Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wright Morris - The Inhabitants - A Pioneer Work

Wright Morris's "photograph-and-text" book The Inhabitants [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons] was published 54 years ago, in 1946, at the tail end of the Depression Era ("WPA") period, and stands, after half a century, as a ground-breaking and unique approach to visual-verbal exploration of subject matter.   

Morris [1910-1998] had already published two full-length novels--My Uncle Dudley [1942] and The Man Who Was There [1945] when this book appeared. His interest in combining prose narratives with straight photographic images had never been tried before, and Morris would probably have continued producing works (what he called "photo-texts") in the genre he created, had his publisher not persuaded him to abandon it. The Home Place [1948] and The World in the Attic [1949] were both "photo-texts" but Morris removed the photos from the third book. He published one more book in this form--God's Country and My People in 1968. Having grown up in Nebraska, living for periods in flat rural farm country, as well in prairie cities, Morris absorbed the culture and landscape of the plains country, and saw in it a kind of poetry. 

In both his fiction and his photography, there's a clean, stark, "abandoned" quality very reminiscent of the Dust Bowl era work of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Marion  Post Wolcott, Jack Vachon. But whereas in the hands of these other artists, the worn-out, dispossessed landscape of the prairie was seen through the lens of a hand-wringing social conscience, Morris regarded it almost from a purely aesthetic position, largely emptied of its political partisanship. Indeed, Morris's love of the rural Nebraska farm towns and perspectives seems to idolize its loneliness, its spare, empty horizon, its desiccated wood, rusted corrugated sidings, its eroded, scrubby edges. 

Working with a 4x5 view camera--a more common tool in those days than the 35 millimeter which soon replaced it as the standard for documentary work--Morris focused on scenes nearly always devoid of human presence, which makes his title--The Inhabitants--seem slightly inapt, unless you realize that it's the evidence of human presence that's the real subject of his enterprise, of man erecting vertical structures on the flat plane of the earth, only to see them sag and crumble, slowly, picturesquely, back into the dust. This picturesque decay, unadorned, practical, seems the perfect stuff of black and white image-making. Abandoned farm buildings, blank town shopfronts, grain elevators, sad barber polls, street-light standards at the edges of empty lots, raw, unpainted wood facades, telephone poles, rusting farm implements--all bespeak a harsh, unforgiving landscape in which human subsistence is scratched out in a kind of desperate gambit with mere survival. 
When the Northern European immigrants--many Scandanavians--came west in the 19th Century, they were happy to discover an empty vastness--room to occupy, open countryside. But the land didn't give much back. This is unforgiving country, it will humble you, will make you value what little you can leverage out of the soil.       
These compositions by Morris almost suggest movie sets--fake Western movie sets--propped up from behind with wooden beams, made to be seen only from one side. And indeed they were undoubtedly among those images that inspired much of Hollywood's cliche'd stereotypical scenes and visions of the Olde West
Morris was a wonderful novelist. I read three of his best--The Huge Season [1954], The Field of Vision [1956], and Love Among the  Cannibals [1957], decades ago, and the imprint of his work remains vivid. Yet, despite winning two National Book Awards (1954, 1980), Morris never was a best-seller, and is today still under-appreciated by the general reading public. This is undoubtedly the result of his unsensational approach to his subject.
Born one generation after the high Modernists, and lacking an urban context for his subject-matter, he remained, and was satisfied with being described as, a regionalist, albeit one of our most sophisticated. In a tradition of writing that would include Willa Cather, Carl Sandburg, August Derleth, Hamlin Garland, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and Wallace Stegner, among others, he's not overly aesthetic, not a muckraker. In the world of his fiction, his characters have their feet firmly on the ground. 

Looking at places like this, I find it hard to imagine growing up in them and not becoming disillusioned with life. The sense of struggle, of the grim, inescapable facts of a lean place appear overwhelming. It's not to many people's taste. Those who come to appreciate it acquire a laconic, dry equanimity which may be expressed as resolute devotion, or rueful humor. The dignity of that effort may have an ennobling effect, or drive one to distraction. In Morris's case, he left to follow his inspiration(s), but spiritually he never left home. As a resident of the Bay Area for the last decades of his life, he saw his reputation come full circle, as the photographic community "rediscovered" his early photo-texts and restored his photographic accomplishments to their rightful place alongside the best work of the 20th Century.         
Rather than being lumped into the "Social Revolution" of the 1930's, Morris's images are now seen as belonging more to the purely aesthetic strain, which would include, for example, Morley Baer, Edward and Brett Weston, Laura Gilpin, Ansel Adams, Imogene Cunningham, Wynn Bullock, etc.--or, photographers whose vision was primarily abstract and/or pictorial, rather than having ulterior philosophical or political bases for their work.      

Several of Morris's images suggest other approaches, however, than mere documentation. The image above, for instance, has a clear surrealistic quality, as if the structurally shabby accommodation of slope made the wood framing appear almost "sluggish" or elastic--a rectangular jumble of skewed angles and dreamlike distortion. 
Another aspect is the high contrast between the prototypical Victorian architectural tropes set against the emptiness of the prairie, as in this dual portrait above. The structures are more or less structurally unremarkable (or would be in a different, urban setting), but seen in this way, with the strong dividing line of the telephone pole, and isolated against a backdrop devoid of any other context, they look positively weird!
Morris's narrative inventions invite us to enter imaginatively these drab residences and shops, seeking artifacts and vernacular footage for our casual archival memory-bank. Threadbare white curtains and rugs, comfortable rocking chairs, pellucid wall lamps, coat hangers, and gaudy silver sets from pulled drawers--like the heirlooms to a lost civilization. And in a sense it is lost--the decline of the American farm--the abandonment of the rural paradigm generally--who would be attracted to the empty prairie nowadays? It isn't merely drought and anxiety that killed it, but the memory of hard times is persistent in our culture. It's easy to be nostalgic about American values that once survived in an outback of back-breaking labor and modest ambitions. It's hard to imagine we'll ever revisit the pioneer spirit that inhabited these places. The Inhabitants left, and won't be returning.      

Addendum: Library of America selections
I began to consider, after I'd written the above post, why it was that Wright Morris hadn't been selected for inclusion in the ongoing Library of America series of reprints. The Library of America has its own website, and sells its titles at a discount from retail, and makes announcements about forthcoming volumes in the series. With a few notable exceptions, most of the major American novelists, poets and essayists up to about 1950 have major selections from their works included in the series. But given the disagreements about taste and ranking, the selections made from more recent figures seems increasingly capricious and arbitrary. In some cases, this is a matter of copyrights and permissions: J.D. Salinger, for instance, whose whole work would fit very nicely into a single volume, would presumably not have granted permission for this. Yet there are a number of selections, not only of Morris's contemporaries, but of recent hyper-modern figures, which defy comprehension, some of whom are still living. I.e., Ashbery, Roth, Carver. I certainly have no objection to the inclusion of such writers, but I wonder why we have Baldwin, Bellow, Bowles, Cheever, Kerouac, Maxwell, McCullers, Nabokov, O'Connor, and Welty, but no Wright Morris. Morris won two National Book Awards for fiction. He was proficient not only as a creator of fictions, but a recognized master photographer (and author of "photo-text" documents), and even wrote important autobiographies and important non-fiction essays. If Wright Morris isn't a major American writer of mid-Century America, then no one is. 
I have other beefs with LOA choices. How is it that Ezra Pound, whose work is among the most uneven in quality and purpose of any American poet, living or dead, gets a whole volume of poetry and scattered prose works and translations, while William Carlos Williams rates only a relatively tiny selection in the American Poets Project series? Why does Louis Zukofsky, whose collected shorter poems, long poem A (1-24), and amazing sound-translations of Catullus rate only an APP volume, while volumes of similar size are accorded to such admittedly minor figures as Samuel Menashe, A.R. Ammons, Kenneth Fearing, Kenneth Koch, Karl Shapiro, and Yvor Winters? 
There are no volumes for T.S. Eliot, Robert Sherwood, Robert Lowell, Hilda Doolittle, Marianne Moore, Bernard Malamud, Nelson Algren, Wallace Stegner, Paul Horgan, etc.? Such exclusions baffle me, when we have already been given Agee, Chandler & Hammett, Hart Crane, Manny Farber (Manny Farber?), Liebling and Edmund Wilson, Dawn Powell, Muriel Rukeyser, Stevens, Singer, Thurber and Nathaniel West.  
How can you include Thurber, and leave out E.B. White? Why Koch and not O'Hara? No Ring Lardner, no Dorothy Parker, no Oppen, no Olson, no Snyder, no Wilbur! I feel like a demonstrator outside the statehouse chanting slogans....  "No Snyder, no Oppen, no Parker, no Wright Morris!"          


Steven Fama said...

Nice rant-a-rama post-script!

For Morris, does he get screwed a little, maybe, reptuation-wise, because he of his jack-of-all-tradeness?

I love the picture of the silver utensils.

Interesting to think about The Inhabitants together with another photo-book of the same time period, that also features shots of dwellings or buildings: Clarence John Laughlin's Ghosts Along The Mississippi

Steven Fama said...

Hey Curtis,

I've just confirmed, I do believe -- via a lunch-hour errand-run up to Moe's Books -- that the photo of the silver utensils is NOT in The Inhabitants.

If I'm correct, it irritates me that you imply otherwise, not clearly labeling the sources of the photos.

Regardless, of that, where's the photo found, please?


Steven Fama said...

Now this is REALLY surprising:

Curtis, my research suggests that the photo of silverware you include is NOT Wright Morris at all. Rather, a tribute to him, by a current-day photographer.

See this page here (click through).

Well, we all make mistakes.

I request that you correct it, if you agree it's wrong.

Curtis Faville said...


You're right, and I've taken it down.

Actually, I don't see any reason to presume that all the images came from The Inhabitants, or that that restriction should necessarily follow from the placement of the book and title page at the head of the essay.

Morris's images from this period--1939-1945--total several hundreds of images, only a handful of which, were published in his books. Later exhibitions included many more, some of which rivaled the original published selections for quality and interest. Aside from the Venice book, his work has a very consistent character.

There are several images of silver sets in his oeuvre, but the one I hastily put up isn't his.

Steven Fama said...

Curtis, maybe assume that all your readers are ignorant as me, and would appreciate knowing what's what. Otherwise, I'd almost agree, there's no reason for anyone to assume all photos are from the book you put at the head of the post, and primarily feature/discuss, other than an assumption that the writer (that'd be you) is proceeding in a logical, fashion designed to kindly and clearly educate

I've found on-line an image of silverware by Morris. In contrast to the "gaudy" silver (your term) of the other guy's photo, this one -- given what you wrote -- is more of what I'd expect of Morris, with the utensils looking almost dead and forgotten, not touched for years by anybody:

Click here to see (reproduction is small, and I don't know if the tonality is "correct")

I do appreciate the attention to the Morris. I "get" him now more than I ever did.

J said...

he's not overly aesthetic, not a muckraker.

Sort of mutually exclusive disjunct there, eh Sir F--needin' NOR perhaps.

'Merica could use some neo-Muckrakers--who, it should be remembered, were not always Demopublicans. Most were sort of vaguely progressive, yet Ida Tarbell for one hated the big Tweed-unionist Demos nearly as much as she did the GOP fat-cats and industrialists (like her nemesis Rockefeller), and in fact Miss Tarbell pledged her loyalty to...Il Duce Mussolini in the 20s)

That said, purdee pics in the Dust Bowl vein.

George Mattingly said...

Really glad you covered this, Curtis.

In my business (graphic design) the adage is "Don't proofread your own work." Because you can't.

Pro journalists have always relied on fact-checkers, copy editors, and proofreaders.

Pick up any recently-published book or newspaper and see what happens when these essential functions are removed from the chain.

And soon we're going to get all our news from the blogosphere?

The drop in accuracy level may be okay for opinion pieces or for blog posts where the writer has first-hand knowledge or expertise. (Though even there mistakes are inevitable.)

Is the accuracy of our entire view of the outside world going to depend on the hit or miss effect of cranky comments?

When the venomous snake bit their buddy in the neck, the two Mayans in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto blurted out the appropriate word for what we are.

Ed Baker said...

steve THAT is R E A L silver-ware... tarnished!

no doubt about it.. this is "real" Objectiveism...

isn't silver used in// integral to/ photography process? in the film/paper..or in the chemicals? and only in b/w photoing?

a glance at the photos


I most "dig" the process- es in the doing

results happen then (my eye/mind) I just move on.

I got a couple of those LoA productions... like some kind of an Encyclopedia all the books seem alike... physically

a sameness which seems to be the norm/attitude these days is not only boring
but is doing no good for no-boddhi!

lists are also boring...

better use of time/space?

sitting (al;one) quietly in my yard
watching the weeds grow.

Curtis Faville said...


I was merely trying distinguish the main thrust of his work from that of the WPA Dustbowl group, which preceded him by about five years. His work contains much of the same kind of subject-matter, but it's not seen as propaganda.


J said...

OK, and the lack humans would seem to support your POV. Morris's photos then are vaguely social realist, but aestheticized, and stripped of political content: as in, okie's shacks, decaying in the prairie winds-- let them eat taters, or whatever.

Alas, the photos only hint at the problems; we can't see all the relations--like economic, financial or historic which led to the shanty-towns (including, admittedly, the seizure from the natives--that was probably sioux or comanche territory 50 years previous)

They were better off with some muckrakers pullin' for 'em, whether Steinbeck or Sinclair or Miss Tarbell.