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  • The Figure on the Page: Words and Images in Wright Morris’s The Home Place
  • John Hollander (bio)

Ecphrastic treatments of photographs in modern literary verse and prose construe their images as invented pictures in themselves as well as confronting their documentary status. Until very recently, most photographs to which poems have been addressed have been portraits, and the text speaks to their subjects as rendered, and perhaps to the occasion of the taking of the picture. Indeed, some recent poetry has paralleled the theoretical writing of the past forty years or so by dealing with fashionable intellectual questions concerning the epistemological and moral status of particular photographs.1 But for the earlier part of this century, it was left to popular journalism to develop formats for captions, and larger blocks of text used in a caption-like way, and significant modes of juxtaposition in layout, that would bring older issues of ecphrastic glossing or interpretation of a pre-existent image into new contexts. Similarly, the technology of photo-reproduction made photographs available for illustra tion of a pre-existent text in a way that modified or even nullified their documentary status (see for example Henry James’s use of photographs as frontispiece plates for the various volumes of The New York Edition (1907–9)).

The publication in 1941 of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that famous collaborative work of Walker Evans and James Agee, proved important for the work of the major novelist Wright Morris (whose first novel, My Uncle Dudley, appeared the following year). In 1946, Morris produced his fascinatingly problematic volume of photographs and layered captions and associated text, called The Inhabitants,framing images of his native rural Nebraska in high- modernist formats. But perhaps his most powerful imaginative work involving text and photographs is The Home Place (1948). I should like to explore for a bit its extremely original way of presenting word and image in a mode that appears to mix ecphrasis and illustration.

In 1946 Morris got a Guggenheim Fellowship and bought a 4 x 5 view camera camera to replace his older 3–1/4 × 4–1/4; in early May of 1947 he went back to a [End Page 93] family farm near Norfolk, Nebraska where his Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara lived and took a great many photographs, as well as several of the nearby house of a recently deceased relative named Ed, which would eventually form the warp of the fabric of The Home Place. At the time he was taking them, he hadn’t imagined a narrative fiction growing out of them. But in a funny way, a text lay behind them all; just a few weeks before, he later wrote, he had come upon what he called “a statement that gave me, I felt, unlimited access”2—not only to the interior of his Aunt’s house (this came from her permission) but, we must suppose from the statement, access of another sort entirely. The passage in question speaks of being

subject to the superstition that objects and places, coherently grouped, disposed for human use and addressed to it, must have a sense of their own, a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out: to give out, that is, to the participant at once so interested and so detached as to be moved by a report of the matter.3

That “participant at once so interested and so detached” could be construed, of course, as the camera. But Morris, a novelist, couldn’t but have had a novelistic matter in mind, a particularly Jamesian matter in fact. When he began to plan a narrative to embrace the images—the weft of the fabric—he wanted to deal with “the sentiments and conflicts of a late-returning native.”4 The passage I have just quoted, from Henry James’s The American Scene, ended up as the epigraph of his book, and as I shall suggest in a moment, a continued meditation on Jamesian images and narrative agendas pervades the writing of Morris’s story, which he put together only after he had assembled an ordered array of glossy prints selected from the pictures he had taken.


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pp. 93-108
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Ceased Publication
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