C. E. Morgan Takes the Reins
The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan, is an ambitious interracial saga obsessed with the power of stories.
By Ingrid Norton
The veterinarian is performing a prenatal check-up in a horse barn, “her arm thrust up to the elbow in the uterus of a bay mare” (380). When her hand finds two pulsing embryos instead of one, she matter-of-factly separates them and pinches one twin “until its tiny, burgeoning life was aborted.” The vet is at a training center for racehorses in Kentucky. The risk of her maneuver is that she is crushing the next record breaker, but that is better than the alternative: “Spare them both and you’d end up with two weak, undersized foals.” As she peels off her lubricated glove, she senses a presence behind her and turns to find “Henrietta Forge standing in front of her, her belly bossed out, heavily pregnant” (381). Henrietta, the 29-year-old scion of a horse farm, is in the last weeks of her pregnancy. In a few pages, the vet will rush her to the hospital as she bows over with contractions.
The meeting, which occurs two-thirds of the way through The Sport of Kings, C. E. Morgan’s masterful 2016 novel, is an example of the way that Morgan embraces old-school authorial high-handedness, unapologetically engineering coincidences and narrative symmetries to advance the plot and underline the themes. The conceit of the book intertwines the story of Henrietta Forge and her father, Henry, members of Kentucky’s old, white land-owning aristocracy, with that of Allmon Shaughnessy, a black horse groom who grew up in the ghetto in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is descended from one of the slaves that the Forge family owned in the nineteenth century—though it becomes clear their bloodlines may not be as distinct as the lineage-obsessed Henry Forge likes to think.
The bulk of The Sport of Kings takes place between the 1980s and 2006, the year of a climactic derby, but the narrative pivots back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at key points. There is also a lengthy initial section set during the segregated 1950s that narrates Henry Forge’s upbringing by his father, an elitist, racist planter who tutors him in Latin and tries to staunch his son’s burgeoning ambition to raise thoroughbreds. Telling the stories of the past always leads back to the present, and the novel’s structure becomes a kind of Mobius strip of American racial history. In one scene, an adolescent Henrietta, homeschooled on Darwin and Seneca, leafs through the old leather ledgers in her father’s study and finds her ancestor Edward Cooper Forge’s 1827 will, “scrawled in a curly, filigreed script” with appraisals for the values of slaves: “One negro Man named Yearlye, $900 . . . One negro Man named Scipio, $1000 . . . One negro woman named Prissey, $500,” and so forth (139–40). In the next section, which hurtles through Allmon’s life in racially tense modern Cincinnati, his grandfather, a preacher, will invoke his great-great-grandfather Scipio, who swam across the Ohio River to escape slavery but, after 15 years of freedom in Ohio, “hung himself in a white man’s attic from a rafter he done raised with his own two hands!” (216–17). “Nobody talks about a suicide,” the reverend reflects. “It grinds generations into the soil of time” (236). Later sections narrate Scipio’s escape across the river: his story is introduced after Allmon’s incarceration, as though the accretion of injustice and trauma has caused the past to burst through into the present. Near the end of the book, the anguished contemporary consciousness of Henry implodes into a scene from the early nineteenth century in which Edward Cooper Forge, deranged by bereavement, rapes Prissey, who, three hundred pages earlier, was recorded as Scipio’s mother in the ledger Henrietta found (483–84).
There is something exhilarating about Morgan’s command of the material. The novel is at once an epic and an example of extraordinary powers of narrative condensation, as Morgan encapsulates entire periods and narrates the course of whole lives in the space of a few dozen pages—sometimes a few paragraphs. Morgan’s command of a wide range of ideas and of different stylistic registers is immense and impressive. The novel is studded with quotes from Darwin and disquisitions about evolution, history, and geology. Morgan constantly conjures timescales far beyond those perceptible to the individual—but that can be stylized by art.
Horses are a vessel for Morgan’s larger interests—in the interplay between heredity and history; in the flawed hierarchies between races and species, men and women; in the question of humanity’s exceptionalism, or lack thereof.
Struggling to contain Morgan’s scope—and perhaps embarrassed that all this would sound over-ambitious—the promotional materials emphasized the sports plot. The hardcover edition’s dust jacket spoke of “a spiraling tale of wealth and poverty, racism and rage” but focused its summary on the fortunes of Hellsmouth, the Forge’s record-breaking horse. This is a shame, for it downplays the novel’s invigorating ambition. Hellsmouth and the standard sports drama—Hellsmouth is the best horse in the business, but will a leg injury catch up with her before the final race?—do not become central until page 400. By the time the different narrative strands have converged on Hellsmouth, her greatness is just one expression of the preoccupations that ripple through the lives of all the characters. What happens when will, temperament, and physiology clash? “The filly was eccentric, sensitive, bold, petulant,” one character reflects of Hellsmouth; another describes her as “a persnickety bitch with a monster-truck ass, but toothpick bones and a bad attitude” (439, 452). The tension between personality and environment is also a defining problem for the human characters, who are further burdened with racial and economic history. Horses are a vessel for Morgan’s larger interests—in the interplay between heredity and history; in the flawed hierarchies between races and species, men and women; in the question of humanity’s exceptionalism, or lack thereof. Lou, the veterinarian, remembers her favorite professor’s advice to never confuse your own body with that of the animal under your care. But characters again and again do confuse horses with their own emotions and ambitions. Henry Forge memorizes Xenophon’s On Horsemanship as a boy and refers to his wife’s conformation. Steeped for too long in accounts of the inbreeding family trees of thoroughbreds, he seduces his adolescent daughter.
When the novel’s characters put their own ambitions over ethics or nature, the results are often violent and self-defeating; later in the book, a chastened Henry will imagine “the absurdity of one flower asserting its singularity, its glory, yearning to stand a hard-won inch above its nearest neighbors, straining on its flimsy stalk, flailing its petals, whispering in a hoarse, pollen-choked voice, ‘Me! Me! Me!’ ” (519). Flowers and simple animals can’t tell stories, he reflects, and therefore “didn’t suffer any notion of themselves” (519). This is a novel obsessed with the power of stories, whether they are sustaining or damaging, forgotten or falsified—a novel which has the courage of its artifice.
The Sport of Kings was well reviewed upon its initial release in 2016 and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2017, but it didn’t catch on. “I do think Morgan’s book has been overlooked,” Nicholas Pearson, of 4th Estate, her UK publisher, wrote in The Guardian, sounding like he’d lost a bet. “She is a great writer and everyone at 4th Estate waits to see what she does next.”1
So why was it overlooked? Pick your interpretation: Morgan’s heady, unabashed maximalism is just too far outside current literary fashion. (In one of her rare interviews Morgan has critiqued “the ubiquity of standard realism with its seamless plotting, its quiet reflection of middle-class morality, its prohibition against prose that draws attention to itself.”2) Or perhaps, in the Age of Fragmentation, reading habits have become too diffuse and professional criticism too marginalized to consolidate around a towering new talent; the underpaid literary historians of the future will scratch their heads that writers who began their careers before the rise of Amazon and social media continued to monopolize literary sales and coverage when we could have been talking about C. E. Morgan (born 1976). You could also go with race or gender: An interracial saga by a white, Southern author played badly in a year dominated by the rise of Trump and debates about cultural appropriation. Novels by women, even when their name—Catherine Elaine—is well concealed behind initials, just aren’t taken seriously.
Whatever the confluence of all these reasons, it is hard to avoid a wearying suspicion: a young female writer wrote one of the greatest American novels of recent years, and hardly anyone noticed.
The Sport of Kings tempts one to resurrect that most beaten of horses, the Great American Novel, for it is a tradition that Morgan explicitly engages. In her 2012 foreword to a reissue of William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August, written while she was drafting The Sport of Kings, Morgan takes on the concept of the great American novel, writing against its contemporary dismissal and praising works like Light in August, Moby Dick, Blood Meridian, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin for signifying “a reality both universal and distinctly—perhaps even incontrovertibly—at the heart of the collective American experience.”3 In The Sport of Kings, literary lineage figures just as prominently as the characters’ familial histories. The novel is stuffed with Melvillian disquisitions about humanity’s place in nature. The Sport of Kings also takes direction from Faulkner in its complex syntax and in its heated depiction of race. In her preface to Light in August Morgan dissects the novel’s climax, when the troubled, biracial Joe Christmas commits arson and murder, becoming “what society has determined he shall become: the immoral, murderous, animalistic black man”—a reading that clearly influenced her own climactic sequence, in which Allmon Shaughnessy takes his own revenge (more on that presently). And Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at the heart of Morgan’s reading and rendering of nineteenth-century racial history.
The Sport of Kings tempts one to resurrect that most beaten of horses, the Great American Novel, for it is a tradition that Morgan explicitly engages.
C. E. Morgan’s engagement with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel—in her words, “easily the most influential piece of fiction in American history, made so by one writer’s genius for capturing the nation’s moral anxiety”—forms a vital part of the moral project of The Sport of Kings.4 Stowe’s influence on Morgan is legible first of all in the name of Allmon’s ancestor. Uncle Tom’s Cabin also features a slave named Scipio, characterized in Stowe’s novel as “a regular African lion” who “appeared to have the rude instinct of freedom in him to an uncommon degree.”5 Set against Stowe, Morgan’s characterization of Scipio in The Sport of Kings takes on increased definition. Allmon’s ancestor, the Scipio who escapes from the Forges in Morgan’s novel, also has a strong thirst for freedom, but his similarity with his literary predecessor ends there. Stowe’s Scipio was an African native; Morgan’s was born in “the heart of Kentucky, a place that boasts one slave for every white man” (290). Morgan’s character is fiercely intelligent and repulsed by the submissive postures of Christianity. He plans his escape carefully over three years, slipping away while other slaves are on their way to a party and timing his journey so that he will reach the Ohio River during the new moon, when he will be undetectable.
As ever, Morgan renders the scenes with vivid, authoritative details: Scipio “cinches sacks of crushed Indian turnip around his calf-hide brogans to throw off the scent” and packs “a satchel containing fatback, hogmeat slices, and crumbling cornpone” (290, 292). But his careful planning does not save him from unexpected complications when he meets Abby, a pregnant slave fleeing a master who bought her at age 13, chained her to a bed in a shack for his three slaves to have sex with, and sold the resulting children on the slave market. She speaks in the Tomish slave argot and is pious in a way Stowe would recognize: “I’s never going to be de slave to the white man no more, only de slave a God,” she declares, to Scipio’s distaste (303). At first he doesn’t want company and flinches from the way that an emotional woman, late in pregnancy, could thwart his bid for freedom, which he has long envisioned as solitary. But Abby’s story finally moves him: he stops resisting his own empathy and becomes protective of her. They will swim across the Ohio River together: the vision of the two of them crossing is “firm in his mind now like a story told to him long ago, a story which he now believes with all his heart” (302).
Stowe is present in this geography, as much a part of the riverine landscape as the trees that hide Scipio and Abby. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was inspired by the years Stowe spent living in Cincinnati and her visits to slave-owning Kentucky. One of the most famous scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes when Eliza Harris, a light-skinned Kentucky house slave, flees from slave catchers by crossing the Ohio River. Holding her son in her arms, she leaps across creaking ice floes; her stockinged feet leave bloody prints on the ice as she runs from her pursuers and emerges free on the Ohio side of the river.
In The Sport of Kings, by contrast, Scipio and Abby’s crossing of the Ohio River takes place at night in a desolate part of the river bank. Instead of carrying a child in her arms, Abby is seized by pregnancy contractions in the icy cold water. Scipio tries to save her when she slips beneath the surface but she thrashes and seizes his leg, yanking him underwater with her. “With blind horror,” he kicks her in the belly; her grip releases as she sinks (304). Scipio finds his way to shore; as he turns toward Cincinnati, his back
is a curtain drawn on the crude festival of the South. But oh, reader, now Scipio has found something worse than slavery and will live fifteen more years trying to forget it. There are tales that are remembered and tales that are forgotten, but all tales are born to be told. They demand it; the dead become tales in order to live. Their eternal life is in your mouth. (305)
The direct address to the reader borrows Stowe’s manner but dispenses with her message. When good characters suffer in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe invokes the surety of heaven. In Morgan’s novel, by contrast, stories are the only immortality; suffering is arbitrary and met by blank oblivion. During Allmon’s childhood, when he and his mother are forced to move to a cheaper apartment, Allmon prays for his white deadbeat father, “for God, for anyone to save them, but nobody did come, because nobody does” (250). When his mother dies of kidney failure—a complication from years of lupus, which she couldn’t get properly treated because she didn’t have health insurance—Allmon sits “in the smallest parlor of the Chase Brothers funeral home” listening to the rent-a-preacher while internally reciting his own Lord’s Prayer: “The Lord is my nothing, I shall want nothing. He maketh me to lie down in nothing, he leadeth me beside nothing, he restoreth nothing,” and so on (282–83).
In Morgan’s novel, by contrast, stories are the only immortality; suffering is arbitrary and met by blank oblivion.
It is Allmon, Scipio’s contemporary descendent, who provokes Morgan’s most explicit reference to the river-crossing scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Throughout the novel, Allmon’s emotions are described as encased in ice or in amber—frozen over by poverty, by grief, by incarceration. Toward the end of the novel, a significant and belated thawing occurs when Allmon finds out that he is going to have a child. In a desperate fury, Allmon drives to the Forge farm, unleashing a diatribe about prison, something he has always refused to talk about before. As Allmon allows the memories and emotions to surface, delving into prison’s vicious hierarchies and violence, his mental state explicitly recalls Eliza’s escape in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
Ice is breaking on the surface of the river. Allmon wants to hold all the floes together, reassemble the solidity and stolidity secured by the dead cold, but he can’t, it’s coming apart under him as he’s trying to cross with his son in his arms; he can hear it whining and moaning as it cracks. . . .
Allmon’s mouth is filling with water, but there’s still room for words. (525)
There is no escape to freedom, Morgan suggests, least of all in the era of mass incarceration. The river, with all its menacing power, has been internalized.
What comtemporary story about race is Morgan using these old tools to build? The biographical section that introduces Allmon to the reader depicts Allmon and his mother’s freefall into poverty and illness during his childhood and adolescence. His deadbeat truck-driving Irish father abandons them; Marie has to go on food stamps; she is accused of welfare fraud when the state discovers her ex left her a used car; her dental hygienist boss won’t give her enough hours to qualify for health insurance; she comes down with the first symptoms of lupus. Meanwhile, Allmon sabotages himself before the exam to get into a magnet school and is instead scouted by a physical education academy that enrolls him in punishing football drills. His grandfather, the reverend, describes him as “too tenderheaded by far, just like his mother” (233). As Allmon comes of age, he starts dealing drugs to support his mother—“He’d already decided that life was a gamble and his best odds were in this house” (255). During this time, he forces what remains of his boyhood “into a shadowy pocket of his heart . . . his spirit soon evanesced into a wounded silence” (258).
The chain of events is heartbreaking and all too believable—yet, as Allmon is shunted from disaster to disaster, a sense of his emotions and his agency is somehow lacking, his inner life deliberately hidden in the shadows. I found myself wondering how the novel’s devastating indictment of poverty and racism would have read if Allmon’s storyline displayed more of the friction between a strong will and unyielding circumstances that characterizes the lives of some of the book’s other characters, like his forefather Scipio and his grandfather—even Aesop, the neighborhood’s chief drug dealer, who informs Allmon, “I’m the mayor and the mafia and the motherfucking love” (254).
But, as so often with The Sport of Kings, the seeming shortcomings are purposeful. It is significant that the drug dealer who mentors Allmon is named Aesop. If Allmon is opaque to the reader—the archetype of the troubled young black man that white culture renders threateningly impenetrable—it is because his ability to tell his own story is overmastered by the story that culture has written about him. Morgan’s narrative is quite self-aware about this. “That’s the problem with you—you never learned to tell a story slant, never learned to tell your own,” Reuben Bedford Walker III, a self-made black jockey, reproaches him, echoing Emily Dickinson. Pint-size Reuben, the best jockey in the business, towers over his surroundings through his powers of self-creation, using recondite diction as a weapon. “You think I don’t know the sobstory streets you grew up on?” he incredulously asks Allmon. “I smell government cheese on your breath, you got blisters on your thumbs from selling cut-rate crack! . . . Your daddy’s fled and your mama’s dead!” (511). Allmon’s tragedy is not just the accreted pain that has circumscribed his life; that same society will punish him for not being able to restyle his pain into a narrative. As Reuben dismissively tells Allmon: “One man’s stereotype, another man’s award-winning performance” (512).
The resolution of Allmon’s story follows an old script, one that would be familiar to Faulkner and other mid-century American novelists who wrote about race. Unable to seize agency on an existential level, Allmon asserts it through violence, incited by Reuben’s taunts. The climactic sequence—it involves gunshots and burning gasoline—made me think of James Baldwin’s 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” which takes aim at the sanctimony of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but is really a critique of Richard Wright’s recently published Native Son, in which Bigger, the alienated protagonist, is ultimately driven to murder and rape. In Baldwin’s words, through violence and death Bigger comes, “for the first time, to a kind of life.” For Baldwin, Native Son’s violent climax becomes “a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend [of Uncle Tom] it was written to destroy. . . . [I]t seems that the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses. . . . Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry . . . but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life.”6 Morgan clearly means to name this theology, still robust at the turn of the twenty-first century. But Allmon’s final turn to violence bolsters rather than critiques it.
In the same way that the determinism of Allmon’s story is self-consciously stylized—“In this act, Allmon comes up on the streets of Northside . . . ” (190); “In the first scene of Allmon’s tenth year . . .” (222)—Morgan is up to something different from standard characterization with the Forges, who provide an occasion for a meditation on the violent, coruscating effects of ambition. From the earliest parts of the novel, in which Henry’s lessons from his father are stylized as dialogue, Henry is portrayed as being haunted by an obsession with greatness, even to the point of madness (and, ultimately, as an adult, of incest). He rejects his father’s exhortations to be disciplined by tradition and moderation. “Choke to death on your words,” young Henry thinks. “Mania transforms! It makes the cuckold the lover again, it makes the blind man see, it ripens fruit that reason can only plant!” (89). The worldview infects Henrietta, too. As a child, devoting hours to fierce, solitary reading, she finds novels a waste of time: “She resisted how they worked on her, asking her to suffer on someone’s behalf. If they had no madness in them, they were useless; genius doesn’t speak with the limited tongue of sense. Her father taught her that” (130).
Because of Henrietta’s emotional receptivity, her concerns with greatness ultimately diverge from her father’s desire for posterity and brilliance. Henrietta’s expansiveness takes a particularly female cast, provoked by her capacity to love, and, at last, to give birth. When she first realizes she’s fallen in love with Allmon, “She’s aware of herself, perhaps for the first time, as constantly varying, no longer separate from nature, no longer the watcher” (351). The passage that describes the supernova expansiveness she subsequently feels is one of the most bravura in the novel. In this section Morgan herself seizes the reins, her narrative voice merging with Henrietta’s as she addresses the reader to describe the chaotic natural world Henrietta’s love is part of: “any striving is calcined ash before the heat of the ever-expanding world, its interminability and brightness which is neither yours nor mine. There aren’t too many words; there aren’t enough words”(353), Morgan declares, letting forth a litany of beauties to show this ever-expanding world: from “the icy display of aurora borealis” to “the earthworm’s curling,” “the endless configurations of cloud,” and, at last, “the peacock turning and splaying his designs, each particular shimmering feather a universe invested with its own black sun, demanding, Look before you die, Look—Don’t turn away for fear you’ll go blind; the dark comes down soon enough. Until then, burn!” (353–54). Just as Henry is willing to burn himself and others up in his desire for greatness, Henrietta will sacrifice herself to love.
The larger shake-up to Henrietta’s worldview comes when she gets pregnant and has to reconsider her interdependence with others. “With anguish, she sensed that time’s blood had been merely passing through her seemingly discrete existence, her temporary form, and that when she was gone, time’s blood would flow dispassionately on. She was beginning to think she had spent her time badly” (375). Her disquisition on how her own physiology may restrict her agency—perhaps the most meaty and philosophical treatment of pregnancy I can recall in any novel—is part of a shift during the last third of The Sport of Kings, in which the Forges must reckon with their own destructiveness and their coexistence with others. In this section, Henry belatedly realizes that he should be a steward of nature rather than a ruler of it. “Ambition,” he decides, “is a form of suicide if it kills the simple self” (520).
Hellsmouth, the record-setting horse, is rolled into the Icarus-yearnings of the Forges. After a climactic race, Henry looks at his horse and for the first time clearly sees the poignancy of her gifts:
Hellsmouth was bold as life, but her brittle bones were no match for her power. The creative vitality of her gait, the tremendous heat of her racing engine fueled by her competitor’s blood, that fierce physical ambition, which was wholly natural to her and as inextricable as her limbs, would come at the expense of her life. She would break. A competitor like Hellsmouth could never stop of her own accord. She was not just unwilling but actually unable to save herself. (504–5)
He decides that he must pull her from racing. The dissenting voice is the horse’s trainer, who makes another exhortation in which burning up is the proper end of greatness and courage: “You actually think it’s a virtue”—his lips trembled—“to coddle a great talent? To rein in the best of the very best? Listen to me, if you got the fire, then you burn! You don’t throw fucking ashes on it! You don’t tamp it out!” (508).
As The Sport of Kings draws toward its conclusion, the novel wrangles more and more with questions of mania and moderation; the pull of ambition and individuality set against the multiplicity of nature, the smallness of humanity, the importance of ethics. It is hard not to see these preoccupations as mirroring the astonishing talents of their author, who has written one of the most ambitious and daring American novels of recent years, with philosophical profundity, stylistic richness, and moral vision to spare. The concerns about the perils and responsibilities of greatness that blow through the lives of the Forges must be Morgan’s own concerns. “What can you do?” she asks, in one direct address to the reader. “You can’t pray for yourself. The gods disallow it” (467). As I read on, and reread, I found myself offering a kind of prayer to whatever gods or furies govern artistic success: that Morgan’s own flames be replenished; that her book prosper and last; that her genius burn steadily rather than burn out.
- “Gifts and Misses: Publishers Pick Their Books of 2016,” The Guardian, December 9, 2016.
- Karen Schechner, “2016 Kirkus Prize Finalist: C.E. Morgan,” Kirkus Reviews, October 6, 2016.
- The preface was also published as an essay in The Daily Beast: C. E. Morgan: “ ‘Light in August’ Is Faulkner’s Great American Novel,” The Daily Beast, October 16, 2012.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Norton Critical Edition, 2nd ed., ed. Elizabeth Ammons (W. W. Norton, 2010), 214.
- From James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, quoted in ibid., 538.
Ingrid Norton, MTS ’16, is a doctoral student in American literature at Princeton University. A former assistant editor of the Bulletin, she lives in New York City and is working on a novel.