When Robert R. Morgan, English, came to Cornell in 1971, he began to think more about the place he was from. “I became very interested in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina,” Morgan says. “I began looking into the history of that region, the Cherokee Nation, the geology and geography, and the experience there during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. I became a student of the southern Appalachians.”
Morgan had already been writing about family and the South. As an undergraduate, the first story he wrote recounted his great grandmother’s experience of the Civil War in South Carolina, replete with bodies piled up on porches. After arriving at Cornell, Morgan became more devoted to research. That research has been making its way into his acclaimed fiction, poetry, and nonfiction ever since.
Poetry, the Mother Art
The author of 14 books of poetry, 10 volumes of fiction, and three books of nonfiction, Morgan says he never gets writer’s block. “Working in poetry and prose is a great advantage—I just switch to the other genre when I get stalled,” he laughs.
Morgan is always working on multiple projects at once—with poetry a constant underpinning of his creative life. His fourteenth poetry collection, Dark Energy (Penguin Random House), was published in 2015. “It’s the poetry that’s kept me going all of these years,” Morgan says.
It’s the mother art. Morgan says, “It’s just the delight of language, images, seeing the world in metaphors. Some theorists have considered the very origins of language to be in poetry, that language developed for the sheer pleasure of it, making sounds, finding the names of things, and telling stories,” he says. “You would point and gesture to communicate what you needed to, but making an onomatopoeic sound, that’s sheer pleasure.”
Morgan finds joy especially in the use of metaphor in Native American languages. For a long time, he says, scholars tried to find the meaning of a river’s name in his home region: the Tuckesegee River. “One idea they came up with was that it’s the sound of the water on the rocks,” he says. “Tuckesegee, Tuckesegee. How beautiful is that?”
In Plain Prose, Storytelling Experiences Other Than His Own
In prose Morgan’s emphasis on the sounds of language recedes slightly, to give full weight to the events. He describes his style as transparent. “I like to write very plain prose that makes the events vivid. So it’s what happens that’s important,” he says.
His most recent novel, Chasing the North Star (Algonquin Books, 2016), tells the story of a teenage slave, Jonah, who escapes after being punished for something he didn’t do. Jonah makes his way, with a fellow runaway, through the Appalachian Mountains, all the way to Ithaca. “It’s an adventure story, what they call a picaresque novel, about the difficulties and dangers they confront,” Morgan explains.
The novel showcases one of the common risks Morgan takes in his fiction—to write about an experience that is not his own. “That has been the most important evolution in my fiction,” Morgan says. “A great breakthrough happened for me in the spring of 1989—I realized that you could let characters tell their own stories.”
“I could have bored you for hours with information from manuals or the routes they took over Amsterdam. But I couldn’t get started. I was bogged down in all this technical information. One day, I saw that I could create a fiancée for this soldier and let her tell the story.”
Morgan had been doing research for what would become his novella, The Mountains Won’t Remember Us (Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1992). He had set out to write about his uncle’s life and death during World War II—his uncle was killed in an airplane crash. “I had done an enormous amount of research on the air war,” Morgan says. “I could have bored you for hours with information from manuals or the routes they took over Amsterdam. But I couldn’t get started. I was bogged down in all this technical information. One day, I saw that I could create a fiancée for this soldier and let her tell the story.”
Morgan says he tried to become like an actor, erasing himself to get into the mind of his character—with her particular way of thinking, her education, interests, and emotions. “It was scary, writing from the point of view of a woman. But by the time I’d written 30 pages, I knew it was the best thing I’d ever done. I’d escaped from my own experience into the fictive world of the imagination,” Morgan says.
Morgan acknowledges the counter argument—that writers should stick to what they know. He says that argument is dangerous. “Art doesn’t work that way,” he explains. “If you start to tell people what they can and cannot write about, you’re getting towards censorship, dictatorship. Fiction writing is about reaching across boundaries—gender, ethnicity, race, language, time. That’s why we read fiction, to connect with lives different from ours.”
Writing about Women of the West
In a large nonfiction project, Morgan is currently working to give readers access to women’s experiences during the western expansion of the United States. This is a sequel to Lions of the West (Algonquin Books, 2011), Morgan’s examination of 10 major male heroes and villains of the American frontier.
In his new book with the working title “Women of the West” Morgan profiles seven women—from Nancy Ward, one of the last Woman Warriors of the Cherokee; to Rebecca Boone, the wife of Daniel Boone; to Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who helped lead Lewis and Clark through the west. The longest section will tell the story of Libbie Custer, the widow of George Armstrong Custer, who wrote three books about her experience living in army camps on the frontier.
He will end the book with an epilogue featuring Modesta Avila, a Chicana homesteader in 1880s California. Avila protested when the Santa Fe Railroad cut through her property without adequate compensation. She was arrested and subsequently died of pneumonia in jail. “She’s a great heroine of the Chicano people in southern California, and I thought it would be appropriate to end with her, her sacrifice,” Morgan says.
From Science to Storytelling, From Appalachia to Ithaca
Morgan is a natural storyteller. So it’s surprising that he once thought he’d be a rocket scientist instead. “I had been raised on a little farm by fundamentalists, and when I got into my early teens and began to discover science, it was just the most wonderful thing,” Morgan says. “It was like world opened onto world—with new ways of looking at time, the earth, space, and our place in all of it.”
Morgan pursued aerospace engineering and applied mathematics through his first two years of college, but a snag in his schedule one semester allowed him to take an extracurricular course. He chose creative writing. Morgan wrote the story about his great grandmother who had been taken out of the North Carolina mountains during the Civil War, for protection, only to be transplanted to central South Carolina. When Union troops moved through unexpectedly, the area was devastated.
“So I wrote this little story, and the teacher came into the class and said he wept,” Morgan says. “None of my math teachers had ever said that to me. It’s a kind of validation that really means something at that age. After that, the writing just slowly took me over.”
In 1971, Morgan came to teach at Cornell for a year but was then invited to stay. “I was thrilled. This is the truth—if I could have chosen any university in the country, I’d have chosen Cornell,” he says.
Morgan cites the level of excellence across campus, from the humanities to the sciences, to his students, colleagues, and the great tradition of writers. Being in Ithaca, on the lake, amidst vineyards, resonates with him as well. “I realized early on that this is part of the Appalachian chain,” he says. “You get outside of Ithaca, down to Tioga County, and it looks and feels very much like home.”