Fred Chappell’s poetry, essays, and novels are lauded nationally and beyond. Meanwhile, he’s inspired a legion of Spartan students, who make clear that what he taught was timeless.
By former students and Mike Harris ’93 MA
Photography by Martin W. Kane and Courtesy of Martha Blakeney Hodges Special collections and university archives
In recent months, film festival audiences have seen Fred Chappell on the big screen. To decades of former students, he’s already larger than life.
Ruth Dickey ’04 MFA introduced Chappell and the film at its screening at the Greensboro Bound festival. “Fred Chappell: I Am One of You Forever,” produced by UNCG Media Studies professor Michael Frierson and financed in part by Light the Way campaign gifts, will be shown in early November on PBS NC statewide. (The film will air Thursday, Nov. 3, at 10 p.m. and then air on the NC Channel on the following Monday at 8 p.m.)
“I absolutely love this gorgeous film,” said Dickey, executive director of the National Book Foundation. “And what I loved most about this film, that traces Fred’s life from childhood through family and studying and writing and teaching and novels and poems, is that it is – just like Fred – absolutely full of heart and stories.”
Interviewing dozens of authors, critics, and Chappell family members, Frierson and his team filmed not only in Greensboro but in Chappell’s hometown of Canton in the North Carolina mountains. He even interviewed Fred and his wife, Susan Nicholls Chappell ’70, at the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church where they were married in 1959.
Days before the screening, the Chappells welcomed our magazine staff to their backyard garden. Susan showed the wonderful mossy area and the shed where Fred has often written. Asked about a nearby sculpture of a goat, Fred referred to the scene in “Brighten the Corner Where You Are” where a goat and a teacher have a debate. He noted that farm animals were ubiquitous where he grew up.
Fred Chappel, ca. 1970
A Sunset Hills neighbor at the time, artist Jim Barnhill ’82 MFA, created that goat. The Chappells also asked him to create the centerpiece of their patio. It echoes Botticelli’s artwork of the solar system, an illustration in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” circled by text. “I’m a big fan of Dante,” Fred says. “That’s the last line in each of the three parts of the ‘Divine Comedy’: ‘L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle.’”
He helpfully translates, returning to his western North Carolina accent: “The love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
For many years, he’s been known as Ole Fred. In fact, the main character in his acclaimed quartet of poems, “Midquest,” is called “Ole Fred.” In those poems and his well-loved Kirkman family quartet of novels, he explores one of the four elements – fire, water, earth, and air. Allusions to seemingly hundreds of books from Western literature underpin the works.
At Duke University, he studied under William Blackburn. Friends included Reynolds Price, Anne Tyler, and William Styron.
More than anyone, he made the UNCG MFA in Writing program one of the finest in the nation.
Author of a dozen books of poetry, two short-story collections, and eight novels, he taught in the English Department for over 40 years. He is the winner of the (Yale) Bollingen Prize in Poetry, Aiken Taylor Prize, and T.S. Eliot Prize. In France, his novel “Dagon” was awarded the Prix de Meilleur des Livres Étrangers. He served as Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 1997 to 2002.
Fred with his son, Heath, 1960s
His prose is often termed magical realism. He unveils a world that is transcendent, even with plowing, milking, and barn mucking to do as well as practical jokes and jests to endure or inflict. His magic, perhaps, is that even as he pulls out allusions to Homer, Dante, Twain, George Washington Harris, and a dizzying number more, it’s all in the service of a well-told tale. And as the personal honors have grown and his life is now told on the screen – and as his students have won honors such as the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and have earned professorships, a National Book Foundation directorship, and other high posts – he just wants you to call him Fred.