Stories and insights teem in Morgan’s new history
by Rob Neufeld
It’s not the intimacy of his novels nor the music of his poetry—Henderson County farm products—that you get, but rather an assortment of styles to keep you going.
In telling about the “heroes and villains of the westward expansion,” as his subtitle announces, Morgan roams far. He follows ten westward men and details the key tensions and intentions in their lives.
Very different idealists
In his chapter about John Chapman—aka “Johnny Appleseed”—Morgan first muses, “Wherever cultivated people went they took their orchards with them.”
After conveying a little storehouse of knowledge about apple culture, Morgan then presents his protagonist, a kind of saint who can’t help but inspire poetic thinking.
“He respected all livings things,” Morgan writes, “including mosquitoes and rattlesnakes, conversed with animals large and small, as well as with angels, created orchards for those who would follow him…”
There is no such lyricism in the Thomas Jefferson passage in which Morgan outlines Jefferson’s frontier-winning business plan. But then, after a few pages in the middle of that chapter, the narrative dives down to hold up Jefferson’s June 20, 1803 letter to Meriwether Lewis—a masterpiece. Morgan adopts a different tone.
“It has been said that the most important secret of good writing is rewriting,” he offers as he reveals that the Lewis letter had been at least the fifth draft of a vision Jefferson had articulated on other occasions.
“Another secret of good writing,” Morgan adds, “is the selection of the right subject.” He’s referring to Jefferson’s lifelong passion for exploration and settlement, but he might also be talking about his own interest in Jefferson.
I like it that Morgan identifies with his subjects, as I like Morgan’s interaction with school curricula—Put the Jefferson-Lewis letter in your textbook!
Mind of a farmer
In his chapter on Andrew Jackson, Morgan makes another personal identification.
“It is probably impossible for us in the twenty-first century,” he begins, “to understand what land meant to poor white people in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”
For instance, to a released indentured servant, the west meant salvation, Morgan explains. Then, he shifts into such a person’s mind.
“There seemed to be no end to the wild lands—if only Indians could be cleared away—and no limits to hope,” Morgan imagines his character thinking. “All you needed were an ax, a rifle, and a wife, and maybe a horse or ox.”
We are reminded of Morgan’s fictional character, Tom Powell, a land-obsessed, poor farmer in “The Truest Pleasure.”
Morgan’s non-fiction reflection continues along another enlightening path.
“But even if you had no wife,” he continues, “one could be found among the Indians. In fact, for settling down at the edge of the wilderness, an Indian wife might be the best of all.” She would be a good worker; plus, “married to an Indian woman, you were halfway a member of the nation yourself.”
From the mind of the homesteader, Morgan moves to a survey of Creek society and then to the drumbeats of war, as the Upper Creeks enlist in Tecumseh’s apocalyptic campaign against whites. On Aug. 30, 1813, an Upper Creek force brutally massacred about 500 settlers, soldiers, and slaves at Fort Mims, north of Mobile.
The ensuing Creek War was the moment of destiny for Andrew Jackson, commander of the Tennessee militia. Thus, after 11 fascinating pages, Morgan backs up to March 13, 1767, the date of Jackson’s birth, and fills you in on his character.
Morgan’s American contribution
Every one of Morgan’s profiles—Jefferson, Jackson, Chapman, David Crockett, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Kit Carson. Nicholas Trist, and John Quincy Adams—share the distinction of emblematic Americans.
A part of Morgan’s art in presenting these figures is creating human portraits within the pages that couch their historic actions.
For James K. Polk, 11th president, Morgan juxtaposes a few sources to create a complex take. Polk, a Scots-Irishman whose parents had followed the path of many Scots-Irish families in this region, but had stopped in the Charlotte area, apparently lacked a sense of humor.
Gideon Welles, a fellow politician, said that Polk “possessed a trait of sly cunning which he thought shrewdness, but which was really disingenuousness and duplicity.”
Morgan notes that Polk had gone into his presidency with the promise that he’d serve just four years and accomplish four major things, all of which he did. Acquiring California was one of them.
Kit Carson was a scrawny kid in a large family that followed Daniel Boone on his traces. As a child in Missouri, Carson got to know Fox and Sac Indians as individuals. He had a thirst for languages as well as travel.
His fierceness was legendary.
“In the summer of 1835,” Morgan narrates, “when he was twenty-five years old, Carson attended the annual meeting of trappers and traders on the Green River in southwestern Wyoming.” It was called The Rendezvous.
One of the French Canadians in attendance hated that the belle of the Rendezvous, an Arapaho girl named Singing Grass, had chosen Carson over him, and sought Carson out. Carson forced a duel on mounted horse with guns, survived a head graze, and shot off his opponent’s thumb. He married the girl.
In “Lions of the West,” Morgan entertains with adventures and details, both high-minded and handy. His largest achievement is something of special note here.
In his fiction, poetry, and history, Morgan represents a Scots-Irish/British tradition, and fuses, for all of America, romantic and pragmatic traditions.
Robert Morgan presents his new book of history, “Lions of the West,” and his new book of poems, “Terroire,” at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 3 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 29 (call 254-6734); and at Fountainhead Bookstore, 408 North Main St., Hendersonville, 6:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 29 (the event is ticketed; call 697-1870).