, because he sees himself and his characters as living in a world without God. But they do not live in a world without a longing for God.

Had Cora ever doubted that the nightmare she had survived would result in a child? The logic of it was clear and not to be questioned. The gift of life was holy, and one paid for it dearly. The drama of creation, as she now understood it, a coming together of unearthly forces, was not unlike the brute and blind disorder of her unthinkable experience. So it was meant to be, and so she had found it. Toward Emerson she felt no personal anger, admitting to the necessity of an accomplice. Only in this wise could the mortal body bring forth new life ...

... One day differed so little from another only Sundays held her attention. She liked the prayer and the worship less than she did the singing of the hymns. Although Emerson had observed the Baptist sabbath in Ohio, he had been reared as Methodist, in Zanesville, but no church of that denomination was nearer than Nehigh, an hour’s ride in the buggy. Cora had been raised a Unitarian, but she was not a stickler for denominations. She would go to the service closest by, If hymns were sung. She was amazed and troubled to learn, however, that Catholics had established themselves in the county, although owing their allegiance to neither God nor country, but to the Pope. She would have thought about it if more urgent matters had not been on her mind.

There is nothing of what the modern world deplores as ‘piety’ here, nothing of a religiosity that ignores the pains and mysteries of ordinary life. But there is a celebration of ordinary life that to me comes very close to what must have been the effect, in earlier times, of reading the Bible.

In short, Morris seems to me as ‘visionary’ as the literary fathers he most admires. At the end of the leading chapter in Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments, Morris’s most recent book of criticism (1978),[3] he quotes Walt Whitman’s manifesto: ‘Whatever may have been the case in years gone by, the true use for the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science, and to common lives, endowing them with glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only. Without that ultimate vivification – which the poet or other artist alone can give – reality would seem incomplete, and science, democracy, and life itself, finally in vain.’ Such ambitious words are not as fashionable as they once were even in America, the natural home of literary prophets. But they can still carry their weight, so long as we have artists like Wright Morris to show us what they mean.

[1] The Man Who Was There (1945), The Inhabitants (1946), The Home Place (1948), The World in the Attic(1949), The Works of Love (1952), The Field of Vision (1956), Ceremony in Lone Tree (I960), Flee Sermon (1971), A Life (1973), and now, Plains Song. Most of these works are available only in second editions, from the University of Nebraska Press. Some are photo-texts – embodying pictures.

[2] Real Losses, Imaginary Gains (collected short stories, 1976). The title does not mean that the gains are illusory.

[3] His other books of critical essays are The Territory Ahead (1958), A Bill of Rites, A Bill of Wrongs, A Bill of Goods (1968) and About Fiction (1975).