Forty-five years of teaching at Cornell and Robert Morgan, the Kappa Alpha Professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences, is still going strong, with a just-released new novel, “Chasing the North Star,” and a recent poetry collection, “Dark Energy.”
Set in 1851, the year after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, “Chasing the North Star” tells the story of runaway slave Jonah Williams and his perilous journey towards freedom. As with Morgan’s other eight other works of fiction, this one is hard to put down once begun. But the story is far more complex than a simple tale of page-turning adventure. Jonah’s curiosity is both the making and almost the breaking of him, and it leads him into a tangled relationship with Angel, the book’s second protagonist, another runaway slave.
Morgan’s rich grasp of historical detail makes Jonah’s and Angel’s experiences feel close, almost familiar, despite the distance of their historical period: these are people we can understand. Jonah, though, is working hard to puzzle out his world. While Angel knows her own mind and is confident she knows Jonah’s, too, his insatiable thirst for learning applies even to the apples he eats. In one memorable scene, he struggles to define the apple, which he sees as both beautiful and a sign of guilt. “It was the black soil of rottenness that gave apples their richness,” he concludes.
Although much of the novel takes place in Morgan’s beloved Appalachian hills, for the first time he also places some of the action in the Ithaca area. He describes Ithaca itself as a town that “lay at the edge of the lake, with steeples that shone like points of snowflakes and big brown buildings with many eyes stretched along the sides of hills.”
As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s review noted, Morgan’s writing is “clear and simple, yet it possesses a luminous poetic quality, a rough beauty hewn from the countryside and from old, forgotten ways.” Morgan’s fourteen books of poetry possess that same luminous quality, as does his recently published poetry volume, “Dark Energy” (Penguin Random House). Like “Chasing the North Star”, the poems draw inspiration from Morgan’s native Blue Ridge Mountains, exploring the hidden dramas of the natural world as well as the more familiar dramas of childhood and family. The title evokes the way the poems reach beyond surfaces, “to the strange forces inside atoms, our genes, our heritage, and outward to the farthest movements of galaxies, the dark energy we cannot explain but recognize in our bones and blood, in our deepest memories and imagination.”
Morgan’s works have received numerous awards, including a 2007 Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. Morgan has received Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships and was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2010. His acclaimed 1999 novel "Gap Creek" and his 2007 biography of Daniel Boone were both national bestsellers.
Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.