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JO E H A L L Oklahoma Baptist University Three Consciousnesses in Wright Morris’s Plains Song Wright Morris’s forty-year career as a novelist has been haunt­ ed by the loss of a distinctive rural life, a loss which occurred for the most part during his lifetime.1One result is that the search for meaning in Morris’s characters nearly always leads back to the home place, usually a Nebraska farm, symbolically at “the navel of the world” (Madden 47, 131). Yet, when characters think about returning or actually arrive at this source, the results are as ambigu­ ous as the Morris phrase, “Real losses, imaginary gains.” “Real losses” are the irreplaceable losses of people, places, or times— especially the home place. “Imaginary gains,” however, can mean either changes for the worse that we only imagine are gains, or it can mean gains through personal transformations made possible by the imagination as it works with central images such as “the home place.” With either kind of imaginary gain, we lose the actual home place, and everyone feels the loss in some way. David Madden says that Morris’s characters try to “convert the loss of pastoral inno­ cence into a gain of personal integrity” (48-49). Some make the conversion, but the effort usually fails. For example, some charac­ ters “attempt to maintain connection with the past through arti­ facts—what a man uses to keep a grip on the connection” (52). Characters like Gordon Boyd in A Field of Vision try to use artifacts and memories to maintain the “grip on the connection,” but at the expense of paralysis in the present. On the rare occasions when a character connects with the past through images that challenge and transform him or her, the result is an “imaginary gain” that is a true gain. A consciousness that is expanded through this transformation is one form consciousness takes in Morris’s work. A second con­ sciousness is that of the people from the past; these people lived 292 Western American Literature half-aware, submerged lives on the home place, connected to their farm and to their daily work. Morris believes a third consciousness is dominant now: this is the consciousness of those who are pleased with the loss of the home place, imagining that we are better off for gaining comfort and personal freedom from its restrictions. Such people tell stories about how the rural past was inferior; they think the present is a real gain, not an imaginary one. In the first part of this essay I explain the sources and the nature of these three consciousnesses in Morris’s thinking. In part two, I explore Morris’s development of these concepts since the 1940s, and in the last part I explain how in Plains Song, Cora is the icon of a farmer’s wife grounded in nonconscious ties to a place. Most of her descendants, trying to live life to the fullest, believe Cora lived a sparse, deprived life without having the sense to complain. Near the end of the novel, her niece, Sharon, manages to sense the sources and the significance of these connections in Cora and at least in an initiatory way to integrate them into her urban con­ sciousness.2 I “Consciousness” in Morris usually means what a person is aware of. “Nonconscious connections” are relationships which some people assume are a natural part of life. For Morris’s farm people, the land is there to be worked; their lives are intimately tied to the land through tasks they perform, but it does not occur to them to examine the relationship. Curious souls who want to question these relationships will find a void, or silence, that wise people know should not be intruded upon or allowed to enter conscious­ ness. Rural people such as Morris’s Aunt Clara sense a “rightness” about their way of living because it is closer to millions of years of tribal experience than is life in the city among human artifacts and thousands of nameless people. People cut off from this “home place” tend to concentrate on self-development, will invent reasons for what they are doing, and will...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 291-318
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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