Thomas Wolfe and Robert Morgan: Influence and Correspondences

By Godwin, Rebecca | Thomas Wolfe Review, Annual 2014 | Go to article overview

Thomas Wolfe and Robert Morgan: Influence and Correspondences


Godwin, Rebecca, Thomas Wolfe Review


Often acknowledging Thomas Wolfe's inspiration for his own writing life, Robert Morgan does his part to advance the legacy of the famous writer born thirty miles from Morgan's North Carolina home near Zirconia, close to Hendersonville and Flat Rock. When asked why North Carolina boasts so many writers, Morgan answers, first, "Thomas Wolfe," for his success enabled others to see writing as a possibility ("O Lost" 6). In numerous public addresses, Morgan has reiterated the influence Wolfe had on his life and writing. Speaking to Thomas Wolfe Society members in 2000, Wolfe's centennial year, he shared the story of finding Look Homeward, Angel on the shelves of Henderson County's bookmobile when he was fifteen. Morgan also told that story in Colorado the previous year as part of his keynote address for the "Hemingway and War" Conference at the United States Air Force Academy. There, he called Wolfe's novel the "greatest discovery" he made the year before going to college ("Hemingway" 138), and he underscored that discovery in his 2008 Thomas Wolfe Lecture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His 2013 Thomas Wolfe Society address explored Wolfe's American West travel journal as well as his writing about the Blue Ridge Mountains, whose landscape and people are central to Morgan's own literary production. (1)

Morgan also has composed three poems about Wolfe, two as commemorations: "Legends" for Wolfe's centennial and "Ancient Talk of Mountains" for the 2013 meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society in Boise, Idaho. (2) His previous poem about Wolfe, "Looking Homeward," which appears in At the Edge of the Orchard Country (1987), is divided between (an unnamed) Wolfe and a Blue Ridge moonshiner. The poem offers diverse visions of home embodying the contradictions that nurture most artists' work, including Morgan's. His portrait of Wolfe shows the writer in his Brooklyn apartment kitchen:

      A giant in undershirt
   and suspenders bends his tiny head
   under the lamp and scrawls
   enormous script, brushing the pages
   to the already cluttered floor,
   and pausing just long enough to number
   the next, continues the rush of the sentence.

      He rubs
   out a cigarette and, cursing the pen,
   fills it from a jar and starts again,
   lusting to sweep out across the virgin space
   like an explorer leaving the scripture
   of signs over acres and acres
   claimed by this deed of writing. (lines 8-14, 26-32)

Sharing Wolfe's passion for leaving a "scripture of signs," Morgan thus far has published six novels, fifteen collections of poetry and three of short stories, a biography of Daniel Boone, a book of biographical portraits of key figures in America's westward expansion, and a collection of essays, notes about poetry, and interviews. Another poetry book will appear in 2015, and his seventh novel awaits publication the next year. This prolific writer's account of Wolfe's impact, particularly on his fiction, invites us to explore deeper parallels between him and the man whose October 3 birthday he gladly shares. (3)

Morgan credits Look Homeward, Angel with stoking his writing ambition and an appreciation for autobiography and biography in telling human stories. Growing up, Morgan read in local papers about the scandal surrounding Wolfe's portrayal of Asheville, where the Morgan family went Christmas shopping, and saw in the Hendersonville cemetery the stone angel referenced in the title of Wolfe's famous book. Seeing in print Wolfe's descriptions of places he knew made Morgan recognize his spot of earth as literature-worthy and exhorted him to "write, write, write" (Morgan, "O Lost" 8). Of course, like other young readers of Look Homeward, Angel, he also identified with Eugene Gant's inner turmoil. To Morgan, reading Wolfe's novel provided "a revelation about how ambitious and thrilled and scared I was, and about how 'lost' I felt." Morgan explains the special connection he felt with Wolfe further: "Eugene Gant's parents seemed like my own parents, and his anxieties and frustrations . …

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