Fred Chappell 1936-2024

 

Fred Chappell, one of North Carolina’s most celebrated writers, has died at age 87.  

He taught at UNC Greensboro for 40 years, joining in 1964. More than anyone, he made the UNCG MFA in Creative Writing program one of the finest in the nation. 

His poetry, essays, and novels have been lauded nationally and beyond.  

Chappell received the UNC System’s O. Max Gardner Award for his literary work and impact on his students. Other honors include the (Yale) Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the T.S. Eliot Prize, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and the Roanoke-Chowan Poetry Prize seven times over. In France, his novel “Dagon” was awarded the Prix de Meilleur des Livres Étrangers. 

He was Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 1997 to 2002.  

In 2022, the documentary film “I Am One of You Forever,” produced by UNCG professor Michael Frierson and financed in part by UNCG Light the Way campaign gifts, was screened on PBS NC (WUNC) statewide and at film festivals in the United States and Europe. (See film.) 

(Reprinted from the UNCG website.)

 

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There are long lists of books Fred published, awards won, and his prestigious accomplishments. He was one of the authors who defined what Appalachian literature is, at a time when Appalachia was seen as an American backwater, yet he wasn't content to confine himself only to the region; he wrote horror, he wrote science fiction, he wrote poetry about cats, all critically acclaimed. These lists cannot reflect the generous, down to earth, mischievous qualities Fred possessed while, at the same time, seeming to know everything about literature since the Dawn of Man.

Fred bought the first book from Scuppernong, when we were selling from a van at a street festival, and he was supportive and encouraging to us throughout our ten years. He was endlessly curious and endlessly creative. If he knew you were writer, a meeting couldn't pass with his asking how your work was going. Fred nurtured a writing community, through his teaching, through the MFA program at UNCG, through his boundless enthusiasm, so broad as to be invisible; its roots spread across the country, across genre, and across discipline.

Fred wrote a poem, Fox and Grape, in an Aesopian mode, which he gifted to the store. You can read it below.

 

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Social media has been full of anecdotes about Fred since the announcement of his death which give a flavor of Fred. One of our favorites is from former student, poet/musician Jim Clark, which we reprint here with permission:

"Here are a couple of excerpts from a memoir I wrote about my days at UNCG, ca. 1976-1980. A fond tribute to Fred Chappell, and an homage to those long ago days.
 
Sometime in 1977 I took a course from Fred Chappell called “The Structure of Verse.” Now remember that I, at that time, like most young, aspiring writers, was enamored only of my contemporaries. I had had enough of dry as dust old professors rambling on about long dead poets swallowed up in the mists of oblivion. And so when Fred walked in to that evening class and began reading us poems like “My Galley Charged with Forgetfulness,” “They Flee from Me,” “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” “Delight in Disorder,” my heart fell. What was this? This wasn’t at all what I had in mind. How was this supposed to help? But I stuck with it, and after a while, things began to change, or I began to change. Fred talked about sixteenth and seventeenth century poets, and read their poems, as though they lived down the street, hung out at Logan’s Bar. And we in the class soon began to do likewise. It’s hard to put into words the force of that revelation. It was an aesthetic lightning bolt, the effects of which, happily, have yet to begin to dissipate. Something about the eternal continuity of art, the timeless, unbroken circle of craft. Whispers, hints, spirit rappings.
 
But despite his ramblings through the arcanum of minor Renaissance poets, Fred was nothing if not thoroughly contemporary. I remember once a group of us were discussing a rather controversial book of the time (I believe the title was something like The 100) that purported to list, in order, the 100 most influential figures in the history of the world. It was “controversial” mainly because it listed Mohammed as number 1, and Jesus as number 2. The student who was telling us about it, however, got it wrong and said “Jesus is like number 5, or something,” to which Fred responded, without batting an eye, “Who are the first four? The Beatles?” alluding, of course, to John Lennon’s infamous claim that The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus.” This led quite naturally into a discussion of whether or not there was anything to The Beatles’ lyrics, literarily speaking. Frankly, I think we were hoping to find some subject that Fred didn’t know, and know intimately. I’m not sure what we were expecting from him, exactly—maybe a polite line or two from “Eleanor Rigby,” or a nod to the narrative intricacies of “She’s Leaving Home.” However, after a moment’s deliberation, Fred looked squarely at us, tilting his head back ever so slightly, and intoned, weirdly and vatically: “‘Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye,’ John Lennon, ‘I Am the Walrus.’” Well, that’s just how it was. You’d be standing there, waiting for the folksy mountain humanist to answer, when all of a sudden, corporeally there in his place would be this flinty, vaguely disquieting, symbolist poète maudit.
 
[A large April Fools party ("April Fest") takes place here at the corner of Mendenhall and Walker and lasts into the early morning hours. We join it on the porch, in its final act.]
The jam session on the porch has made that ineluctable progression, after so many beers and hours, from the contemporary to the traditional, and is now well into the Carter Family songbook, “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Wildwood Flower” finally making way for that fountainhead of all mournful, morbid, but ever so subtly uplifting country songs, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” All four verses are sung by the swaying crowd, with choruses and instrumental breaks, and it’s looking like maybe it’s the end of April Fest. But then, out of the dying embers of harmony, one lone voice, which, until now, has been holding down the bass line, breaks into melody, kindling words, new verses, no one else knows. It’s Fred, of course. Ole Fred, extemporizing with precision and conviction decidedly non-canonical lyrics. Hell, I don’t want it to end, either.
 
I wish I could remember those words, but I can’t. Only a shard of rhythm; a pulse, quickening then fading; a cadence, now bright, now somber. What I do remember, though, and remember clearly, is that, on that magical evening, Fred’s words seemed to me to be just as pure and true, just as simple, raw, deep and elegant as A.P. Carter’s own. And now, from this distance of time, half-remembered, half-imagined, I think they sounded an awful lot like this:
The wind had got into the clocks and blown the hours awry. . . . The wind had got into the electricity also and the hands of that clock pointed where they pleased.
When I told my father what was happening, he said, “Yes, time is getting ready to stop.”
“Stop?”
“Yes. For our family at least. Time will have to stop for us and it’s hard to think how it can start up again.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“If we lose your grandmother, if Annie Barbara Sorrells dies, a world dies with her, and you and I and your mother and little sister will have to begin all over. Our time will be new and hard to keep track of. The time your grandmother knew was a steady time that people could trust. But you can see for yourself that we are losing it.”
from Farewell, I’m Bound to Leave You
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To end, one last little story. One of the best things we did during my four years in Greensboro was to meet, regularly, at Fred and Susan’s house in the evening to discuss our poems and stories: Robert Shapard, the two Jim Clarks (the elder and the younger), Betsy Cox, Steve Lautermilch, Jeff Miles, Grace DiSanto, Willie Mickleberry, Ben Greene, David Childers, Mary Parker, Heather Reich, Peggy Kent. The two things I’m about to relate may not have happened on the same night, but in my memory they do. As I walked in the front door as usual and made my way through the house to the den at the back, I noticed a wonderful, domestic sort of smell, something baking in the kitchen. I went in and joined the others and we began talking, joking and gossiping, as we always did before getting down to business. After a while, Fred came in from the kitchen carrying a platter. On the platter were warm crackers, crisp and white with brown freckles. Fred had baked crackers. Crackers! Never in my life had I ever heard of anybody baking his own crackers. But there they were, Fred’s crackers, and he proffered them to us, proudly apologetic—“They’re just—crackers.”
While we were passing them around, Grace DiSanto, who would drive all the way from Morganton to be with us, came in with, on this particular evening, a small mason jar of perfectly clear moonshine straight from the hills of western North Carolina. She unscrewed the lid and those of us who wanted to took a sip and passed it on. In my memory, that evening has a name: “The Cracker Communion.” I’ll leave you to make of that what you will."
 
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