Wright Morris as a young man: “Self-Portrait, The Home Place, Near Norfolk, Nebraska, 1947.” Image credit: Museum of Nebraska Art.
Two important writers from the Midwest were born on January 6: Carl Sandburg in 1878 and Wright Morris in 1910. Since Morris is the lesser known of the two, I will start with him.
Wright Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska. His mother died within a week of his birth. His father was a traveling salesman, and the boy was often left in the care of relatives while his father was on the road. Morris spent a number of years in small Nebraska towns, then in Omaha and Chicago. He attended Pomona College in California, than traveled in Europe, and was later a professor at San Francisco State University. In addition to his highly regarded novels, Morris wrote a memoir, Will’s Boy (1981), about life with his father in the nineteen-tens and twenties, along with literary and social criticism and books that were combinations of photos and text. He is greatly respected as a photographer, famous for his striking black and white photographs, particularly of rural Midwestern scenes in the 1940s. Many of the photos are of objects, rooms, buildings, and landscapes. His second novel, The Home Place (1948) is a novel in photo-text form.
Wright Morris (Image credit: NNDB).
Morris has always been known as a writer’s writer, a novelist whose works never found a wide audience but never lacked admirers. His lack of recognition may stem from the fact that many of his books are light on plot in the conventional sense, and often focus on the interior lives of characters and include meditation on past experiences. Many of them concern people searching for meaning or love, or struggling with the frustrations of modern life. The search for some kind of liberation or transcendence is central to his work, as are separations or reconciliations among people. Some of his early novels concern characters trying to come to terms with the past, and considerable importance is placed in these earlier novels on the power of everyday objects to evoke a bygone world.
“Grain Elevator and Lamp Post, Nebraska, 1940.” Photo by Wright Morris. (Image credit: Museum of Nebraska Art).
Seven of Morris’s novels have some kind of connection with the cultural and physical Midwestern landscape. For example, Ceremony In Lone Tree (1960), treats family members assembling in a Nebraska ghost town for a ninetieth birthday celebration and the isolation that separates them from one another. Through examination of the characters and their past and present lives, Morris probes a number of important topics, including America’s mythic view of the west and the violence underlying American life—a local boy goes on a shooting rampage reminiscent of Nebraskan serial killer Charlie Starkweather, and another boy runs over two people with his car.
Some of the characters appeared in an earlier novel, The Field of Vision, which won the National Book Award in 1957. This novel concerns a group of Americans in Mexico who attend a bullfight. The characters reflect on important previous experiences in their lives, and Morris raises questions about Midwestern and American values. Perhaps we could say one overarching theme of Morris’s is the relentless examination of American identity.
One of his last and best-known works is Plains Song For Female Voices, which won the National Book Award in 1981. This spare but powerful work tells the story of three generations of Nebraskan women from pioneer times through the late twentieth century.
Morris also wrote a number of novels with settings ranging from California and the eastern U.S. to Europe and Acapulco. His novel One Day concerns the reactions of a group of people in a small town near San Francisco to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In Orbit concerns the effect on a college town’s residents after a young criminal creates mayhem in their community. Man and Boy (1952) deals with the structure of the American family as matriarchy and features one of the most frightening and devouring mothers ever to appear in an American novel. Fire Sermon (1971) examines generational conflict in the story of an elderly man and his nephew traveling in the company of a hippie couple in the America of the late 1960s.
Morris wrote nearly forty books. His work is rich, complex, and subtle. I hope readers may be inspired to take a look at this writer whose work has still not received its due. He died on April 25, 1998.
Carl Sandburg stands in sharp contrast to Morris. The famous poet and Lincoln biographer was widely celebrated in his lifetime. Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1878, the son of Swedish immigrant parents. He left school at the age of thirteen, held a variety of jobs and wandered America as a hobo before doing a stint in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War. Returning home he entered Lombard College, which he attended for a number of years without taking a degree. He later became a newspaper reporter and also worked for the Social Democratic Party in Milwaukee, including serving for a time as secretary to Milwaukee’s Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel.
Sandburg moved to Chicago in 1912 and worked for several publications in the city, eventually joining the Chicago Daily News in 1917. He served on the paper through 1932. Although Sandburg had published poetry privately in 1904, it was in 1914 in Chicago that Sandburg published work that garnered attention. Harriet Monroe had established Poetry: A Magazine of Verse that year (https://buckeyemuse.wordpress.com/2014/12/23/happy-birthday-to-harriet-monroe-founder-of-poetry-a-magazine-of-verse/), and included among the early groundbreaking verse published in the journal was Sandburg’s famous poem “Chicago.” In 1916, Sandburg published his first volume of poetry: Chicago Poems. This book included famous early poems of his such as “Fog,” “Grass,” and “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard.”
Other famous Sandburg volumes followed: Cornhuskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), Good Morning, America (1928), and The People, Yes (1936). Sandburg also wrote stories for children, a novel called Remembrance Rock (1948), and a volume of autobiography called Always The Young Strangers (1953). Sandburg also played the guitar and liked to perform ballads and folk songs, and published a collection of American ballads and folk songs in 1927 in a book entitled American Songbag.
“Rootabaga Stories”–Sandburg’s stories for children.
In addition, Sandburg is well known as a biographer of Lincoln. His first two volumes of biography—Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years— were published in 1926. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years was published in four volumes in 1939 and received the Pulitzer Prize for History. Sandburg also received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1919 for Cornhuskers and in 1951 for his Collected Poems.
Carl Sandburg died on July 22, 1967 in Flat Rock, North Carolina.
The Oxford Companion To American Literature, Fifth Edition. James D. Hart. Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1983.
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume One: The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Entry on Wright Morris by Joseph J. Wydeven. Entry on Carl Sandburg by Philip A. Greasley.