National Book Award - Wright Morris, Forgotten Writer of the Great Plains

I’m always intrigued by the question of how awards model literary legacy.

Consider the counterfactual that Hemingway didn’t win the Nobel literature prize but Thornton Wilder did. Would The Bridge of San Luis Rey and The Eighth Day then replace, or at least rank equal, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms as modern literary canons? After all, Hemingway’s Men Without Women, published in 1927, wasn’t even considered as a shortlist for the Pulitzer that went to San Luis Rey. Neither was The Sun Also Rises, published the year prior and perhaps Hemingway’s best work, considered meritorious enough by the Pulitzer Committee to be on its shortlist.

Or had John O’Hara gotten the 1959 Pulitzer nod for From the Terrace, which the jury committee took “both pride and pleasure in strongly recommending” as its first choice (the prize went to Robert Lewis Taylor’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, the jury’s second choice), might O’Hara’s Ten North Frederick be more widely-prescribed as high school reading?

No award-bestowing committee is faultless, and each of them had been, is, and will be circumscribed by the limits of its own strategic agenda and tactical proclivity. But as far as legacy-building is concern, awards always help. Case in point: Faulkner, who, until his Nobel prize in 1949, was neither widely read nor critically acclaimed as far as awards were concerned. It is trite to say that the Nobel prize helped launched Faulkner’s legacy, and helped earned him the Pulitzers and National Book Awards (“NBA”) for lesser work.

So with just over a week into this year’s NBA announcement, I ran statistics on its past winners and finalists since 1950 based on the information provided on the relevant Wikipedia page. Here are some interesting facts:
  • Saul Bellow had the highest win count: he won thrice with The Adventure of Augie March, Herzog, and Mr Sammler's Planet, and was shortlisted thrice more
  • John Updike was shortlisted on 8 occasions, the current NBA record, but won only twice withRabbit is Rich and The Centaur
  • Vladimir Nabokov was the biggest victim: he was shortlisted 7 times, including in 1959 with his most famous work, Lolita, but had never won the NBA
  • Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates were both on the list 6 times; Roth got the nod twice with Gooodbye, Columbus, his debut, and Sabbath's Theatre. Oates won just once with Them
8 writers won the NBA fiction prize twice, most recent of which is Jesmyn Ward. Other include big names like Cheever, Faulkner, Gaddis, Malamud, Roth and Updike, all of whom are recongizable by their last names. The 8th double-winner is Morris. Doesn’t ring a bell? How about Wright Morris?

If Wright Morris is not on your literary radar, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. He is simply not that well-read today, although in the heydays he was compared to Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner and Willa Cather. The problem lies with the fact that he is a writer of the great plains, and not many people are interested in what happens in Nebraska. In the end, Morris “took literature more seriously than it took him”.

Morris was shortlisted for NBA on 5 occasions, winning two of them, first in 1957 with The Field of Vision and then in 1981 with Plains Song: For Female Voices. His first NBA shortlist was in 1955 with The Huge Season (won by Faulkner’s A Fable). He was also shortlisted in 1958 for Love Among the Cannibals (won by Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle), and in 1961 for Ceremony in Lone Tree (won by Conrad Richter’s The Waters of Kronos). In addition, The Deep Sleep published in 1953 was also shortlisted by a Pulitzer jury. Taken together, Morris had a very fecund decade or so in the 1950s by award measure.

But unlike McCarthy, whose earlier work – also centered around similar vast landscape like the Appalachian and the Great West – were subsequently popularized by All the Pretty Horses’ NBA award, Morris’ oeuvre was hardly, if ever, roused by his NBA success. Maybe if he had also won a Pulitzer, that might have helped. Or maybe if the Great Plains, somehow, emerged as the economic or intellectual epicentre someday.

Regardless, Morris’ first editions are still pretty interesting as collectibles.

The most sought-after (on a relative basis) Morris first edition is The Field of Vision, for which at least two completely different dust jackets exist. The plain one is regarded as the true first and is pretty rare, with most first editions on the market in the colored variant depicting a bull-fighting scene.

Then there is Ceremony in Lone Tree, for which the first printing is quite rare and most first edition copies on the market are second printing. Apparently, the spine of the book was designed to have evenly-stamped gold, and this wasn’t properly done in the first printings so they were recalled from the market shortly upon release.

Here, we showcase some of Morris’ first edition dust jackets, including The Works of Love, which he described as “the lynchpin in my novels concerned with the plains”.