The memoirs of Wright Morris: views from an unconventional angle

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A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life, by Wright Morris. New York: Harper & Row. 320 pp. $19.95. Wright Morris isn't just getting older, he's getting better. After publishing nearly 30 volumes of fiction, photo-text collages, and cultural criticism, this aggressively American (Nebraska-born) writer has recently taken to compiling his memoirs. This flavorful, amusing book is the third and concluding installment (``Will's Boy'' and ``Solo'' preceded it).

It begins with a backward look at an ill-fated college romance, then focuses, in turn, on Morris's marriage and fledgling literary career, his compulsive traveling, his several returns to home grounds and reunions with family. The book climaxes with an extended account of Morris's trip to Venice accompanied by the woman who would become his second wife, then concludes in 1960 with the publication of a new novel and the implication that a new life was then beginning.

Morris's style is wonderfully pictorial, characterized by odd juxtapositions of words and images. He doesn't sound quite like anyone else, as he recounts misadventures (being ``picked up as a vagrant, and charged with being a possible spy'' in South Carolina), or as he offers deadpan descriptions of the wonders he's seen. Morris sees the humor, even the absurdity, in his own personality, ambitions, and actions; his good nature and energy come through strongly in these pages, as does his photographer's habit of viewing things from an unconventional angle, trying out grouping and framing tactics as he looks at them.

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We see how ideas and images rolled around in his mind (often for years), changing shape, waning and waxing in intensity, ending up transformed in his fiction. Morris explains, perhaps better than any other writer has, how the traveler's lust for new places and sensations ``provokes and sustains imagemaking, the supreme form of daydreaming.'' He wrestles with the idea of art as self-fulfillment (against ``real losses'' it opposes ``imaginary gains'') and examines via metaphor -- the title image of ``a cloak of light'' -- what it is that seems to make the writer different, and distant, from other people; that protective, sustaining nimbus which surrounds him, enfolding him in his own sensitivity, fragility, and (Morris freely admits it) egotism. The resulting self-portrait makes this one of Wright Morris's most accessible and attractive books.

Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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