The author Robert Morgan’s latest book tells the story of ten American legends who were deeply involved in westward expansion. The Ithaca, New York based writer is in Boise tonight to read from his book Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion.
Morgan divides Lions of the West into nine chapters, each one devoted to one figure of America’s Manifest Destiny. He begins with Thomas Jefferson and ends with Nicholas Trist who fell in love with Jefferson’s daughter.
But Morgan says American frontiersman Kit Carson took him by surprise the most. “I was surprised at the truth of the legend,” he explained in a recent interview. “I mean the more I investigated I realized it was true. He really knew all those Indian languages and knew this vast region of the West from Montana and Idaho where he had trapped for the American Fur Company all the way down to Mexico.”
Morgan’s first historical nonfiction work is called Boone, a biography about Daniel Boone. But he’s spent most of his career writing poetry and fiction. Sadie Babits talked with him about making that transition to historical nonfiction and how his childhood has influenced him as a writer. What follows is an edited conversation with Robert Morgan who talks tonight at Rediscovered Books in downtown Boise.
Q: Why did you decide to shift to American history, going from fiction to nonfiction?
A: It was partly just luck. At that point back in 2003 – 2004 my publisher was interested in publishing more nonfiction. And my editor said to me are you interested in writing a nonfiction book. They said what kind of nonfiction book would you like to do and I said that I love to read biographies.
So when they asked what subject would I like to write about I said whether either Edgar Allan Poe or Daniel Boone. I had years before that done a lot of research on Boone for a long poem about Daniel Boone and the Indians.
I’ve always loved to study the American Indians and grew up on a farm turning up arrowheads when I was out hoeing corn, pieces of pottery. I felt even as a child, the ground was haunted by the Indians who had been there.
My publisher came back and said ‘well, we think Daniel Boone is a very good idea.’ And I plunged into research; traveled all the places that he had lived, where he was born, where he died.
It felt like a new world opening up dealing with history.
My dad, although not highly educated, loved to read history and tell stories about history. I grew up with him talking about Daniel Boone, talking about the revolution, talking about the civil war and stories about ancestors coming and settling in the valley of Western North Carolina. So I felt that connection to the frontier really from the time I was a little boy.
It was really a pleasure to have the opportunity to go much deeper into the Boone story and into the history of North Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky. Of course it was out of that book that I was interested in the study of the further west in Lions of the West and the other frontiersman and people dealing with the Indians and the Hispanic people out West.
Q: You grew up in North Carolina on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains. What was that like?
A: It was a family farm. It had been in the family for decades really for more than a century. It was a community where everybody knew everybody and in fact most people were related to me in one way or another.
The church was very important. My parents are very devote people so a lot of Bible reading and attending prayer meetings and things like that.
I think that though, we had no money and my parents didn’t have much formal education, it was not a bad background for a future writer because my parents were great storytellers. My grandpa was a great storyteller, he loved to tell stories about snakes and panthers and mad dogs and bears.
And of course at church I heard these eloquent preachers who could spin an hour sermon out of two verses in the Bible. They were like jazz musicians.
All that has had an influence on my writing but the greatest influence is the storytelling and the reading I did when the bookmobile came to the church yard once a month. And I started checking out books like Little House on the Prairie and Farmer Boy and then Jack London’s White Fang.
I dropped out of school at the age of 16 and went off to Emory University to study science and then transferred to North Carolina State to study mathematics and aerospace engineering.
We were supposed to beat the Russians in those days. It was the space race and I wanted to do my part and I was enjoying it. But I wandered into a creative writing class that was so exciting that I began to think a lot less about fluid dynamics and a lot more about how to write a decent English sentence.
Q: You dropped out of school when you were 16 convinced that you were going to be a part of the space race and you wander into this creative writing class. What was that moment like where you decided ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be a writer.’”
A: Well about the third or fourth week in that class I turned in a little story about my great grandmother whom I have known since I was a little kid and she could remember the civil war. As a little girl she had been taken out of the mountains of North Carolina down to Walterboro, South Carolina to be safe because the mountains were overrun by outlaws.
They were safe until Sherman got to Savannah and turned north and of course he just devastated central South Carolina. She could remember bodies being heaped up on their porch and dogs climbing up on the bodies and licking the blood.
Well I wrote a little story about that. And my teacher brought it into class and he said ‘When I read this story I wept.’ And I was so struck by that. No math teacher had said anything like that to me.
I was planning to be a fiction writer but I fell in with a group of poets from the Northeast all of whom had been kicked out of the finest prep schools in New England and had come to Chapel Hill to be Beatniks and poets.
It was from them that I began to learn a lot about contemporary poetry. And I began to write poems and publish them. I can’t believe looking back how lucky I was to get published.
It wasn’t until the 1980's after I'd been at Cornell for more than a decade that I returned to fiction writing really for two reasons. I wanted to tell some of those wonderful stories I’d heard by the fireplace. And I wanted to write in voices other than my own. I hadn’t been able to do that in poetry.
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