Wolfe on the West Overhang of the Grand Canyon, Photo Courtesy of Pack Library

On Friday, May 24, 2013, The Idaho Humanities Council will co-host a lecture by acclaimed author Robert Morgan.  The lecture, entitled “From the Blue Ridge to the Rocky Mountains: Thomas Wolfe and the American West,” will begin at 7:00 p.m. in the Idaho State Capitol Building and is part of the Thomas Wolfe Society’s 35th annual Conference, to be held at the Grove Hotel in Boise.  In addition to the Wolfe Society, other co-sponsors include the North Carolina Humanities Council and the Hemingway Western Studies Center.

Thomas Wolfe was one of America’s most renowned writers of the early twentieth century.  Among Wolfe’s most celebrated novels are Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and the posthumous You Can’t Go Home Again (1940).  His untimely death in 1938 was brought on in part by an exhausting two-week car trip across the American West, beginning in Oregon and crossing eleven national parks and 4,500 miles of highway. From this whirlwind tour Wolfe would produce his last piece of writing, A Western Journal

Robert Morgan’s lecture will discuss the geography of Wolfe’s life and interests, his early ambition to escape the confines of Asheville and the Blue Ridge Mountains, his subsequent sojourns in Chapel Hill, Harvard, New York, London, Paris, and Germany. Each of these places figures significantly in Wolfe’s fiction.  But near the end of his life Wolfe became a passionate traveler and student of the American West, as though he had found a subject he had been searching for: vast, majestic, challenging.

Robert Morgan-Gap Creek

Robert Morgan, born just south of Thomas Wolfe’s Asheville, in Hendersonville, North Carolina, has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently Terroir (Penguin Poets 2011), eight books of fiction, and two books of nonfiction devoted to America’s westward expansion.  Like his fellow North Carolina native, Robert Morgan’s gaze has been drawn toward the West.

He wrote his first story in the sixth grade, on a day when the rest of his class visited the Biltmore House near Asheville. Morgan reports, “I did not have the three dollars for the trip, and rather than let me sit idle all day my teacher, Dean Ward, suggested I write a story describing how a man lost in the Canadian Rockies, without gun or knife, makes his way back to civilization.  All day I sat in the classroom by myself working at the details of my character’s escape from the wilderness. I was so absorbed in my story I was surprised to find the other students had returned that afternoon.”

Despite this early start in the far American West, in most of his books of fiction and poetry, Morgan has focused on the western frontier of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, not too distant from the Green River Valley farm where he grew up.  Perhaps Morgan’s best known novel, Gap Creek (Algonquin 1999), follows the struggles of a newly wed couple to begin a life together on an abandoned frontier farm in the early twentieth century. Gap Creek won the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (2000), was chosen as a Notable Book by the New York Times, and was selected for the Oprah Book Club and the Appalachian Writers Association’s Book of the Year for 2000.

In 2007, Morgan published a bestselling biography of Daniel Boone, which Michael Kammen, former president of the Organization of American Historians, has called “a riveting account of the real Boone. . . . The brilliant final chapter, unique among Boone biographies, reveals the impact of the frontiersman’s legend on the American literary canon. . . . This is the best of all possible Boones.”

Robert Morgan-Lions of the West

Morgan followed this biography with Lions of the West:  Heroes and Villains of America’s Westward Expansion.  One of the book’s charms is that Morgan allows the reader in most cases to determine which are the heroes and which the villains. This composite biography includes well known figures, such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Johnny Appleseed, Sam Houston, Davy Crocket, and Kit Carson, as well as the less well remembered—for example, Nicholas Trist, the nervous diplomat critical to effecting the peace with Mexico. By turns political biography and military history, Morgan weaves the tale of the U.S. westward expansion in a gripping narrative and questions the nation’s assumptions about Manifest Destiny.  Lions of the West won the SIBA Award in Nonfiction for 2011. Several of his other awards include the James G. Hanes Poetry Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers,  an O. Henry Award, the Thomas Wolfe Award, the Academy Award in Literature, and grants and fellowships from the NEA, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Robert Morgan teaches at Cornell University, where he is presently Kappa Alpha Professor of English.

Robert Morgan’s lecture at the Capitol is free and open to the public.  For more information about Robert Morgan, please visit http://www.robert-morgan.com/