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  • Wright Morris’s “Photo-texts”
  • Alan Trachtenberg (bio)

Wright Morris’s inspiration in the 1940s to combine words and photographs resulted in several unique works of fiction, “photo-texts,” he called them, in which image and text stand to each other in quite unexpected ways.1 In The Inhabitants (1946), The Home Place (1948), and God’s Country and My People, (1968) picture and word cohabitate in a manner of mutual and complex exchange.2 At a casual glance these works might seem similar to the juxtaposi tions of word and image in documentary texts popular at the end of the 1930s,but a more careful look and reading makes clear that in spite of some superficial resemblance in depictions of rural scenes they have little in common with works like Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) or Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor’s American Exodus (1939). They belong more properly under the heading of experimental fiction, formal experiments in the telling of stories, the construction of narratives. Moreover, each of Morris’s books ventures a different way of setting image in relation to word, either disposing them throughout an actual novel (as in The Home Place) or linking them with texts which stand as discrete memories, not stories as such but story-fragments, free associations more on the order of dreams than narratives. Different as they are, each of the three works addresses similar questions regarding the role of images in the making of fiction. And presiding over the three books is the question of photography itself, its work as a medium and its figurative implications for human experience.

How might pictures play a role in storytelling, how might they lend themselves to accounts of character, event, and scene, how might a visual component or dimension contribute to the verbalization of experience, to the crystallization of experience into knowledge? Questions such as these underlie these remarkable and compelling works and account for their fascinating sub- texts, their continual hum of meditation and commentary upon photography and experience. For what emerges as most remarkable, most original in Morris’s photo-texts is the way they make of photography something more than a collaborative method. Photography becomes a thematic center of its [End Page 109] own, a master key to the essential matters undertaken in the fictions: place, time, memory, aura, privacy, loss, and the scruples and compunctions of consciousness in undergoing these experiences.

The thematization of the photograph, more accurately, of the photographic act itself, appears most prominently in The Home Place, the book among the three works which most resembles a conventional novel, a continuous linear narrative. Occupying every other page, the pictures might seem supplements more than complements of its action, direct illustrations of the text, though such literalness of reference is usually undercut by the reader’s reflection on the multivalent relations between image and text. The story concerns the narrator’s uninvited and unannounced visit from the East with wife and child to an old relative’s old house in rural Nebraska (fig. 1). [End Page 110]

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Figure 1.

“That’s Ed’s room,” I said, and my wife stepped up to look at it. Then she backed away, as if she saw someone in the bed. There are hotel beds that give you the feeling of a negative exposed several thousand times, with the blurred image of every human being that had slept in them. Then there are beds with a single image, over- exposed. There’s an etched clarity about them, like a clean daguerreotype, and you know in your heart that was how the man really looked. There’s a question in your mind if any other man, any other human being, could lie in that bed and belong in it. One might as well try and wear the old man’s clothes. His shoes, for instance, that had become so much a part of his feet they were like those casts of babies’ shoes in department stores. Without saying a word, or snapping her knuckles, my wife turned away.


The wife’s turning away precedes by...

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pp. 109-119
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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