Magazine article The Christian Century

Spare Places

Magazine article The Christian Century

Spare Places

Article excerpt

Near the end of the WPA in 1939, I painted a large round sign for a building in Battle Creek, Nebraska (pop. 702), identifying the "Recreation Hall" and "Theatre." A photograph of that hall and sign hangs inside our home entrance hall, framed with a little note typed on an old manual typewriter: "This ground-zero view of Battlecreek, Nebraska, in 1947, is for the native son and honored exile Martin Marty, with the fraternal greeting of W. Morris, well known Platte River cattle rustler. This 16th day of December 1993, in the twilight glow of a bloody century. Wright Morris."

Once or twice later Morris sent postcards with his standard reference to the bloody century. I never met Morris, nor did my son Micah, who framed the print and note. Yet Morris influenced the two of us and his readers immeasurably.

Morris died this spring in California, at age 88, and we mourned him while enjoying quotations in Ralph Blumenthal's obituary in the New York Times (April 29). Morris won all major awards except the Pulitzer, but Blumenthal said he was "often called one of the nation's most unrecognized recognized writers." Unfazed, Morris once said, "I find it harder to account for readers I have than for those I don't," and "Everything is not for everybody."

Morris's spare, sparse prose combined with clear, stark black-and-white photographs of the Great Plains (and elsewhere) inspired Micah's and my coauthored books of photos and reflections.

"There never was a people who tried so hard--and left so little behind as we do," Blumenthal quotes Morris saying of plains dwellers. "There never was a people who traveled so light--and carried so much." But Morris's photographs were more about "place" than about people; I can recall only two that showed a person. …

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