'I Want Soul': An Interview with C. E. Morgan

By Domestico, Anthony | Commonweal, July 8, 2016 | Go to article overview

'I Want Soul': An Interview with C. E. Morgan


Domestico, Anthony, Commonweal


In 2009, C. E. Morgan published All the Living, a lonesome, lovely debut novel set on a Kentucky tobacco farm. Morgan knew the landscape well: she grew up just over the border in southern Ohio and attended Berea College, a tuition-free liberal-arts college in Madison County, Kentucky.

Morgan wrote the first draft of All the Living in a mere fourteen days, the period between semesters at Harvard Divinity School, where she was studying religion and literature at the time. Despite its sudden birth, the book has a chiseled feel. The prose has clarity and heft, strengths derived from Morgan's Biblical cadences and from her sensitivity to the Kentucky landscape. There are remarkable sentences on almost every page: "The white bunched blossoms had breasted out of their buds overnight"; a trailer "jagged out like an aluminum finger from a limestone wall topped by firs, bone out of bone"; "it was as though someone had come along with a plane and sheared off all the extra that once cushioned him. He was like something corded, every movement curtailed. "Recognition immediately followed publication. Morgan won a Whiting Award and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. In 2010, she was selected as a "5 Under 35"by the National Book Foundation. In February, she received one of Yale University's three Windham-Campbell Prizes in Fiction, and with it a $150,000 award.

Now Morgan's second novel, The Sport of Kings, has been published. In many ways, it is a departure from All the Living. It moves across time (from the slavery era of the antebellum South up to the present, when mass incarceration obtains); across class (from the urban poor of Cincinnati to the old rural money of Kentucky); and across styles (some sections are written in a Faulknerian frenzy, others in a Lawrentian heat, still others in a dialogue heavy, hardened realist mode). The novel centers on the Forges, an old Kentucky family of planters with dynastic ambitions. Under Henry, the current patriarch, the family business has shifted to horses: he and his daughter Henrietta are consumed with breeding a Derby winner. The idea of breeding, of course, comes freighted with all kinds of ugliness, and Morgan uses the Forge family history to explore race, class, biology, sex, and fate in one of the best works of fiction I've read in a long time. I interviewed Morgan via e-mail.

ANTHONY DOMESTICO: You've said that you went to Harvard Divinity School because of "a preoccupation with what moral beauty looks like. "How do you understand the phrase "moral beauty,"and where do you find it? And what role did the morally beautiful play in writing The Sport of Kings, which is filled with so many kinds of moral ugliness--racism, most prominently?

C. E. MORGAN: I think of moral beauty as what is the good and the just--terms perhaps best defined by their opposite: evil. Evil is the willingness to do damage to the other; its maximal expression is murder, but it includes a great deal of subtle and not-so-subtle injuries as it advances to that extreme. Evil acts reduce the other to an object, a being to its component parts, and obliterate subjectivity. Evil's breeding ground is a lack of empathy. So I locate moral beauty in an other-regarding ethic. Or perhaps it's better to say it's not located anywhere, because it's not a static entity. It's love, and love is not a feeling but an action.

Ultimately, I don't know if love is an organizing principle we choose or if it's innate. I'm not sure the distinction matters to me much anymore; I just care about how we can reduce unnecessary suffering. I think that means learning to love in both the micro and the macro; engaging in ethical action at the level of intimacy and friendship, but also at the vocational level through our chosen work in the world, our right livelihood. In practical terms for me, that means I try to live in close attunement to my husband, trying every day to practice compassion and deep listening, taking his suffering and joys as my own. …

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