Thomas Wolfe was born, raised and educated in the mountains of western North Carolina, taught college English, earned a Guggenheim fellowship and attained commercial and critical success as a prolific writer of poetic fiction rich in evocative detail and firmly rooted in the Appalachian landscape.
Wolfe has that much and more in common with Robert Morgan, a poet, novelist and Kappa Alpha Professor of English at Cornell.
"His birthday [Oct. 3] is the same as mine, which makes it a greater kinship," Morgan said. Both writers are alumni of the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill -- Wolfe in the Class of 1920, Morgan in the Class of 1965.
This year, Morgan will help UNC celebrate Wolfe's birthday and literary legacy when he receives the 2008 Thomas Wolfe Prize, bestowed by UNC's Department of English and comparative literature. Morgan will accept the award and deliver the annual Thomas Wolfe Lecture Oct. 2 on the Chapel Hill campus, where he first wrote short fiction. He will also speak Oct. 3 at UNC's Center for the Study of the American South.
"I'm absolutely delighted to go back and receive this award in honor of Thomas Wolfe, who is one of those authors who inspired me to be a writer back in the 1960s," Morgan said.
Morgan is the author of the best-seller "Gap Creek" (an Oprah Book Club selection) and four other novels; several volumes of poetry, short stories and essays; and, most recently, the critically acclaimed "Boone: A Biography," winner of the 2007 Kentucky Literary Award for Nonfiction. He has taught at Cornell since 1971.
He is the ninth winner of the Thomas Wolfe Prize medal, which recognizes contemporary writers with distinguished bodies of work. The lecture and prize honor North Carolina's most famous writer, the author of the novels "Look Homeward, Angel," "Of Time and the River," "You Can't Go Home Again" and many short stories and dramatic works, who died in 1938.
Previous recipients of the prize include Fred Chappell (a former North Carolina poet laureate and Morgan's graduate poetry instructor at UNC-Greensboro), Pat Conroy, Elizabeth Spencer and the late-20th-century author Tom Wolfe.
In preparation for his lecture on Wolfe, Morgan has been re-reading and reconsidering "Look Homeward, Angel," Wolfe's first novel.
"Most great novels seem different when you read them at different points in your life; 'Look Homeward, Angel' is a little bit that way," he said. "This time reading it, what I see is a great poetic catalog, this epic urge to be inclusive, to include the whole wide world in your poetic vision."
It's not just the novel's poetic passages that impress him, Morgan said.
"Now that I'm in my 60s, I'm struck by the reality of small-town life, the way he depicted the local merchants and prostitutes," he said. "It's also his satire of American boosterism and politics. His erudition seems incredible to me -- he was only 27 or 28. It has a scholarly underpinning. They say that Wolfe read everything in the Harvard library when he was a graduate student there, and I think he did."
Morgan teaches in Cornell's graduate Creative Writing Program. His other honors include the 2007 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the James B. Hanes Poetry Prize and a 1997 O. Henry Award. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts.