SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
CHARLES JERMY: Good evening and welcome to the final of the summer session lecture series. Before we begin, I want to give a couple of thank yous. Katie [? Hine, ?] in addition to all the other duties she has had over the years, has been just a tremendous-- tremendously able events manager. Katie has spent 10 summers doing that, and she's decided this will be her last summer. She's retiring in January so that she can have a summer to herself, so I wish you would stand up, Katie, and give her a hand please.
And also, again, thanks to Katherine [? Bour ?] and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for allowing us to use this wonderful hall. Robert Morgan has taught courses in American literature, modern poetry, and autobiography, as well as poetry and fiction writing since 1971 at Cornell University, where he is the Kappa Alpha Professor of English. The author of 14 books of poetry, Bob has also published nine volumes of fiction, including Gap Creek, an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection and a New York Times bestseller, and it's also on the Oprah Winfrey Book Club list of best books. I don't know what she calls that, but in any case.
His most recent novel, Chasing the North Star, won the 2017 Southern Book Award for Historical Fiction. In addition, Bob is the author of three nonfiction books-- Good Measure, Essays, Interviews, and Notes on Poetry; Boone, A Biography; and Lands of the West, Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion. He's also working on a book called Indomitable, Women of the Western Frontier, and that may be available in 2018, but certainly in 2019. And I would recommend that based on our dinner conversation.
Bob has been awarded the James G Hanes poetry prize by the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2013, he received the History Award Medal from the Daughters of the American Revolution, recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Arts Council. He has served as a visiting writer at Davidson College, Furhman, Duke, Appalachian State, and East Carolina universities. A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2010.
Born in Hendersonville, North Carolina, on October 3rd, 1944, Bob grew up on his family's farm in the Green River Valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He wrote his first story in sixth grade, and he continued to write during his teen years. But this was the era of Sputnik and the need to beat the Russians. Although he left high school at 16 without a diploma, because of his high SAT scores, Emory University accepted him as an engineering major. From Emory, he transferred to North Carolina State University, still majoring in engineering.
When a glitch in the system kept him out of a class in differential equations, he substituted a class in creative writing with a professor named Guy Owen. That switch altered the course of his life. Professor Owen came into class one day with a story Bob had written about visiting his great grandmother in an old house in the mountains and said, when I read this story, I wept. Bob has written, quote, "None of my math teachers had ever said anything like that."
"From that moment on, I was hopelessly hooked and addicted to writing." Bob Morgan-- Chasing the North Star.
ROBERT MORGAN: Thank you so much. It's great to be here. I love this auditorium, though I don't think I've spoke in it. I've attended many events here.
Tonight, I will be talking about Chasing the North Star, my most recent novel. I had three ideas when I began working on this book. One, I wanted to write a novel set in southern Appalachia that included slavery. I didn't know another Appalachian writer who had addressed that subject. Slavery was not as common in the mountains as it was in the lowlands and the Piedmont and the deep south, but it was certainly there, and I wanted to tell a story set in the 19th Century that included something about slavery in the southern mountains.
I also wanted to write a work of fiction that included some scenes in Ithaca, New York, because all my fiction-- almost all of my fiction is set in the south, particularly in the southern Appalachian Mountains. And I had one other inspiration. My dad used to tell me a story about a subject named Little Willy.
My great, great grandparents Daniel and Sarah Pace were sitting down to supper in the 1850s in their farm house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with their son, Frank, my great grandfather, and they heard a noise outside. Frank lit a lantern and went out on the porch to see what was going on, and there were four African Americans, obviously escaped slaves, exhausted, and they asked for something to drink, some water. My great great grandparents gave them, I guess, whatever they had to eat, probably corn bread and sweet potatoes, something like that. And as they were eating, they heard the bounty hunters dogs in the distance.
The little boy-- two men, one woman, a little boy. The woman pushed the little boy toward my great great grandmother and said, Willy can't run no more. He had injured a leg, and he really couldn't run. And they ran off into the darkness.
My great great grandmother, I guess, could think fast. She took that little boy and put him in the meal barrel behind the kitchen, covered him with a [? toe ?] sack, sprinkle meal on it, and the bounty hunters came and threatened them and did search the house. It was a serious crime to aid runaway slaves after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
They didn't find the little boy, but then my ancestors had this problem. What are they going to do? I mean, here is this little boy, runaway slave. They doctored his leg, and it began to heal. They kept him hidden, and again, my great great grandmother came up with the idea of putting him in the wagon with lots of produce.
Every year, they took hams, honey, molasses, other things, down to Greenville, South Carolina, about 30 miles away, and peddled it door to door. They did that. They sold their produce and put Little Willy on the wagon as they-- seat as they came back up the mountain. And they told their neighbors they had bought him. It was the only way they could think to protect him.
They were waiting for his people to come back for him. They never did. They never knew if they were killed, were caught and sent back to Georgia. Did they make it to Canada? They never found out.
My great great grandmother made Willy a blue jacket, which he was very fond of. Sometime later-- I don't know exactly how long later, in the 1850s-- they were out cutting trees on the hill above the spring, and it got hot. Willy took off his jacket, laid it on the leaves, and later, he saw a tree was about to fall on the jacket, and he ran to grab the jacket. His foot slipped. The tree fell on him and killed him.
When I was a boy my dad would show me the grave in the family cemetery, the Pace cemetery, where little Willy was buried. There was a stone there-- it wasn't a carved stone-- and a blue jar where my great great grandmother had put flowers on the anniversary of his death every year. Some time after I came to Cornell, the road around that cemetery was bulldozed, and they bulldozed over that grave.
But after I published Chasing the North Star and published an account of Little Willy, my relatives there decided to erect a monument to Little Willy, and we just had the ceremony a week ago, Sunday. And I spoke and read some of that account that I had written of him, so there's now a monument for-- we never knew his last name. We just call Willy.
Anyway I thought, tonight, I would read some short passages from the novel to give you a sense of the narration. It's about an 18-year-old slave on a plantation in upper South Carolina, just below the North Carolina line, who decides he has to run away, and his sections are in third person. The novel alternates between third person and first person with the character Angel. And this is the way it begins.
He was called Jonah because he was born in a terrible storm, and his mama said soon as she let go of him and put him ashore in this world of folly and time, the thunder quieted, and the wind laid. Trees had broken off their stumps and skipped across fields like dust brooms, and the Saluda River spread wide over the bottom lands. Some of the slave cabins behind Mr. Williams's brick house got smashed to splinters by the high tempest. As soon as Jonah was cut loose and washed off in a pan or wrapped in a towel rag, his mama said, the sky cleared, and the moon came out and shined so bright you could see a needle in a light from the window. Everything the storm had ruined was vivid in the moonlight, including the dead birds that had been torn from their roots-- their roosts, and snakes washed out of holes in the ground.
Because Jonah arrived on the full of the moon in the middle of a storm under the sign of the crab, his mama called him her moon baby. The granny woman that delivered him said he would always be darting away, running from one thing and then another. He'd be no more dependable than Jonah in the Holy Book.
Now, Jonah is taken into the house to be the servant to the two children of the owner, Mr. Williams-- Mr. and Mrs. Williams. And because he sits in on their lessons, he learns to read, and he loves to read. And one day, he wants to get the book he's heard the tutor reading, Robinson Crusoe, and he goes to the library, puts the book inside his shirt, and is trying to escape out the side door. Now, remember, slaves were not supposed to be able to read.
It was Ms. Williams who caught him taking a book from the master's library. It was a big book called Robinson Crusoe, and he had listened to the tutor read that volume to Betsy and Johnny. It was a thrilling book with lots of words Jonah didn't understand. Day after day, he listened to the tutor reading from that story, and when the book was taken back to the library, Jonah promised himself he was going to slip it under his shirt and carry it back to the cabin to read himself by firelight.
Jonah knew where the book was. He'd replaced it on the shelf himself between smooth leather volumes with gold lettering on them. He had no trouble finding the book again and sliding it inside his shirt. He hoped to walk quickly down the hallway and take the side door out of the house. He would hide the book in a boxwood until nightfall.
But just as he passed the dining room, Ms. Williams called to him from the bottom of the stairs. She wanted him to carry a message to her friend Ophelia, who lived on the adjoining farm. She often called Jonah to deliver letters, but almost instantly, she spotted the book under Jonah's shirt, where the volume's weight pulled down the fabric.
"What is that?" Ms. Williams said and pointed to the sagging cloth. "Ain't nothing, ma'am." "Don't lie to me," Ms. Williams snapped. She made Jonah draw the book from his shirt and hand it to her. "I won't have a thief in my house," his mistress said.
Jonah wanted to tell her he was borrowing the book for the tutor, but he knew that tutor would say he'd already read the book to Betsy and Johnny. "You were going to take a book to the store and try to sell it," Ms. William's said. Jonah shook his head and began to cry. He didn't mean to cry, but his knees shook, and his jaw trembled. He had no choice but to say he was borrowing the book to read himself.
As he said the words, he felt something hot and wet running down his pants leg. He looked at the floor and saw a puddle of pee growing on the varnished planks. Ms. Williams noticed the streak down his jeans, and the puddle also. "Shame on you, Jonah," she said. "Shame on you for deceiving us, for stealing a volume from Mr. Williams's library."
Ms. Williams was young and fat and soft, and she smelled like face powder and perfume. She took a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress and wiped his cheeks. She put her hands on her shoulders and looked him in the eyes.
"I won't tell anybody you can read," she said. "I won't tell anybody if you'll promise me. Will you promise me?" Jonah nodded that he would promise her whatever she asked.
She was-- he was trembling and afraid he might be whipped and put in chains and branded, the way old Isaac was. If a slave fought and hurt another slave, he was whipped and put in chains. Even worse, Jonah was afraid he might be sold and sent away to live among strangers. Ms. Williams said she'd tell nobody he could read if Jonah would return the book to the library and read to her from the Bible from time to time. She said he would benefit most from reading the Good Book, and she was going to give him his very own Bible so he could study it and learn more.
Ms. Williams has headaches, and she likes to lie with a damp cloth on her forehead and listen to him read to her. It's their secret. Nobody else knows about it, and she gives him this fancy Bible of his own. And she gives him newspapers, ostensibly to start fires back in the quarters. But of course, he reads the newspapers, and reading the newspapers, he learns about geography and the Fugitive Slave Law and slaves escaping to the north and the North Star.
He's caught reading a little bit later in the barn loft on a rainy day while Ms. Williams is away in Flat Rock, just about 20 miles north of there. The master comes up looking for some leather to make a break for a wagon and sees him with these books, accuses him of stealing the Bible. He recognizes the Bible that had belonged to his wife, and a copy of David Copperfield had been published the year before. This was 1851. And he says he has to be whipped to teach him a lesson.
This is so humiliating to Jonah. He decides later he has to run away because he'll always be called a thief that had been caught and whipped. His idea is that if he escapes in the night and runs up the southern Appalachian chain, maybe nobody can find him, and he can make his way to the North.
He knows a little bit about geography. He's seen maps. So he runs away in the middle of the night, makes his way across the mountains to the headwaters of the French Broad River, steals a boat, goes down the river, and parks it on the bank near Asheville, North Carolina.
During the night, he hears this sound on the mountain above the river, and he sees lights, and he goes to find out what is there. He discovers a group of the local slaves have slipped away in the middle of the night to have a party to get away from their masters and their work. They call it a jubilee. And I think this was the greatest accident that happened for me writing this, as he discovers this young woman named Angel, who is the concubine, or the bed warmer, for her master at a plantation near Asheville, North Carolina. She says, "My name is Angel, but I ain't no angel."
She tells her own story, and I thought I would just read the passage where she hears first about the jubilee, which her mother attends. I first wrote these sections in dialect, and my editor said he thought that would be hard for people to read. I worked a long time on that dialect. So I rewrote it in perfectly plain grammatical English and explained at the end of the novel that she has learned to read and write.
She says, the first time I heard the word jubilee must be when I was young, and Mamma had often left me in the middle of the night. I woke up in the dark and saw Mama standing in the moonlight, coming through the window, wrapping a cloth around her head. "Where are you going?" I said. "Shh," Mama said. "Don't wake the little ones."
Then Mamma whispered she was going to jubilee, when she'd be back. She said if I didn't lie down and go to sleep again, she'd whip me with a hickory stick come morning. I'd lay down and close my eyes and smell the rose petals Mama gathered by the hedge in front of the big house. She had crushed the pedals within her hands and rubbed them over her neck and shoulders and breasts. There was a murmuring outside when Mama went out the door, and I heard footsteps and laughing and people walking away from the quarters.
I lay in the dark thinking about the name jubilee and what it meant. It must be special because Mama seemed excited, fixing herself up in the middle of the night like she was going to a revival meeting. When I opened my eyes, the moonlight was streaming down from the window. Moving slowly, so as not to wake up my brothers and sisters, I climbed off the cot and stood in the pool of light.
The moonlight seemed to be calling to me, come out and see the world now. Night is the time to play and be happy. When I opened the door and stepped outside, I saw it was true. The moonlight made the ground clean, coating everything with blue velvet and blue frost.
I held up my hands to the moon, and the moon said, look what can be. I looked at the pine woods and the mountains beyond the woods, and they were blue and silky. They were all the way to where the stars reached down to the ridge beyond the river. I felt like I could walk on that carpet of blue light all the way to the edge of heaven.
"This is the way things will be," the moon whispered, as I sat down with my back against the cabin. I must have gone to sleep sitting on the ground for the next thing I knew, Mama was shaking me, and it was dark, and the moon had gone down. "What are you doing out here?" Mama hissed as she pushed me inside. I was so sleepy and surprised, I had no answer.
I could tell Mama was hot and covered with sweat, like she'd been running or dancing, the way I'd seen her do at the revival meeting. Her turban had come undone, and she had tied it around her shoulders. She smelled sweet, like rotten fruit, the way the master smelled when he had been drinking brandy.
"I'll whip you in the morning," Mama said. "I'll teach you to mind me." Mama got a dipper of water from the bucket in the corner and drank it, and then laid down on her cot.
The worst thing about a whipping is having to wait for it. Mama knew that, and I knew that, and I guess master Thomas knew it, too, for he whipped one of the help from time to time when they didn't mind him. But that was a bigger thing, an awful thing, to see a man whipped with a black whip until his back was cut, and he was bleeding down to his feet. Mama might say as a warning, "I'm going to cut the blood out of you," but she never did. She knew the worst part of punishment was the anticipation.
The next morning, after we ate mush with molasses, and I washed up the bowls, Mama said, "You know what I need. Go get me that hickory." It was a relief to finally go and get it over with. "Better be a good switch, or I whip you twice," Mama said.
Sad as it was to have to go after my own switch, there was a kind of dignity to it. All I had to do was get the hickory and bear the whipping and cry a little to make Mama feel I was sorry, and then it would be all right again. I couldn't stand for Mama to be mad at me. If Mama was mad at me, then the whole world seemed twisted to the side [INAUDIBLE].
After I brought her the switch, Mama made me to go outside. I had to stand in the yard, where everybody could see the whipping. She made me hold her left hand with my left hand as she whipped me on my legs and on my butt. The hickory stung my skin like a hot wire.
"How many times I have to tell you to mind me?" Mama said as she swung the switch. "I do mind," I said. "Don't you sass me," Mama said and swung harder.
"I mind you! I mind you!" I said. I started to cry.
"You sass me, I cut the blood out of you," Mama said. She was so busy weeping me, and my eyes were so full of tears, neither of us saw the master standing nearby, watching. His sleeves were rolled up like he was on the way to the field. When the crops needed tending, the masters sometimes worked right alongside the help.
"Don't whip that girl. She didn't mean to do nothing wrong," Master Thomas said. Mom stepped back and dropped the hickory to her side. "Angel's too pretty to whip," Master Thomas said. "Her skin is too perfect, and her face too pretty. What has she done?"
"She don't mind me," Mama said. "She sassed me." The master put his hand on my shoulder and looked in my eyes. I shivered at his touch, yet I was pleased by it at the same time. I could feel the power in his hand, which is not the power of muscles and calluses.
"Angel don't mean to be bad," Master Thomas said. "Besides, she's almost a young woman." He looked me in the eyes and smiled, and I tried to smile back through my tears.
"Would you like to work in the big house?" the master said. "I think you've grown up enough to work in the big house. Would you like that?"
So that's when she moves into the big house and eventually becomes the bed warmer for her owner. But when she sees Jonah at the jubilee, we would say hooks up with him at the jubilee, she realizes that he is a runaway slave, and she thinks, if he can run away, maybe I can, too. So she follows him. And he tries to get away from her several times because he thinks his chances of making it to the North are better if he's on his own and not with another escaped slave.
So the plot is really an adventure story as they go up the Appalachian chain, and he leaves her four times, and she catches up with him each time. She simply will not be left. When he leaves her first, on the French Broad River, she runs into the Goat Man.
There really was a Goat Man, by the way. He was a tinkerer who went from the North to the South on an annual basis, repairing pots and pans and sharpening knives and scissors and that kind of thing. The Goat Man lets her travel with him, and they're going up through the valley of Virginia, up toward what would become Roanoke. It was Called Big Lick at that time.
But they're in the valley of Virginia, and the-- she says, we came creaking over a hill and saw these cherry trees loaded down with black cherries, and a woman on a short ladder picking the cherries. Now, the Goat Man and I thought the same thing. We had to get us some sweet cherries to eat on the way. We needed a change, and cherries were just the thing.
So we stopped on the road, and I hollered to the woman to ask if she wanted the pots and pans mended or knives and scissors sharpened. She didn't hear me at first, then I yelled again. Only then, did I see the baby lying on a blanket on the grass at the edge of the orchard. The baby was waving its legs and arms around and crying.
"I have scissors that need sharpening!" the woman on the ladder called. "Can you wait until I get to the house?" "How long will you be?" I hollered.
Now, for some reason, when I called, I looked up and saw this big bird out of the corner of my eye. I thought, at first, it must be a hawk, but then as it came closer, I saw it was a golden eagle. You don't expect to see a bird that spreads its wings so wide. And then it dove just like a hawk dropping on a chicken, and I screamed because it was going like a lightning bolt straight for the baby. "No, can't be!" I hollered and started running toward the baby.
I heard the whoosh of the wings, but I was too slow. The awful bird that looked like it was on fire swooped and grabbed the pretty baby in its claws. Its wings were longer than I was tall, and I could feel the wind of its wings as they beat to lift back up. But that baby must have been heavier than that devil bird expected, for it beat harder and blasted up dust from the weeds and slowly lifted away.
It looked like I wasn't going to reach the baby in time, but the awful bird was slower than he meant to be, flogging and flapping his wings to carry off his prize. "No!" I yelled and grabbed the baby around his belly. "No, you bastard!" I screamed.
The wings beat in my face, and the eagle pulled away, but he couldn't lift the baby out of my grasp. Even the hill bird wasn't that strong. He yanked and beat my face and pecked the top of my head like a cold chisel, and I still didn't let go. I thought he was going to peck out my eyes, and I turned my face away, but didn't let go of the darling child.
Now, the eagle had to make up his mind. He couldn't carry the baby off as long as I held her, and he wouldn't let go with his claws. His eyes glared at me like squirts of fire. He was mad as a demon from Hell. I jerked my head sideways, and he pecked my ear.
His claws were dug into the baby's flesh, and I couldn't grab his foot because I was holding onto the baby's belly. I looked around to see if anybody could help me, but the Goat Man just stood by the wagon like he was frozen, and the woman had fallen off a ladder and was picking herself up in the weeds. For a second, I thought of trying to grab the eagle by the neck, but if I let go of the baby, he would fly away. He beat his wings more, and dust boiled up so I could hardly see, and the baby screamed.
That devil was trying to see how determined I was, and when he saw I didn't aim to let go, he gave it up, took his claws out of the baby. But before he flew away, he slashed his claws on the side of my head, and I could feel the wet blood. That terrible bird flapped away, and I held a baby that wasn't hurt except for some claw marks. The woman ran up and grabbed the baby out of my hands, and she pressed it to her bosom. She laughed and cried at the same time and then prayed and then started to cry again.
Several reviewers have called this novel a picaresque novel, a road novel, and it is an adventure story, terrible things happening and some funny things. There's actually some comic relief in it here and there. But it's a story about these two in much greater danger than they even realize. I can remember, working on this, I would find myself holding my breath, knowing just how much danger they were in at this particular time, 1851, because anybody could catch them according to the Fugitive Slave Law and turn them in.
They make their way all the way up to Winchester, Virginia, and then catch a train to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and work their way up the Susquehanna River. It's getting cold. Winter's coming on, and finally, they make it all the way to Owego, New York. Now, there was a train that ran from Owego to Ithaca at that time, and they unloaded barges on the Susquehanna, put the cargo on the train, and took it to Ithaca. And of course, in Ithaca, they could load things on steamboats, and Ithaca was connected to the Erie Canal, therefore, to the Midwest and to the Atlantic Ocean, so Ithaca was very busy port at that time.
When they get to Owego, Angel is exhausted, and she refuses to run and catch the train that is leaving for Ithaca, and he leaves her again for the fourth time, jumps on the train, and rides it all the way to Ithaca. He's never seen a place like that-- the waterfalls, the big lake-- but he's almost frozen when he falls off that train in Ithaca and goes looking for a place to warm up. Doesn't know anybody in this strange town. He doesn't even know how to pronounce the name Ithaca.
At the corner of Aurora Street, Jonah came to a brick church with stained glass windows and found the door unlocked. It was mostly dark inside, but he saw benches and the light from the colored windows. Out of the wind, the air was warmer.
As Jonah's eyes adjusted a little, he saw a stove at the side of the church near the altar. He walked toward the front and realized, as he neared it, that a fire was crackling on the stove. If the stove was lit, somebody must be in the church. "Hello and welcome," a voice said.
Jonah spun around and saw a man in a shiny black robe emerged from a room behind the pulpit. "Hello, sir," Jonah said and took off his hat. "I just wanted to get warm"
"I'm Timothy Belue," the man in the robe said. "You are most welcome." Jonah was so surprised, he couldn't think what to say. He couldn't claim to be a laborer on his way to work. It must be Sunday if a fire was roaring in the stove.
"Make yourself at home," Reverend Belue said. He was a short man with glasses and side whiskers. He didn't seem at all surprised to see Jonah.
"We'll have worship service in about 20 minutes," the Reverend said. "You're very welcome to stay." "Thank you, sir," Jonah said.
The minister looked at Jonah's and his coat, saw the soot and ashes from the train. "I keep coffee and biscuits in the back room to refresh me while I prepare my sermons," he said. "Could I offer you something to nibble?" Jonah knew it was impolite to accept, but he was too famished to refuse. "Thank you, sir," he said and bowed his head.
Reverend Belue led him to the little room piled with books and papers. Another black robe hung from a hook in the corner. A coffee pot sat on the hearth of a small fireplace, where lazy flames beckoned and gestured. The preacher cleared a spot at the table and set a pot of biscuits and a cup of coffee before Jonah.
Jonah sipped the coffee. He felt the hot liquid warm his belly and begin to spread through him. His bones ached with cold, and the warm coffee didn't touch the marrow at first. The biscuits were sweet as the sweetest cake. There was butter to spread on the biscuits, making them even sweeter.
Mrs. Belue, who was the organist arrived and invited Jonah to stay for the service. She was taller than her husband, with dark hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. She invited Jonah to come to their house for dinner after the meeting. "I hope you'll find friends in Ithaca," she said.
Jonah finished the biscuits and coffee and returned to the meeting room. The room was already half filled with worshippers. Reverend Belue sat in a chair behind the pulpit, and Mrs. Belue began to play a quiet hymn on the organ. Jonah walked to the back of the church and sat on the last bench.
Some of those entering in their fine Sunday clothes glanced at him and looked quickly away. An older woman smiled at him. Jonah knew he smelled bad after all the days on the road. He tried to gather himself into himself to keep his stink from spreading.
As he watched the church fill, Jonah wondered how safe he was here, appearing in public at a service for everyone to see. There was no guarantee that Reverend Belue, kind as he seemed, wouldn't report him to the sheriff if he knew Jonah was a runaway, and someone in the congregation might be suspicious of him and inform the authorities. And as he warmed up, filled with coffee and biscuits and butter, Jonah felt heavier and heavier. He had walked many miles, and he had not slept much the night before. As soon as the Reverend Belue stood up and announced his first hymn, and the congregation began to sing, Jonah was already asleep.
He dreamed about cliffs and waterfalls and sparkling lakes. It was only after the church was empty that Reverend Belue woke him. "Service is over," the preacher said and shook his shoulder. "I can see how rousing my sermon was."
The preacher laughed, and Jonah woke to his laughter. "I'm sorry, sir," Jonah mumbled. "No need to apologize," the minister said. "Perhaps you needed sleep more than a sermon."
Jonah had slept so deeply in the warm turret, he was befuddled. It took him a minute to understand Reverend Belue questions. "Yes, sir," Jonah murmured as if he was about to go back to sleep.
"Well, I have just one question, really," Reverend Belue said. "Have you killed anybody?" Jonah woke and looked the preacher in the eye. "No, sir," he said. "I never killed anybody."
It happens that this Reverend Belue is an abolitionist, and he has a printing press in the basement of his house, where he can print a credible document of manumission. And Angel then shows up in Ithaca. I won't give away the ending, but they think they might be safe for a while.
I'm told that most of the African-American community left Ithaca after the Fugitive Slave law was passed and did flee to Canada, so there are not a lot of other African-Americans in Ithaca when they arrive. But I will stop there. Thank you very much. [INAUDIBLE].
Thank you. I understand question and answer are part of this series. If you have questions, I'll be happy to try to answer them. My students will tell you, if you give me a pulpit, I can talk a long time about writing and literature. Yes?
AUDIENCE: When Jonah wet his pants, did they have jeans? 1851?
ROBERT MORGAN: They had pants made out of what was called jean cloth. It's a very old word. It comes from Genoa, Genoa cloth. It goes back to, I think, the 16th Century, but they made heavy work clothes out of jean cloth, and then our blue jeans come from that. So, yeah, that's probably what he had a shirt made out of homespun, very likely.
I always love that Genoa cloth. Denim is De Nime, from De Nime, France. Calico's from India.
Other questions? Have I answered all your questions? Yes, way back there.
AUDIENCE: Did you get any guidance from your publisher or other people as to whether or not to write the dialogue in dialect?
ROBERT MORGAN: Yeah, the question is did I get any guidance from a publisher or editor about writing in dialect? My first editor, Shannon Ravenel, a great editor, worked with me on all the other novels. Loved that dialect, the use of dialect. We worked a long time, going back and forth on it.
Then she retired, and the new editor came on, and he's the one who said, I think that'll be difficult for people. It will distance the character, be hard to read for them, and he persuaded me that was true. So that that's when I completely rewrote Angel's section.
Angel become Sarepta in Ithaca. They changed the name, and Jonah becomes Joshua because Joshua made it to the Promised Land. And he goes in the spring up on the hill, East Hill here, and finds an oak tree and puts a big stone under it. In the Bible, Jonah-- Joshua planted the Witness Stone, remember that in the Old Testament, to remind him of his journey to the Promised Land. It was fun to do that sort of thing.
AUDIENCE: So it was more a literary thing to not write in dialect [INAUDIBLE]?
ROBERT MORGAN: Well, we decided that dialect is out of fashion in any case. I mean, it'd be very hard to publish the kind of novels like Faulkner did, you know, even Huckleberry Finn. Young people don't like to read it for one thing, and I decided that, yes, it would distance my character.
I wanted that character to be absolutely transparent. You're with her. You're thinking, and you're not worrying about, you know, what does this mean or how funny she talks or anything like that.
I mean, it was hard to do because I'd worked so long on that. My other novels had been in dialect, or many of them-- very light dialect, by the way. It's a trick. You give people a taste of dialect.
Gap Creek is mostly in very straight English, but people have the impression, because the double negatives and I seen this, and people feel it's in dialect. Of course, it's not, and any linguist can spot it very quickly as mostly correct English, and the spelling is always modern. But that's an idea, I think, I got from [INAUDIBLE]. You just give people a taste of dialect.
They feel they're hearing it, and of course they're not. You don't want them to stop and have to look up in a glossary or something. Other questions? Yes?
ROBERT MORGAN: Question is what kind of advice do I have for aspiring young writers? Basically, one word-- persistence. Because I've been teaching so long, I know that everybody has talent, and some people have a lot of talent. But the people who succeed are not necessarily the people who seem to have the most talent.
The people who succeed as writers are those who just keep at it and keep at it and keep at it. The day after their novel's rejected, or they lose their agent, or whatever, they go back and start revising it-- those are the people who win. I don't know what that is-- the fire in the belly. Is it madness, craziness?
It's true of all the arts. I mean, the people who succeed are the people who just simply keep doing it. They won't stop. They won't let anything stop them.
And that's about the best advice you can give because everybody learns to write in their own way, and you can't teach that. You can coach writers, but you can't teach them because they're doing their writing And it really is closer to athletics, perhaps, than teaching physics or history of something, where you're imparting a body of knowledge.
An art is learned by doing it, and you can encourage. You can give some pointers to writers, but you can't teach them to write. They have to teach themselves.
This young woman has a question.
ROBERT MORGAN: Uh-huh? Oh.
AUDIENCE: Thank you, [INAUDIBLE]. I believe I have read some reviews from your peers about this novel. And some of my peers are a little confused, mainly about two questions.
The first one is why [INAUDIBLE] can escape? They have so many very rare [INAUDIBLE]. And the second one is Jonah has abandoned Angel [INAUDIBLE] four times. Why [INAUDIBLE] persist in chasing him?
ROBERT MORGAN: Well, you might ask. She feels he's her only hope, and she feels that he really does love her, as it turns out to be. But I thought of it, from the very beginning, as an adventure story, and they do have much trouble, and they run into a lot of cruelty. But they do make it, finally.
Of course, we don't know, finally, how safe they are. I mean, we don't know that this is-- they're safe forever. It ends on a note that has a question implied in it.
AUDIENCE: To be continued?
ROBERT MORGAN: Possibly. I've thought of that. But yeah, it is the kind of novel, called a picaresque novel, an adventure novel, and though there's a lot of cruelty in it, there's also some humor, and things turn out for them. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Is Reverend Belue historical?
ROBERT MORGAN: No. There were such ministers around, but he's fiction. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Well, how much research did you do for this? Or is it all just from your own experience?
ROBERT MORGAN: I certainly read some histories of this part of New York and consulted historians, like Carol [? Cameron ?] and others. I had done a lot of research about that route, the valley of Virginia, in other books-- in the Daniel Boone book and in the Lions of the West-- and a lot of research in the 19th Century, the frontier and backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains and Virginia and North Carolina. So a lot of that fed into it.
The details about farming and things are mostly based on my own experience. I grew up in that area and did a lot of those things, so mostly imagination. It's a work of fiction. It's not a work of history.
The work I'm working on now is certainly a work of history. I spent the last several months just checking footnotes and spellings and stuff like that. One more question? Yes?
AUDIENCE: How old are they? I think you might have mentioned it. Excuse me if I didn't catch it. But how old are the characters? And also have you ever were interested in writing something on Native American history?
ROBERT MORGAN: He is 18, and she is one year older than that. And I have done so much research on Native American history. I could bore you for hours and hours and hours about the Sioux, most recently, since I'm writing about Custer and Custer's widow and the Sioux. But my research on American Indians began with the Cherokees in that area where I grew up, and the Shawnees for the Daniel Boone biography, Shawnees and Iroquois. Yeah, it's one of my favorite subjects, yeah.
I've made a point, in this new book and in the Boone book, of pointing out the influence of Native culture on the American Revolution, something I've never seen another historian talk about. The consensus political structure of American Indians rubbed off on the revolutionaries, I think had a real influence on it. And most recently, I've become very interested in the influence of Indian oratory and preaching on revival preaching. Tremendous preachers of the 19th Century-- Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Tecumseh, and so many of the great revival preachers I heard as a kid were Indian and part Indian, people like Oral Roberts, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, Charles Jessup, that sort of thing.
Yeah, it is one of the subjects I am most fascinated by. Also, the influence of Native music on American music, especially interesting to me, and unacknowledged for the most part. I mean, you talk about the African influence, the Scotch-Irish, the British Isles, that sort of thing. But people rarely mention the impact of Native music on American music.
AUDIENCE: That sounds very interesting. I-- if you'll allow me, tonight, I had the BBC news on. And I didn't catch it completely, but they were talking about-- and I don't know which nation it was, but in Oklahoma, the Indians were sent to Oklahoma, and they were sent there because [INAUDIBLE] the land was not well. [INAUDIBLE] found out that there was oil underneath.
And then I didn't catch it quite because I was in the kitchen. I think that people were sent to murder murder them because they had gotten so much wealth. And the reason I share that with everybody is it really upset me. I was just horrified at the history, our history.
ROBERT MORGAN: Well, that wasn't only white versus Indian, but also Indian versus Indian, as it always was. I mean, all the battles, there were Indians fighting Indians, and you're absolutely right. The Cherokees were wealthy people where they were in the mountains. They were traders and farmers as well as hunters and warriors, and they became even wealthier out in Oklahoma, not only because of oil, but because of their great herds of horses and cattle, and their extensive ownings of African slaves. I mean, the chiefs who went out to Oklahoma built houses that looked like something from Gone With the Wind.
Chief [INAUDIBLE] of the Hiwassee Cherokees-- very wealthy. It's a complex story, I assure you, a very complicated story. My character, the first character I'm writing about in the new book, Nancy Ward, [INAUDIBLE], was rewarded when she became war woman by being given African slaves in 1755.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, they mentioned that on the news tonight, on the BBC, something about-- so I didn't catch it. I didn't catch it quite. But anyway, thank you for answering my questions.
ROBERT MORGAN: Yeah. Well, I could talk a long time. Thank you all very much. You've been a great audience.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University on the web at Cornell.edu.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
Robert Morgan, Kappa Alpha Professor of English at Cornell, talked about his 2016 novel, Chasing the North Star, July 26, 2017 as part of the free summer events series sponsored by the Cornell University School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions.
Inspired by the true story of a runaway slave who was taken in by Morgan's family, Chasing the North Star tells a tale of two teenage slaves who escape from plantations in the Carolinas, link up by accident, and make their way through many dangers and narrow escapes all the way to Ithaca, New York, in 1851. Told from alternating points of view, it is a story of both the horrors of slavery and the resilience of the human spirit.