Morgan, Robert (R.) 1944–
MORGAN, Robert (R.) 1944–
PERSONAL: Born October 3, 1944, in Hendersonville, NC; son of Clyde R. (a farmer) and Fannie (Levi) Morgan; married Nancy Bullock, August 6, 1965; children: Benjamin Ray, Laurel Keith, Nancy Kathryn. Education: University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, B.A., 1965; University of North Carolina—Greensboro, M.F.A., 1968.
CAREER: Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC, instructor in English, 1968–69; farmer, housepainter, and writer in Hendersonville, NC, 1969–71; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, lecturer, 1971–73, assistant professor, 1973–78, associate professor, 1978–84, professor of English, 1984–92, Kappa Alpha Professor of English, 1992–, creative writing committee member, 1971–, curriculum committee, 1975–78, director of undergraduate studies, 1980–81, 1984–85, chair of curriculum committee, 1980–81, 1984–85, chair of creative writing committee, 1982, acting chair of department, 1985, 1986–87. McGee Visiting Writer, Davidson College, 1998; Distinguished Visiting Professor of Writing, Appalachian State University, 2000, visiting writer, Furman University, 2002, Blackburn Visiting Writer, Duke University, 2003, visiting professor, Duke University, 2004, visiting writer, East Carolina University, 2005. Has served on various committees, including Corson-Bishop Prize committee, 1974–81, Academy of American Poets Prize committee, 1978–, and Sugarman Prize committee, 1981–83. Has given poetry readings at various colleges and universities including University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, Wells University, University of North Carolina—Greensboro, Carson-Newman University, Louisiana State University, Washington University, Furman University, University of North Carolina—Asheville, Emory University, Cornell University, Wesleyan University, State University of New York—Binghamton, Duke University, Stanford University, and Oxford University.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts grants, 1968, 1974, 1982, and 1987; Southern Poetry Review Prize, 1975; Eunice Tietjens Prize for poetry, 1979; fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts, 1986; Hawthornden fellow in poetry, International Writers Retreat, Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, 1986; Fiction Prize, Jacaranda Review, 1988; Guggenheim fellowship, 1988–89; Amon Liner Prize, Greensboro Review, 1989; fellowship, Bellagio Conference Center, 1989; James G. Hanes Poetry Prize, Fellowship of Southern Writers, 1991; North Carolina Award in Literature, 1991; fellow, Cornell Society for the Humanities, 1992; notable book citation, New York Times, for The Truest Pleasure; book of the year citation, Association of Appalachian Writers, notable book citation, New York Times, and Southern Books Critics Circle Award, all 2000, all for Gap Creek.
Zirconia Poems, Lillabulero Press (Northwood Narrows, NH), 1969.
The Voice in the Crosshairs, Angelfish Press (Ithaca, NY), 1971.
Red Owl (poems), Norton (New York, NY), 1972.
Land Diving (poems), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1976.
Trunk and Thicket, L'Epervier (Seattle, WA), 1978.
Groundwork, Gnomon (Frankfort, KY), 1979.
Bronze Age, Iron Mountain (Emory, VA), 1981.
At the Edge of the Orchard Country, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1987.
The Blue Valleys: A Collection of Stories, Peachtree (Atlanta, GA), 1989.
Sigodlin, Wesleyan University Press, 1990.
Green River: New and Selected Poems, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1991.
The Mountains Won't Remember Us, Peachtree Publishers (Atlanta, GA), 1992.
Good Measure: Essays, Interviews, and Notes on Poetry, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1993.
The Hinterlands: A Mountain Tale in Three Parts, Algonquin (Chapel Hill, NC), 1994.
The Truest Pleasure, Algonquin (Chapel Hill, NC), 1995.
Wild Peavines: New Poems, Gnomon (Frankfort, KY), 1996.
Gap Creek, Algonquin (Chapel Hill, NC), 1999.
The Balm of Gilead Tree and Other Stories, Gnomon (Frankfort, KY), 1999.
Topsoil Road: Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2000.
This Rock, Algonquin (Chapel Hill, NC), 2001.
Brave Enemies: A Novel of the American Revolution, Algonquin (Chapel Hill, NC), 2003.
The Strange Attractor: New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2004.
Editor of Epoch magazine, 1971–75. Contributor to various anthologies, including The Generation of Two Thousand: Contemporary American Poets, edited by William Heyen, Ontario Review Press (New York, NY), 1984; Contemporary Southern Poets, A Geography of Poets, New Directions in Prose and Poetry 26, New Directions in Prose and Poetry 30, and Poet's Choice. Poems and essays have appeared in periodicals, including American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Antaeus, Atlantic, Epoch, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Nation, Paris Review, Parnassus, Poetry, TriQuarterly, and Virginia Quarterly Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Robert Morgan's poetry and fiction explore life in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It was there the author grew up on his family's farm, and his rich experiences there are reflected in his prose, which gives a vivid picture of everyday life in the punishing terrain of Appalachia. His characters are resourceful, philosophical, and hardworking. Some of Morgan's work is based upon family anecdote—stories handed down from his Welsh ancestors who first settled in North Carolina generations ago. According to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, he "aims for the tone of an Appalachian oral history," concentrating particularly on the poor, without romanticizing their lives or condescending to their plight. As Dwight Garner noted in the New York Times Book Review, Morgan's "stripped-down and almost primitive sentences burn with the raw, lonesome pathos of Hank Williams's best songs. Even better, there's not a hint of liberal sanctimony in his work; his plain people stubbornly refuse to become archetypes." In Contemporary Southern Writers, a critic observed: "In a period when disconnection, disaffection, and disaffiliation seem the coin of the poetry realm, it is a pleasure to read a poet as connected as Robert Morgan…. Together with his fine sense of craft, his allegiance to his native area gives his writing a quiet power and universality."
Morgan began writing fiction and poetry in college, and the first seven books he published were all poetry collections. In his verse, Morgan explores Appalachian life through the unseen history of tangible items as well as the eccentric or haunting tales of his kin. The author told Contemporary Southern Writers: "My ideal was to write poetry accessible to everyone, but tough enough, and rich enough, to reveal something on each successive reading. That is an ideal I am still working toward." The Contemporary Southern Writers critic maintained that indeed, in many of his poems, Morgan achieves "a Southern lushness of detail tempered by what one might ordinarily consider a Midwestern reserve and plainness of language." The critic added: "It is hard to think of a contemporary American poet with a deeper sense of family ties, customs, and lore than Morgan. The ordinary, everyday rural objects he looks upon constantly reveal traces and residues of former lives." An essayist for Dictionary of Literary Biography named Morgan "one of the most talented and distinct spokesmen" for Appalachia, its people, and its culture. The essayist went on to describe Morgan as "one of the most prolific, technically accomplished, and consistently interesting poets in contemporary American writing. He is a regionalist in the widest sense of the term, drawing, as many writers have done, on the specific culture and energies of his region as an alternative response both to the breakdown of traditional social, religious, and moral systems in Western culture and to the various solutions to that breakdown that poets and writers have proposed."
Although Morgan has frequently taught writing workshops and courses, he candidly told interviewer Robert West in the Carolina Quarterly that he did not believe "poetry is something that can be taught." He elaborated: "We can encourage young writers and coach them, but what you can't teach them is the very essence of poetry, which is that thrill of discovery, of insight, of seeing something new, of hearing the cadence of poetry. It is simply unteachable. I don't think that the creative writing industry has helped American poetry." He stated that fiction had perhaps been better served by the creative writing industry.
Morgan came to his own fiction writing rather late, but his efforts have been embraced by many readers and book reviewers. His first novel, The Hinterlands: A Mountain Tale in Three Parts, was published when he was about fifty years old. It reveals the lives of several generations of a mountain family, beginning with pioneer Petal Richards, who recalls settling in the wilderness in 1772. Petal's descendants take up the narrative in succeeding sections, describing how they dreamed, and then built, passable roads in the region. New York Times Book Review correspondent Thomas H. Cook wrote: "Though the story is told by three different members of the Richards clan, the voices remain, as befits the depth of their blood relations, truly kindred, united not only by a common experience but also by the intensely stoical philosophy it has produced." The family survives on its instinct for work and endurance, on a firm belief that to give in to spiritual or physical exhaustion is to die. According to Cook, "Such an uncompromising call for fortitude and self-reliance is no longer in fashion, and few would dare offer it to the present generation. But as suggested by this wise, eloquent and at last sobering portrayal of our country's founding generations, such hard truths might yet prove able to guide as well as dignify a life, a family, a nation." In Booklist, Theresa Ducato described The Hinterlands as "a richly textured family saga," that "forebodes as well the ecological changes that civilization has brought to our wilderness."
Religious ecstasy and its effect on a marriage is the subject of Morgan's novel The Truest Pleasure. The story is narrated by Virginia Peace Powell, a Pentecostal Christian who speaks in tongues—but whose faith does not necessarily bring her solace in times of trial. Virginia details the events of her life, particularly her marriage to Tom Powell, a pragmatic working man who takes a dim view of the frenzied camp meetings. "Eloquent, wise and heartbreaking, Morgan's second novel … offers insightful truths about family life and marital relationships," declared a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "Morgan's touch in this novel is deft and assured. Rarely has the experience of religious ecstasy been described with such poetic intensity and lack of condescension." In the New York Times Book Review, Richard Bausch characterized The Truest Pleasure as "a quietly audacious book and, in the end, a mostly successful one. It contains characters and situations that aren't easy to forget, even if they are sometimes bound together only by the fact that they existed within the ken of Mr. Morgan's narrator." Booklist correspondent George Needham praised the author, suggesting that he "has succeeded in a most difficult endeavor, writing a thoroughly entertaining and even moving novel about a time, place, and people that most contemporary Americans know only as cartoons."
The novel Gap Creek propelled Morgan onto the bestseller lists when it was chosen for special attention by television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey early in 2000. The book follows the dire fortunes of Julie Harmon Richards, a poor Appalachian woman who suffers a series of disasters. After witnessing the agonized deaths of her baby brother and her father, Julie marries Hank Richards and moves with him to Gap Creek in South Carolina. Their lives are threatened by fire, flood, and famine—and their meager savings are stolen by con men—as Julie narrates a tale of drudgery and privation. According to Dwight Garner in the New York Times Book Review, Gap Creek "contains more raw information about how to scratch together an existence on an isolated, electricity-free farm than all the back issues of Country Living combined." The critic continued: "Morgan is among the relatively few American writers who write about work knowledgeably, and as if it really matters; you don't begrudge him the 10 or so pages he'll spend describing, for example, how to kill a pig and conserve every last ounce of the fat and meat, right down to the brains." Garner observed that, as the young couple meets crisis after crisis, "the sense of doom can be overwhelming; you begin to feel, as you sometimes do when reading Cormac McCarthy's or Harry Crews's early novels, that the author has been typing with blood on his hands and a good deal of it has rubbed off onto your shirtsleeves." A Publishers Weekly contributor commended Gap Creek as "another compassionate tale of poor people enduring brutal working lives and harsh deprivations with stoic dignity," adding that the work is "a quiet tale told with simplicity and tenderness."
Continuing the story of the Powell family, begun in The Truest Pleasures and continued, to some extent, in Gap Creek, Morgan published This Rock. "This book is about the human soul at war with itself," noted Fred Chappell in the Charlotte Observer. Set in 1920s Appalachia, This Rock tells the story of brothers Moody and Muir Powell, who seem to embody the sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel. The story is narrated by Muir, the younger brother and mother's favorite, as he searches for his calling and his brother's acceptance. After his first failed attempt at preaching, Muir sets off on his own, but after several efforts, returns home and discovers that his true calling is to build his own church. "Perhaps I should have known from the title that Robert Morgan's new novel is about faith," wrote America contributor Emilie Griffin, continuing, "Before I could reflect on the title and try to puzzle out a reference point for it, I was caught up in the story. Morgan is like that. You leaf through a page or two and suddenly the narrative has swept you away." Rebecca Sturm Kelm of Library Journal wrote, "Not a lightweight Bildungsroman, this novel instead illuminates the painful movement from boy to man." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called This Rock "an entirely pleasant read and a testimony to the power of faith and integrity in the face of life's severest hardships," and Joanne Wilkinson of Booklist wrote that "Morgan delivers a surprisingly compelling narrative." Griffin continued, "Thank God for poets. And thank God for this one, Robert Morgan…. He has something to say to us about life and death."
Morgan's next book, Brave Enemies: A Novel of the American Revolution, is again set in the mountains of North Carolina, during the Revolutionary War era. The story concerns Josie Summers, a sixteen-year-old mountain girl forced to flee her abusive stepfather. Disguising herself as a boy, she seeks refuge with a kindly, itinerant preacher, John Trethman. She lives with him for some time before he discovers her true gender. After this occurs, they secretly marry, while Josie continues to maintain her public identity as a male. Trethman is pressed into service by the King's army under General Tarleton, known as a particularly brutal warrior. Though pregnant, Josie has still managed to continue her life as a man, which leads to her service in the Carolina militia. Both John and Josie endure great hardships and see terrible scenes of war before they are reunited. According to Margaret Flanagan in Booklist, "The homespun dialogue and understated narrative authenticate this heartrending period piece." Ann Fleury, a writer for Library Journal, noted that Morgan's poetic background is much in evidence throughout the novel, both in "the graceful language and luminous description of the countryside and in the introspectiveness and humanity of his characters." A Publishers Weekly reviewer also recommended the book, stating: "With tremendous narrative pace, a meticulous eye for colorful detail and a tight grasp of historical setting and military action," the author offers readers "a rousing and affecting tale of the American Revolution."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Heyen, William, editor, The Generation of Two Thousand: Contemporary American Poets, Ontario Review Press (New York, NY), 1984.
America, October 15, 2001, Emilie Griffin, "Restless in Appalachia," p. 38.
Booklist, April 1, 1994, p. 1424; September 1, 1995, p. 41; September 1, 1999, Nancy Pearl, review of Gap Creek, p. 69; June 1, 2000, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Gap Creek, p. 1850; July, 2001, Joanne Wilkinson, review of This Rock, p. 1952; August, 2003, Margaret Flanagan, review of Brave Enemies: A Novel of the American Revolution, p. 1956.
Carolina Quarterly, fall, 1997, Robert West, interview with Robert Morgan; spring-summer, 2004, Tessa Joseph, "'The Authentic Reader': An Interview with Robert Morgan," p. 68.
Charlotte Observer, April 28, 2002, "Which Book Should We Read? Avid Readers Give Their Ideas."
Choice, March, 1973.
Entertainment Weekly, October 19, 2001, review of This Rock, p. 76.
Epoch, Volume XXVIII, number 1, 1977.
Houston Chronicle, December 30, 2001, Sharan Gibson, review of This Rock, p. 21.
Ironwood, number 6, 1975.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2001, review of This Rock, p. 1057.
Library Journal, September 1, 1999, Ann. H. Fisher, review of Gap Creek, p. 234; October 1, 2000, John Hiett, review of Gap Creek, p. 165; September 15, 2001, Rebecca Sturm Kelm, review of This Rock, p. 114; August, 2003, Ann Fleury, review of Brave Enemies, p. 133.
New York Times Book Review, December 10, 1989, p. 32; July 24, 1994, p. 12; October 29, 1995, p. 20; October 10, 1999, Dwight Garner, review of Gap Creek, p. 10; January 30, 2000, David L. Ulin, review of The Balm of Gilead Tree, p. 23; October 14, 2001, Katharine Whittemore, review of This Rock, p. 21; January 5, 2003, Scott Veale, review of This Rock, p. 16.
Parnassus, fall-winter, 1981.
Poetry, January, 1988, p. 370; September, 1991, p. 345; July, 1992, p. 219; February, 2003, David Baker, review of Heaven and Earth, p. 285.
Publishers Weekly, April 27, 1992, p. 253; March 7, 1994, p. 55; July 24, 1995, p. 48; August 23, 1999, p. 46; September 13, 1999, review of The Balm of Gilead Tree, p. 61; August 27, 2001, review of This Rock, p. 56; June 2, 2003, review of Brave Enemies, p. 29.
School Library Journal, April, 2002, Francisca Goldsmith, review of This Rock, p. 186.
South Carolina Review, spring, 2001, Skip Eisiminger, review of Topsoil Road: Poems, p. 181.
Southern Living, July, 1994, p. 36.
Southern Quarterly, summer, 2000, Harriette Buchanan, review of The Balm of Giliead Tree, p. 145.
Tennessean (Nashville, TN), October 21, 2001, Rick Tamble, review of This Rock, p. 42.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 2001, review of Topsoil Road, p. 147.