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University of Nebraska at Omaha R O B E R T D . H A R P E R Wright Morris’s Ceremony in Lone Tree: A Picture of Life in Middle America It is difficult to place Wright Morris in any of the categories customarily employed by the critics of modern fiction. He is at once traditional and experimental, regional and universal, simple and complex. In style his books range from very plain (in his early photo-texts) to surrealistic (in some passages of the later novels). His view of the modern world is often perplexing to the reader, who is likely to be struck by at least a faint ray of hope at the moment he is ready to consign the author to the nihilistic tradition. While Morris’s novels have not enjoyed the substantial sales achieved by such contemporaries of his as Mailer, Bellow and Updike, his production has been steady and his critical acclaim persistent for thirty years, culminating in a National Book Award for The Field of Vision in 1957. His twenty-five published books, most of them novels, constitute a body of work which places him among the major literary talents of the postwar generation. The hesi­ tancy of the reading public to fully recognize these talents may be merely another chapter in that long story of belated recognition of our major novelists that runs from Melville and Henry James to Nathanael West. Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960) is perhaps the culmination of Morris’s twenty-year effort to create a fictional picture of his native Midwest, which centers on the past and present of the Great Plains 200 Western American Literature region in central and western Nebraska.1 This story of life on the plains begins with The Inhabitants (1946) and The Home Place (1948), both of which use dozens of Morris’s excellent black and white photographs to illustrate simple and compelling stories of people in relation to their environment. The saga is continued in The World in the Attic (1949) and rises to a new level of fictional excellence in The Works of Love (1952), the novel that Morris has called “the linchpin of my novels concerned with the plains.”2 Perhaps his first masterpiece, it introduces the themes and character types that he is to treat later with more depth and complexity in The Field of Vision and Ceremony in Lone Tree, the first two novels of a projected trilogy built around the lives of some small-town characters from Middle America who are also universal. While all the basic material of the regional novel is here, it should become apparent to the reader that Morris, in his central concerns, goes as far beyond regionalism as Mark Twain or Faulkner. Ceremony finds its thematic material in a past much deeper than that of the pioneer West and traditions much older than those of the local color novel. It fuses three major elements that can be traced back to the very first American fiction and that loom large in the work of both serious and popular novelists of the early nineteenth century. The title of the novel and its general setting would suggest that it belongs with the literature of the American frontier, which starts with the accounts of the earliest explorers and includes such major novelists as Cooper, Mark Twain and Willa Cather. But a closer look at the town of Lone Tree in all its decay strongly suggests also the Gothic tradition, which first appeared in America in the 1790’s with the work of the pioneer novelist Charles Brockden Brown, and which reached a high point of literary refinement in the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Decidedly Gothic is the picture of the Lone Tree Hotel, with its sole aged inhabitant sleeping beside the stove, while beyond the rattling window panes a lone 1For illuminating commentary on the novel I am indebted to the following: Jonathan Baumbach, The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (New York: New York University Press, 1965) ; Wayne C. Booth, “The Shaping of Prophecy: Craft and Idea in the Novels of Wright Morris,” The American Scholar, 31 (1962), 608-26; Marcus Klein...


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