Robert Morgan, professor of English (ENGL).

Courtesy of Cornell University

Robert Morgan, professor of English (ENGL).

October 6, 2019

Cornell Celebrates Prof. Robert Morgan

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Prof. Robert Morgan, English, is an author from Hendersonville, N.C. who has written everything from a Daniel Boone biography to a novel in which he invokes the voice of a young enslaved man. He is fearlessly Appalachian and speaks wisely with a charming twang. He is also one of the English department’s most beloved faculty.

On Thursday, a group of roughly 40 English professors gathered in a conference room in the Statler Hotel to celebrate one of their own, Morgan, as he turns 75. The day was filled with readings, panels and difficult questions. Ultimately, an exaltation of American perspective prevailed.

Morgan specializes in creative writing and American Letters. He has taught at Cornell since 1971. He is incredibly prolific and has written 14 books of poetry, nine volumes of fiction and many short stories. His most well known work is Gap Creek, a New York Times bestseller which was featured in Oprah’s Book Club. Through his work, Morgan traces themes of marriage, parenthood and landscape.

During a panel on which the other discussed his inspirations and the writing process, Morgan shared a bit of his philosophy: “Poetic imagination is a holistic animism. It’s holistic because everything is connected. It is an animism because everything is alive within it.”

Morgan regales in his imagination, although it never leads him too far from home. Though his characters are well built and his themes believable, they seldom leave the sphere of Appalachia. To a certain extent, he follows the famous adage of fellow American storyteller Mark Twain. “Write what you know.”

Panelist Prof. Kenneth McClane, English, asked him if he felt anxious about writing from the perspective of two enslaved black people as a white person. Morgan shrugged: “We create our best characters from going farther than ourselves. I hope not to sentimentalize Appalachian themes, but this is the narrative I need to tell.”

Prof. Roger Gilbert, English, shares his colleague’s poetry with students in his creative classes because he says, “aside from the fact that he [Morgan] is one of the greatest writers to ever teach at Cornell, he is just remarkably grounded in a reservoir of cultural memory and geographical imagery.”

To those who have never read any of Morgan’s work, Gilbert recommends Gap Creek. “It’s a classic,” he adds. For the poetically inclined, Topsoil Road offers smooth verse at the intersection of Cherokee lore and careful observation. And even for the scientists, Gilbert suggests Dark Energy, a collection of poems which exalt the practice of close looking on a scale as small as atoms and as large as the cosmos.

Morgan’s oeuvre is worth being read, discussed and critiqued now more than ever. His voice is remarkably American, and his wisdom is profound. Chances are he would love to share it with you.

Greta Gooding is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gfg39@cornell.edu.