Wright Morris and the Jews

By B, Oliver | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Wright Morris and the Jews


B, Oliver, Shofar


Wright Morris was born in Nebraska in 1910 and left the state by 1925. Despite the relatively short contact, the Midwest was a formative influence as rural and small-town Nebraska and ethnic diversity in Omaha frequently provided material for many of the essays, novels, and photographs produced from 1942 to 1985. The Jewish aspect of Morris's production lies in the characters, plots, and world events generated by Jewish issues including his 1933 residence in Vienna, fascism, the Holocaust, and anti-McCarthyism. Morris acknowledges a deep reading influence of Jewish writers including Isaac Babel, Ettore Svevo, and Marcel Proust. Morris died in 1998. Although much has been written about Morris, this essay provides the first recognition of the Jewish motif in his work.

Wright Morris was born in 1910 in Central City, Nebraska, where he lived for his first nine years. He died in 1998, in Mill Valley, California, his home for the last 36 years. His Omaha childhood, college experience, and 1933 Viennese sojourn captured his imagination and conscience, especially as incidents in his early life highlighted the changing status of the Jews from outsiders to endangered. Jews play an overlooked role in thirteen of his nineteen novels, two short story collections, four works of literary criticism, five books of photographs, and his three-volume memoir. Jews provide vital material evoking the tensions of small-town antisemitism, ethnic neighborhoods, leftwing idealism, rise of fascism, refugees, humanities darkest side, the Holocaust, survivors, McCarthy's red-baiting, and the State of Israel.

Morris's experience and his use of stereotypes of the Jewish body, sexuality, intelligence, and the vagaries of national origins echo James Joyce.(2) In his view Jews were intelligent and likable victims of local and international hostility, constantly adjusting to survive. Without the Jewish characters and their ambiguous national-religious identity, some works by Morris would not have been written, and others would be less potent.

Morris's ancestry, mother's family name, childhood, adult life, and outsider status permeate his sixty years of writing. In 1981 he published Will's Boy, the first volume of his life, followed by Solo: An American Dreamer in Europe: 1933-1934 and A Cloak of Light.(3) His mother, Grace (Osborn) Wright, died six days after he was born, leaving him "half an orphan." His father, William Henry Morris, worked for the railroad, tried farming, and had an egg business. He married Gertrude and in 1919 moved from the Platte Valley to Omaha, where Wright entered the fifth grade at Farnam School. Gertrude left William, who "farmed out" Wright as a foster child to the Mulligans for $5 per week.(4) The mother-loss issue recurs in Morris's fiction and memoir.

The earliest drafts regarding Jews date from around 1936-1937 and record Omaha experiences from 1921 to 1925 in experimental single-page stories called"Profiles and Refrains," later regarded as epiphanies.(5) These drafts, including the Omaha neighborhood Mulligan-Goodman feud, ethnic stereotypes about Jews and Blacks, and their threat to whites, reveal several strains of nativism. First World War anti-German feeling appears in descriptions of Germans as "a goddam German spy. Tell you a man aint safe anymore, spies everywhere," and German doctors traveling around to schools "noculatin 'em for T.B. by shootin the T.B. bug right in 'em -- giving 'em T.B. instead of killin it...some of them give the kids the syph."(6) Morris saw the film The Beast of Berlin, and the "Kaiser Devil" being "burned in effigy." Saying "Auf Wiedersehen" was the nicest thing about meeting Germans.(7)

The parents' nationality, ethnicity, and race marked the child. The 1930s Depression eroded the status of "real" Americans. Joey Mulligan was "seven-eighths Irish one eighth scannavian. Scannavian mostly on my mothers side."

why'd you let the jews run the country back there. Irish looking boy like you, why'd you live back there. …

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