The Home Place
By Wright Morris (RIP 1910 - 1998)
Published in 1948, this book is a small hidden gem. Morris who grew up in Nebraska but later lived in Chicago and San Francisco, set many of his stories on the Nebraska plains amidst the quirky people he remembered from his youth. Morris won two National Book Awards for Field of Vision (1957) and Plains Song (1980). The Home Place is a unique book, set in the Lone Tree, Nebraska of his youth and time spent with extended family. After living away for years, Morris made two one day visits to the former home places of his extended family. He took many photographs and spent time with people still there. From this he later constructed this short story. The book has been considered significant in several ways by critics. One is that Morris was a pioneer in the combination of text and photography (he was also an award winning photographer); so each set of pages in this book consist of a page of text and a full page black and white still life photo from the remains of the Nebraska he remembered. It is a book of high artistic expression.
The second reason the book is admired by critics is the raw first person narrative that Morris uses though the story. He reconstructs a visit made by the narrator (and his family) from their high rise 1930's city life in New York City back to his childhood home (due to the great depression the narrator is without a home and seeking refuge for his family among his extended family back on the farm). The character of the people and small town, the vastness of the plains and brutality of the weather, along with the foods, smells, and ordinary images of life grown old and poor with the aging of family, failures of the economy and entropy of time. In the photos everything appears well used, deeply known, rough and its only wisdom and love that seems to offer any redemption to such a scene. The book captures a time, a people and a place that is diminishing in familiarity in this country as each year passes. Not many people are living who where of age to even recall their lives in the 1930's. So, I feel even now more than ever, that works like Morris's need to be rediscovered and read anew. Not expecting a contemporary story but expecting to enter into a new (older) form of life that profoundly left it's deep marks upon the psyche of Americans.
An example of the beauty and stark power of this book might be understood from this passage which has the narrator sharing his first person thoughts as he makes his way around the old home place:
"For thirty years I've had a clear idea what the home place lacked, and why the old man pained me, but I've never really known what they had. I know now. But I haven't the word for it. The word beauty is not a protestant thing. It doesn't describe what there is about an old man's shoes. The protestant word for that is character. Character is suppose to cover what I feel about a cane-seated chair, the the faded bib, with the ironed-in stitches, of an old man's overalls. Character is the word, but it doesn't cover the ground. It doesn't cover what there is moving about it, that is. I say these things are beautiful, but I do so with the understanding that mighty few people anywhere will follow what I mean. That's too bad. For this character is beautiful. I'm not going to labor the point, but there is something about these man-tired things, something added, that is more than character." (p. 141)
As I read this wonderful little book, I kept thinking of the poetry of Loren Eiseley who also grew up in and then spent the rest of his life remembering Nebraska. It is a place or at least was a place that can do that to the heart. In his Notes of an Alchemist (1972), Eiseley shared his poem entitled simply "The Cabin." It is similarly about a return to an older time upon the Nebraska plains. I am reviewing this poem on the blog, listed under the Poems section from the drop down menu.