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Book Review : Skillful Styles From Two Storytellers

February 26, 1987|DORIS BETTS | Betts is a North Carolina-based teacher and writer. and

Collected Stories of Jessamyn West (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $17.95)

Collected Stories 1848-1986 by Wright Morris (Harper & Row: $17.95)

Good writers with long, productive lives earn not only the benefits of cumulative readers who see their work in context, but also, eventually their reputations will be confirmed and emphasized when earlier work is reissued as collected poems or stories. Acquisitions librarians may then remedy their original omissions.

Two of the best such recent story collections are by the late Jessamyn West, born 1902 (she died in February, 1984), and Wright Morris, born 1910; she with 19 previous books to her credit and he with 27, both made homes in California, each with a distinguished literary reputation built over four decades.

West, an Indiana native and graduate of Whittier, descended from a long line of Quaker ministers, is best known for her 1955 novel, "The Friendly Persuasion," as well as the William Wyler film made from it on which she served as technical adviser. She has been published since 1945. Besides her fiction, she wrote an autobiography, and her work is the subject of a critical book by Alfred Shivers. One of her stories, "Love, Death, and the Ladies Drill Team," appears in many college anthologies.

More Contrasts

Morris, who retired from teaching at San Francisco State in 1975, also has a best-known novel that is also about a complex family, "Ceremony at Lone Tree." Winner of both the American and National Book Awards, he has published three volumes of memoirs and is the subject of considerable critical attention. His work, including five volumes of photographs with text, has been appearing since 1942, and this story, "The Ram in the Thicket," is frequently reprinted.

But in style, subject matter, tone, even audience, the two writers and their collected stories offer more contrasts than comparisons.

Morris said recently that he saw "the world itself as a novel lacking an intelligible authorized text." These 25 stories represent 42 years of Wright's observations of that world, in setting that range from Italy to Brooklyn Heights. "Glimpse Into Another Country," for example, sends the elderly Hazlitt cross-country to New York City for a second medical opinion. His puzzled, confusing visit there is like being lost among exotic simians who seem almost but not quite of his own species.

In "The Customs of the Country," another old man becomes an astonished witness to one child's half-prankish drowning of another. In certain Morris stories, animals receive almost as much careful characterization as people--old man Bundy's dog Victrola, a cat named Bloom who loses his meow, a crow, a Leghorn pullet. Steadily in impeccable prose that usually gets him called a "writer's writer," Morris studies the human condition with curiosity and analytical mind. One of his characters, bookish Shuler in "The Origin of Sadness," trembles when he examines a gorilla in the Philadelphia zoo. "Greater than the unspoken kinship, the shared captivity in a world not to their liking, Shuler divined the ape's despair at his place in a cul-de-sac of evolution. No exit existed. His awareness of this entrapment seemed as obvious to Shuler as man's awareness, seen in his effort to escape the planet and inhabit space."

Gentle With Her Eccentrics

West's world is warmer and, understandably, more popular; some of these 38 stories appeared in Woman's Day, Ladies' Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post. Her narrators are less likely to be observers, more likely to be parents, children, neighbors. Morris has one story ("In Another Country") in which Ralph goes to Ronda, Spain, because Hemingway and Rilke did; West writes of a California grape grower ("Tom Wolfe's My Name") who believes he is the real Thomas Wolfe and has painstakingly copied all that Wurlitzer prose into notebooks, even dies on the very day Wolfe's death is announced by Scribner's. She is gentle with her eccentrics as well as her animals; in "The Day of the Hawk," a woman grieving about an abortion feels compelled by guilt to stop death from overwhelming anything else organic--bees, spiders, gophers. Patterns repeat themselves among grandmothers, mothers and daughters here, while in Morris, the human stamp is recognized in the crowd, or divined when the child finds a fossil in a ditch.

Both collections are skillfully wrought and engrossing to read. To read them simultaneously is to enjoy good prose set to different purposes--I read West for kinship and comfort then turned to Morris, sometimes reluctantly, for truths that were more stringent and harder to bear. Rather than choose between their content or be sidetracked onto any nonsense about gender, it may be useful to remember what William James said about the tough and tender-minded.

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