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Writer Robert Morgan wins literary prize from American Academy of Arts and Letters

Poet, novelist and short-story writer Robert Morgan has been chosen for an Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Morgan, the Kappa Alpha Professor of English at Cornell, will receive the $7,500 prize at the academy's annual ceremony, May 16 in New York City.

"A storyteller with an eye for detail, impeccable ear for language, devotion to craft and passion for truth, Robert Morgan has written poetry and fiction of great distinction for many years," the award committee wrote.

Morgan's writings include "The Truest Pleasure," "The Hinterlands," "Topsoil Road" and the best-selling novel "Gap Creek," a 2000 selection of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. His first major nonfiction work, "Boone: A Biography," about the frontiersman Daniel Boone, will be published in October. Morgan's poem "October Crossing" will be in an upcoming issue of Atlantic Monthly, and a short story, "The Distant Blue Hills," will appear this fall in The Southern Review.

Morgan came to Cornell in 1971 as a visiting lecturer in the Creative Writing Program and joined the faculty the following year to teach poetry. He later taught fiction and American literature, "Back in the '50s and '60s ... when I was a young writer, poetry was all the rage," he said.

Morgan wrote a handful of short stories and decided to become a writer while attending North Carolina State University as an engineering and mathematics major. Influenced by Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens and folklore from his childhood in rural North Carolina -- "all the stories I'd heard about the Civil War, and panthers and snakes and bears" -- Morgan began his career as a poet and eventually returned to fiction.

"The biggest breakthrough happened in the 1980s when I started writing in the voice of a woman character," he said. "I'd gotten out of my own voice, and I began to see that that's what the best fiction is all about -- getting out of yourself."


May is the yellow month. At this
latitude the woods are a fog of different
yellow-greens as first leaves
open pages and new twigs on the willows
grow bright as chicken fat.
In every yard the daffodils and dandelions,
and clouds of wild mustard light
the open fields, even as wind
bruises cowlicks in the rye. Along
highways and parks forsythia
sprays its heat, and fire rinses seedbeds
of old stalks at dark. The day begins
in a golden antiquity, flushing
the ridges so they echo inside the room
where flesh stretches into flower, where
even the interior of night is saffroned
the most erotic color of touch and know.

© Robert Morgan, 1987

He has now extended his reach even further with the Boone biography. "When I began, I was more skeptical about him," Morgan said. "I began to peel away the myth and find the real person behind him. He stacks up to scrutiny. I came to see him as a great romantic dreamer in the tradition of Thoreau and Walt Whitman and Emerson; but he lived the dream."

Morgan will take a sabbatical leave next year to promote the biography and work on his next novel, set in the Depression. He also has speaking engagements in Kentucky and western New York, and in late summer, he will be a writer-in-residence at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

"I tend to work when I travel," Morgan said. "I find hotels and motels very good places to write. It helps when you travel to be immersed in your fictive world. I typically work in the mornings, I get up at 5 a.m. and write for a few hours. It certainly helps me when I go out and do readings and talks later in the day."

Morgan is one of eight writers, including Barbara Ehrenreich and William T. Vollman, receiving Academy Awards in Literature this year. Morgan, who has previously won Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, said the academy honor is "particularly thrilling to me because you're chosen by your fellow writers at the national level, so it's recognition by your peers. It's a very distinguished list."

Another Cornellian, fiction writer Junot Diaz, M.F.A. '95, is also recognized by the academy this year with a Rome Fellowship in Literature, a one-year residency (for 2007-08) at the American Academy in Rome.

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