Robert Morgan's Gap Creek at Twenty
Martha Greene Eads

In early October of this year, Cornell University pulled out all the stops in a daylong celebration of Robert Morgan’s seventy-fifth birthday. Three panels of scholars assembled to praise his fiction, poetry, and prose nonfiction, and three former students, accomplished writers in their own right, expressed appreciation for the generosity and attention he has brought to teaching since his arrival at Cornell in 1975. Perhaps equally deserving of a birthday celebration is Morgan’s breakout novel Gap Creek, which turned twenty in October. An earlier novel based on his paternal grandparents’ lives, The Truest Pleasure, had enjoyed measures of both critical and commercial success, but Gap Creek, which focused on his maternal grandparents, became a bestseller. While some critics turned up their noses at Gap Creek after Oprah named it her television book club selection in January 2000, Morgan has consistently expressed appreciation for the spotlight she trained on his fiction.

 It seems like yesterday that I was reading for the first time about Julie Harmon’s first year of marriage to Hank Richards, just as I was preparing for my own wedding. As a thirty-six-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill grad student, uncertain about entering into such a monumental commitment (even with a vastly more mature and considerate partner than young Hank), I found hope in Gap Creek. If Hank and Julie could come through all of that, then surely my fiancé and I could survive, even thrive, in marriage.

Although I’ve since learned to treasure Morgan’s other work, including his poetry, Gap Creek remains the work I commend most frequently to others. Although I’m sentimental about its role in readying me for marriage, Gap Creek wears well for other reasons. No mere flash in the pan, Gap Creek, is, I predict, on its way to “classic” status. The college students I teach continue to delight in it, and within just this year, four of my faculty colleagues have permitted me to press the book on them and have since thanked me fervently for it. At least two of the four have already gone on to read more of Morgan’s fiction. So what makes Gap Creek’s appeal so wide and lasting?

Certainly, its prose shines. In his New York Times review, Dwight Garner observed that “at their finest, his stripped-down and almost primitive sentences burn with the raw, lonesome pathos of Hank Williams’s best songs.” Moreover, the characters are memorable and sympathetic, and the depth of their struggles makes us yearn to see how things will turn out—a bit like rubber-necking as we pass a highway crash. It’s hard to look away, even if we’re afraid of what we might see. Morgan often recounts in interviews that one cranky fan asked him at a book-signing, “Why did you put those young people through so much?”, complaining that he should have “called that book Job Had It Easy.” The way in which Morgan makes readers root for plucky Julie and, eventually, for Hank accounts for part of the book’s appeal.

Morgan’s depiction of rural Appalachian life at the turn of the last century is another aspect of its charm. When I handed a copy of Gap Creek, open to a hog-killing scene, to my own dad in 2003, he humored me by reading those few pages. Much to my surprise, however, he took the book home with him and read the whole thing. Although I had grown up watching Dad pore over newspapers, Bible commentaries, and the magazines Progressive Farmer and Hereford Journal, he hadn’t picked up a novel since reading Return of the Native for a college gen ed requirement in 1954 or ’55. Now, however, at age eighty-nine, Dad counts himself as a fan of Morgan’s fiction.

It was the accuracy of Gap Creek’s hog-killing scene that hooked him. Many academics, too, including Patrick Bizarro and Resa Crane Bizarro, have praised descriptions of hard work in Morgan’s poetry as well as in his prose. In a 2017 interview, Morgan acknowledged this strength, noting, “I do think that I’m unlike most writers of my generation and younger in that when I was very young, I did do a lot of hard labor. Children don’t do that any longer. As a kid from an early age I worked in the fields, worked in the garden, hoed corn, tied bean strings … later chopp[ed] wood.” He contends that such experience sets his fiction and poetry apart from that of other writers from the same region, noting:

I’m one of the few Appalachian writers who grew up on a dirt farm. [Most of the others publishing today grew up] in town, in more affluent circumstances—middle-class or upper middle-class. That doesn’t make a difference in the quality of the writing, but it gets into what you’re writing. Katherine Anne Porter says that by the time you’re ten, you’ve absorbed everything that will be used in your writing. This makes me different.

Of course, another distinctive feature of Morgan’s writing, not limited to but quite evident in Gap Creek, is the firsthand knowledge he brings to writing about religious experience. When he was not doing chores or schoolwork, the young Morgan was often attending church events with his parents and sister Evangeline. He has since dramatized in much of his poetry as well as in The Truest Pleasure the peculiar tensions of growing up in a home informed by both Pentecostalism and a less expressive Southern Baptist tradition.  As an adult, he says he has come to appreciate the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and to admire the writings of Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, but his formational religious experiences, like his farm labor, have thus given him a distinctive capacity to depict rural Southern characters like Julie. For Julie, the desire for rest finds expression in singing and thinking about heaven. He observed in the same interview that

[P]eople in rural churches are not usually highly educated or affluent, and their lives are hard… [T]he church, religion, gives them some release…. [T]he promise of heaven means a great deal to them. They’re able to visualize it, and of course, the music stimulates that imagination. These hymns are really important to people. It lightens their burden, gives them hope….  If you’ve spent your life at hard labor, going to a place of rest is very attractive.

Morgan’s insights align well with Joe E. Barnhart’s observation that regional “concepts of heaven have been shaped considerably by the living conditions and aspirations of the believers. Nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century hymnbooks often portrayed Heaven as a place of rest, shade, and relief from repressive toil” (“Heaven,” 375). Certainly, my own dad’s familiarity with the kinds of work Morgan describes as well as his own experiences of singing the songs Julie sings help explain why he connected so quickly with Gap Creek—even after almost half a century of avoiding fiction.

My dad has lots of company, though—some of whom have little if any connection to his mid-twentieth-century experience as a rural North Carolina Baptist. I think that Gap Creek’s continuing appeal lies at least in part in its depiction of Julie’s longing for heaven. Even as widespread participation in formal religious expression declines, this longing persists. In having Julie think and sing so often about heaven, Morgan has used a distinctive element of early twentieth-century rural Appalachian life to tap an almost-universal concern. Furthermore, theologically attuned readers will detect in Julie’s experiences profound ecclesiological, sacramental, and eschatological insights. These insights probably reveal as much or more about Morgan’s adult appreciation for Episcopal and Anglican thought than they indicate about his childhood Baptist or Pentecostal influences.

Rather than preaching, though, Morgan seems to have braided the fictional strands of hard work, hymn-singing, and heaven-hunger into Gap Creek almost instinctively. When I asked him about music in the book, he downplayed his hymn selection’s theological purposefulness, repeating a claim he has made elsewhere that he himself has “no theology” but is instead “a student of the phenomenon of belief.” He continued, “I’m very interested in the way that belief affects people and their lives…. When I write fiction, I try to give everything to the character: what would someone like [Julie], with her background, her personality, her experience think about?” His hymn selection principle emerged from this commitment: “I was mostly thinking about what she would know and what she would like.” He did take care to avoid anachronisms by combing the music collection at Cornell, but explains that he ultimately drew from his own memories. Describing a recent practice that sounds more acceptable to Episcopalians than to traditionally teetotaling Baptists, he recounted:

In some sense, I just put in the hymns I remembered, the ones I used to play [from The Broadman Hymnal]. I’ve really enjoyed for years and years pouring myself a stiff drink at the end of the day and playing some of these hymns like “Jordan’s Stormy Banks”…. I love those old hymns.  I remember hearing my grandparents sing them: my grandpa loved them, my mother, my cousin Alvin, who led the singing in church when I was a little kid.

The near-dismissiveness with which he describes his intentions for music in Gap Creek makes the aptness of his hymn selections seem uncanny.

Take, for example, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” which appears twice in Gap Creek. Morgan admits to having a particular affection for that hymn, calling it “one of the most moving hymns of all. We used to play it often, and it is a hymn that has that vision of crossing over to the better world. That poetry in it, as well as the music, is so memorable: ‘Cast a wishful eye. Who will come and go with me? I am bound for the Promised Land’” (Interview 2017). The first time Julie hears it, at the funeral of the lecherous landlord Mr. Pendergast, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” leaves her feeling as if “all the life and all the joy was draining out of the world” (115). When she hears it next, however, at her reception into church membership, the song signals her entrance into Christian fellowship. Before the song even begins to play, Julie describes her resulting joy as being “as steady as music you hear behind you, sustaining and clear” (248). Then, as congregants come forward to meet their new sister in Christ, the organist, Mrs. Gibbs, plays “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” the song Julie had found so depressing at the funeral. This time, however, the song has far more positive associations. Instead of being performed at a funeral in a nearly empty church, the song provides accompaniment for welcoming gestures from women and girls, some with tears in their eyes, as well as from boys “who looked like they would like to kiss me if they dared,” “older men wearing overalls and flannel shirts, and blushing because they was not used to shaking hands with a young woman,” and grizzled deacons, some with “eyes that sparkled, like they was young boys looking out of their wrinkles at a pretty girl. And some had cloudy eyes, like they didn’t see too well and wasn’t even trying to see” (249). Reflecting later on the experience, Julie says:

As I shook all the hands I had a sweet, calm feeling. In front of everybody I didn’t feel exposed. I felt the warmth of their attention and acceptance of me. The church was a warm and welcoming place. In the cold January day the warmest place was the fellowship of the congregation. It was the place of music, the music of fellowship and communion. (249)

Julie now has an answer to the question “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” poses: those who will “come and go with” her are the other members of this small country church.

Although Julie has responded to the altar call characteristic of Baptist services, to make an individual “decision to follow Christ,” this song and Julie’s thoughts about it remind readers that salvation and sanctification are mediated by the Church, an emphasis more common in the Anglican tradition.

Significantly, some versions of “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” present heaven as a source of food. Although the Broadman Hymnal Morgan remembers playing since his childhood contains only four stanzas, a longer version of the Stennett’s hymn appears in the Christian’s Duty, Exhibited in a Series of Hymns: Collected from Various Authors, Designed for the Worship of God, and for the Edification of Christians, Recommended to the Serious, published in 1825. In one of these versions, two additional stanzas describe “generous fruits that never fail,” and “brooks and vales/ [that w]ith milk and honey flow” (“Hymn 100: The Promised Land,” 86-87). Julie, several months pregnant and subsisting almost entirely on grits and eggs by this point in the novel, might understandably be swayed by a song that promises to satisfy hunger on several levels.

Julie’s new fellowship does help satisfy her hungers. Although her relationship with Hank remains strained, Julie discovers delight in spending time with Mrs. Gibbs and two other women from the church whose visits to “sit with [her] in the kitchen or by the fireplace talking” make her feel “like a human being again” (250). Sensitive to Julie’s material as well as emotional needs, her new friends bring her baby clothes and fruit preserves that ease her cravings. Moreover, Julie feels better each time she goes to “a prayer meeting or a preaching service, to a singing” (250). Her contentment grows greater still when Hank joins the congregation four weeks later. Despite fainting at the altar, the usually proud Hank grins at the congregants as they welcome him. “I think he was relieved too,” Julie observes, “[f]or he wanted to sing with the congregation and pray with the congregation as much as I did. For Hank liked to lead in prayer, and he knowed as well as I did it was better to sing with others than to stand off silent by yourself” (252). Much to Julie’s own relief (as well as the reader’s!), Hank’s entry into fellowship also signals the beginning of a new harmony at home.

The song Morgan chooses for Hank’s later reception into the church, “Bringing in the Sheaves,” underscores the communal nature of Christian belief while introducing a new metaphor. “Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness/ Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;/Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping/We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,” it begins (Broadman 359). While the harvest imagery certainly evokes evangelism, grain also has sacramental associations with Eucharistic bread. On a literal level, however, the labor Hank and Julie increasingly share includes the literal harvesting and preservation of food, which becomes a means of blessing those around them. Reflecting later on that period of their life, Julie recounts:

I helped Hank cut tops in the August heat. We stacked the corn tops in shocks in the fields to cure, and in the September heat we pulled the fodder and carried it in bundles to the barn. The fodder made the barn smell sweet as green tea. We gathered apples and made cider… I cut up apples and dried the slices on sheets in the sun, to make pies in the winter. (311)

For Julie and Hank, marriage becomes a shared ministry. When an alcoholic neighbor, Timmy Gosnell, who has repeatedly demanded money from Hank and Julie, threatens them again near the book’s end, Hank resists engaging with him as he has in the past. Instead, he tries to deflect Timmy’s curses by humoring him, offering him a meal and garden produce, and praying with him. Julie’s experiences are somewhat less dramatic but no less touching. She says,

I would give the preacher potatoes and carrots instead of any tithe. And I would help anybody I could. I would give people that passed on the road new potatoes and squash…. [W]e attended every prayer meeting and church service, every singing and dinner on the grounds. I carried taters and cider and canned preserves to shutins and old folks. (311, 310)

Although her mention of singing in this passage may seem a minor detail, music-making, like sharing meals, is a part of the congregation’s mutual aid, providing givers as well as recipients tastes of heaven on earth.

Morgan uses color to reveal the deep connections among ecstatic experiences of embodiment, having Julie observe:

I had forgot how good music is in a public place. It was just a little organ, but it gathered and pushed the air in the sweetest breath. There was such color in the notes. I seen purples and blues and greens in the air. The organ music was living breath.

  And when the song leader started to sing and we joined in, I seen I had forgot how voices joined together. But when they all joined in the church it was something different. All the voices blended and helped each other make a fuller kind of harmony. All together the voices seemed to raise the air. They made the church-house feel like it was lifting off the ground. I seen how I had missed singing. I had missed singing with other people and I had missed the praise of singing. (242-3)

Julie’s ecstatic account aligns with the phenomenon that Robert Jourdain explains in Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination:

The world is an untidy place. Where we would like to find simple patterns and deep connections, we encounter complexity and conflict and confusion. And so all ordinary existence is accompanied by a certain amount of strain. When trains of anticipation go consistently well, we register the pleasure of well-being. When resolution is consistently rocky, we register broad anxiety. Only in a handful of activities, including music and the other arts, do our minds partake of experience that is so perfectly organized that every anticipation is roundly satisfied, filling us with intense pleasure. (318)

The relative complexity of “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” makes it a good choice for illustrating Jourdain’s point; in an interview, Morgan has called the song, with music and lyrics by Philip P. Bliss, “harmonically one of the more complex hymns” in the novel.

Julie’s use of synesthetic imagery to describe this experience is especially striking in the context of Jourdain’s discussion of ecstasy; earlier in Gap Creek, she has described sexual bliss in similar terms:

“All the colors started running though my head in the dark. Purples and greens and yellows and blacks. They blended into each other and poured over each other. And the colors was like milk, so soft and warm and pouring over and into each other. And the colors was swelled, bigger than I had ever thought they could be. The colors was melodies, like shaped note singing” (53)

While Julie herself articulates no conscious connection between sex and song, she unwittingly bears witness to Jourdain’s assertion “that music is capable of delivering pleasure at virtually every level of our being” (327).

While the aural and vocal experience of “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” carries Julie outside herself, its lyrics are also significant at a more conscious level. In the hymn, singers exhort one another to mutual encouragement:

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy

From His lighthouse ever-more,

But to us He gives the keeping

Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!

Send a gleam across the wave!

Some poor, fainting, struggling seaman

You may rescue, you may save

(Broadman 262).

Morgan notes the lyrics’ encouraging element, saying, “I’ve heard many people ask, ‘Who are the lower lights, or what are the lower lights?’ I think it’s the saved. You’re hoping for Heaven; there’s God in heaven, but there are also the lower lights burning: the Christians around you, the examples” (interview). Julie and Hank have encountered two such examples in Pastor and Mrs. Gibbs; now they are entering a wider fellowship of Christians who will provide them with much-needed support in their continuing life journey.

That their journey is about this world rather than the next also seems more Anglican than Baptist. In his 2008 book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright contends that conventional notions of heaven as the place where well-behaved people go after death runs counter to biblical teaching. While some versions of the Baptist teaching Morgan grew up with can seem like a highly personalized, pie-in-the-sky reward system, a truly biblical understanding of heaven, according to Wright, invites humans to help usher heaven into the here and now. Morgan’s depiction of Julie’s near-death experience aligns with such an understanding. In her fever-induced vision of a place that seems a lot like heaven, she hears a man whom she first takes to be her dead Papa but who seems a lot like Jesus praise her for “having shown the truest kind of love.” The man tells her, “Because you have loved others more than yourself… you are one of the blessed.” Rather than urging her to enter into heavenly rest, he says, “You will live and you will continue to work and to love” (299). And she does, to appear in two more novels, This Rock and The Road from Gap Creek.

Of course, readers who’ve come to care about Julie want her to live. In bouncing back to can peaches, visit shut-ins, and join in hymn sings, Julie does more than merely live. Pointing to I Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous passage on love, Wright asserts:

The point… is that love is not our duty; it is our destiny…. It is the food they eat in God’s new world, and we must acquire the taste for it here and now. It is the music God has written for his creatures to sing, and we are called to learn it and to practice it now so as to be ready when the conductor brings down his baton…. Love is at the very heart of the surprise of hope: people who truly hope as the resurrection encourages us to hope will be people enabled to love in a new way (288).

Whether or not Morgan admires N.T. Wright as he does Rowan Williams, he seems to have anticipated Wright’s vision of Kingdom life when he created Julie. And reading about her, a young woman so animated by a longing for heaven and so characterized by love, stirs hope in many of us, whether we’re Baptist or Anglican or atheist, whether we’re thirty-six or seventy-five or eighty-nine.

Martha Greene Eads is professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University.


Works Cited

Barnhart, Joe E. “Heaven.” The Encyclopedia of Religion in the South.  2nd ed.  Ed. Samuel S. Hill and Charles H. Lippy, with Charles Reagan Wilson.  Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2005.

Bizarro, Patrick, and Resa Crane Bizarro. “The Poetics of Work: An Interview with Robert Morgan.” North Carolina Literary Review 10 (2001): 173-190.

Christian’s Duty, Exhibited in a Series of Hymns: Collected from Various Authors, Designed for the Worship of God, and for the Edification of Christians, Recommended to the Serious. 4th ed. Germantown, PA: John Leibert, 1825. www.hymnary.org/CDRS1825S100

Garner, Dwight. “This Old House.”  Review of Gap Creek. New York Times.  10 October 1999.

McKinney, B.B., ed. The Broadman Hymnal. Nashville, TN: Broadman P, 1940.

Morgan, Robert. Gap Creek. New York: Scribner, 2000.

_____. Interview. Martha Washington Inn Library. Abingdon, VA. 21 May 2017.

Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008.        

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