Echoes and Influences: A Comparative Study of Short Fiction by Ernest Hemingway and Robert Morgan

By Grimes, Larry | Southern Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Echoes and Influences: A Comparative Study of Short Fiction by Ernest Hemingway and Robert Morgan


Grimes, Larry, Southern Quarterly


Those of us who heard Robert Morgan's keynote speech in 1999 at the Air Force Academy's Conference on Hemingway and War can have no doubt that his fiction was influenced by the writing of Ernest Hemingway. ' At the outset of the address Morgan shared his experience of the change that came over his literary imagination when, at age sixteen, he first read several of the Michigan stories and A Farewell to Arms (1929). Prior to 1961, Morgan's model for fiction writing had been Thomas Wolfe. As he put it, Wolfe's works were

the rhetoric with which I had been inebriated for many months, when I discovered the work of Ernest Hemingway in 1961. Oddly enough, I had just begun to read Hemingway a few weeks before his death. I had discovered several of the Michigan stories and had begun A Farewell to Arms. And I had begun to discover a new kind of poetry. Hemingway's prose was as powerful as Wolfe's, but in a very different way. Hemingway's diction was plain and spare, his sentences stripped down, his observations understated. I discovered that Hemingway could achieve his most powerful effects with quiet language and - something new to me - irony.2

Not only did the discovery of Hemingway's works change Morgan's youthful literary sensitivities, I think the case can be made that Hemingway's work continues to influence his fiction and that echoes of Hemingway's works appear often in Morgan's writing, especially in this short stories. In this essay, I will catalogue and analyze Hemingway's presence in five stories from Morgan's 1999 collection, The Balm of Gilead Tree as testimony to the influence Hemingway had and has on Morgan's fiction. The five stories are: "The Tracks of Chief de Soto," "A Brightness New and Welcoming," "The Welcome," "Tailgunner," and "The Balm of Gilead Tree."

Certainly Robert Morgan's works are Robert Morgan's works, and they reflect his own style and grow from the particular soil of his North Carolina mountain home. As might be expected, they show the influence of great Southern novelists, such as Wolfe and Faulkner. However, it is clearly the ghost of Hemingway that haunts the text, style and theme, in The Balm of Gilead Tree. Like Hemingway's In Our Time (1925), the stories in Morgan's collection are held together across time, as the lives of characters are disrupted and displaced by wars and their aftermath, by a constant return to place (Hemingway's Northern Michigan, Morgan's Green River valley). Morgan's historical scope is much larger than Hemingway's, stretching from first encounters of Native Americans with the Spanish to post- Vietnam years. Hemingway's stories deal only with the first two decades of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, they share a concern with the power of place and its claim on, and potential for renewing, the children of that place.

Like Hemingway's In Our Time, Morgan's Balm of Gilead Tree begins with a story about the intrusion of white men into an Indian encampment. The reader is a witness to violence and death in both stories, though the plot lines are quite different. Hemingway tells the story of a white doctor summoned to an Indian Camp to help a woman with a difficult birth. The woman survives a primitive Caesarean delivery. Her husband is found dead, a suicide. One reading of the story suggests that the doctor's brother, Uncle George, is father to the child.3 In this reading, the dilution of Native American culture by the intrusion of European ways is placed in the foreground. Similarly, Morgan tells a tale of European intrusion into the daily life of the Cherokee. The mating of Cherokee and Spaniard, in Morgan's story, results in the extinguishing of a sacred fire that had warmed the village for generations.

Although there are echoes of "Indian Camp" in "The Tracks of Chief de Soto," there is also significant divergence. Most important, I think, is the difference in gender roles between the stories. Women in Hemingway's "Indian Camp" are victims and shadows. …

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