Stephen Longmire

By Wright Morris. Introduction by John Hollander. Univ. of Nebraska Press. 200 pp. $12

Read Time:
2m 22sec

Little fanfare marked the death of novelist and photographer Wright Morris in 1998. The man whom literary critic Wayne Booth hailed in 1980 as "one of America’s three most important living novelists," and whose photography was given a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1992, died largely forgotten, in his 88th year. "His books are his memorial," his widow said at the time. Now, at the urging of Morris’s friend Saul Bellow and others, the University of Nebraska Press has reissued one of his most significant books: his 1948 "photo-text," The Home Place. Though not his most polished volume—The Works of Love (1951) and Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980) vie for that honor—The Home Place may be Morris’s most adventurous, pairing photographs and fiction to create a new genre.

In The Home Place, Nebraska-born writer Clyde Muncy returns to his Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara’s dilapidated farm, where he had spent summers as a boy. The story is plainly autobiographical: in 1942, Morris visited his Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara’s farm (he returned in 1947 to photograph it), where he had spent two childhood summers. The book’s drama comes from the crystallization of memory, as a physical place is transformed into a remembered place. Documentary photographs face each page of text, demonstrating the reality of what the novelist imagines, and leaving the reader/viewer in a limbo between fact and fiction that is Morris’s comment on the problems of memory—and a rebuke to the propagandistic New Deal photography that turned its Dust Bowl subjects into sentimental heroes.

For Morris, as for many authors, home and family were bottomless subjects. The Nebraska relatives in The Home Place repeatedly tell Muncy that they are all connected by behavior and blood, even "small-town expatriates" like him. Not long before Morris returned to the farm in 1942, his father died (his mother had died in childbirth), attenuating his connection to the home place. Morris’s redolent photographs of the place would be his home thereafter, to which he returned in subsequent books of fiction, photo-text, and memoir.

The Home Place has been a difficult project to get right. Nebraska last reprinted it in 1968, with cropped pages and photos in some printings that, Morris complained, were "as pale as phantoms." The pages have been restored to their proper size in this edition, and the photographs reshot from the best available reproductions, but these improvements are undercut by the use of a flat, matte-surface paper that makes the photographs look like photocopies. The Proust of the plains does not yet have a proper memorial, but perhaps it is fitting that his meditation on memory should resemble a faded artifact.

—Stephen Longmire


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