Fred Chappell 1936-
(Full name Fred Davis Chappell) American poet, novelist, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Chappell's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 40 and 78.
Known for his gentle humor and lauded for his polished storytelling abilities, Chappell uses the Appalachian region of his childhood as the setting for both his poetry and fiction. He is praised for his erudition and mastery of poetic forms, as well as for the vital sense of community and Southern values found in his work. His works frequently describe lush natural environments and depict characters who are involved in intense emotional situations. Several critics have noted that Chappell's novels belong in the “Southern Gothic” tradition, citing their dark, brooding atmosphere and their violent and grotesque elements. Chappell is best known for his poetic works, including his highly regarded Midquest (1981), a collection of poetry that reflects on his thirty-fifth birthday.
Chappell was born and raised in Canton, a small town in western North Carolina. His relationship to this region figures prominently in his poetry and fiction. In 1959 he married Susan Nicholls, with whom he had a son. He graduated from Duke University in 1961, earning a bachelor's degree in fiction writing. While an undergraduate, he became acquainted with other noted authors such as novelist Anne Tyler, novelist and poet Reynolds Price, poet James Applewhite, and novelist Tom Atkins. After completing his master's degree in 1964, Chappell became an instructor of writing at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where he has taught for more than twenty-five years. He has been awarded several prizes and grants for his writing, including a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1985, and the T. S. Eliot Prize. He has also been a frequent contributor to a number of periodicals and a contributing editor to Skyhook, Red Clay Reader, Shenandoah, and Georgia Review.
Chappell's early works are dark, psychological novels often characterized by violence and madness. James Christopher, the protagonist of It Is Time, Lord (1963), is a disillusioned man whose life lacks meaning and purpose. Alternating between past and present, the novel juxtaposes images from Christopher's childhood with present-day scenes of his idleness, drunkenness, and infidelity. Dagon (1968) centers on a minister who, after moving to a small town with his wife, becomes obsessed with and transformed by a strange, sadistic daughter of a tenant farmer. The novel is infused with elements of fantasy, mythology, and psychic horror. Chappell's novel tetralogy—I Am One of You Forever (1985), Brighten the Corner Where You Are (1989), Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You (1996) and Look Back All the Green Valley (1999)—follows the exploits of Joe Robert Kirkman and the coming-of-age of his son Jess amongst a cast of eccentric characters in a small town in North Carolina. The events of the first novel surround Jess's family, his remembrances of growing up, and the impact of World War II on the community. The second novel of the tetralogy follows Joe Robert and his new career as a schoolteacher; the third novel focuses on Jess and Joe Robert's interactions as they await the death of Jess's grandmother; and the fourth novel follows Jess's struggle to honor his mother's plea to be buried next to his father and his quest to sort out the events in his father's past. In his short story collection Moments of Light (1980), Chappell explores such themes as justice, the loss of innocence, and moral conflicts, suggesting that art can serve as a means for attaining order and harmony in life.
While Chappell first attracted critical attention as a novelist and prose writer, he has since become primarily known as a poet. His first volume of poetry, The World between the Eyes (1971), anticipates his later work in its inclusion of long, descriptive verse built around his impressions of life in a North Carolina mountain town. Midquest, his most acclaimed poetic work, is comprised of four previously published volumes—River (1975), Bloodfire (1978), Wind Mountain (1979), and Earthsleep (1979). The four sections are metaphorically structured around the four essential elements—water, fire, air, and earth—and each is “spoken” on Chappell's thirty-fifth birthday, which he identifies as the midpoint of his life. Many of the poems feature Old Fred, a character who has been noted by critics such as Michael McFee as Chappell's “split literary personality.” Several scholars have analyzed Old Fred's voice, which portrays him as a simultaneously highly literate and yet extremely rural, romantic, and roguish individual. Incorporating a variety of verse forms such as terza rima, rhymed couplets, and syllabics, Midquest features a conglomeration of perspectives and poetic voices, blending past and present, narration, meditation, and dialogue. Castle Tzingal (1984) represents a departure from Chappell's characteristic poetic technique. A narrative written in the form of a revenge tragedy, this volume combines an eerie medieval setting and an elaborately suspenseful plot with modern language and humor. In First and Last Words (1989) Chappell examines distinguished authors and literary texts throughout history and discusses his personal reaction to the works. Similarly, in C (1993), Chappell presents one hundred poems containing riddles, satire, and puns, which borrow heavily from the classics and earlier poets. The collection satirizes both Chappell and the poets who came before him. Spring Garden (1995) recounts a day in a garden in which the narrator watches his wife tend to the plants. He chooses particular flowers, herbs, spices, and vegetables from the garden and groups them according to the virtues they inspire. For example, thyme and other aphrodisiacs are used in the poem “The Garden of Love,” and mythic fern seed represents the ability to write objectively of others in “Poems of Character.” In 2000, Chappell published Family Gathering, a collection of poetry that centers around relatives becoming reacquainted with each other at a family reunion.
Chappell has received mixed critical reaction to his work, though several critics have asserted that he has only recently received the attention he deserves. Early in his career, a number of reviewers had regarded Chappell's prose as worn-out Southern Gothicism and had unfavorably compared it to the works of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Carson McCullers. While some commentators have categorized Chappell as a regional writer, many have argued that his works enjoy a wide degree of universal appeal, noting his international popularity in England and France. Critics have praised the range of Chappell's writing, complimenting his variety of poetic forms, his impressive storytelling capabilities, and the humor contained in his verse. In addition, scholars have extolled his use of dialogue and his incorporation of imagery and characters from his native Appalachia. The Kirkman tetralogy of novels, in particular, has been lauded as an exploration of “the power of memory as a refuge against loss” by critics such as Robert Gingher. Many scholars have agreed that one of the most striking features of Chappell's writing is its attempt to bridge the divide between the two disparate cultures of the city and the country. George Hovis has remarked that Chappell's split literary persona is one “who understands himself and his world by means of two divided cultures, one belonging to his present life in the academy, and the other to his childhood on the Appalachian farm of his ancestors.” Hovis has further asserted that Chappell's writings, such as Midquest, attempt to “heal” this schism between the two worlds and create a whole that encompasses both Chappell's scholarly world and the agrarian environment of his youth. Reviewers have also noted the significance of symbolism, spirituality, and autobiographical elements in Chappell's verse. His works such as First and Last Words and C have been generally praised by critics for their playfulness and use of satire. Spring Garden has also been commended by reviewers for its agrarian themes and their relevance to spiritual fulfillment.
It Is Time, Lord (novel) 1963
The Inkling (novel) 1965
Dagon (novel) 1968
The World between the Eyes (poetry) 1971
The Gaudy Place (novel) 1973
River (poetry) 1975
Bloodfire (poetry) 1978
Earthsleep (poetry) 1979
Wind Mountain (poetry) 1979
Moments of Light (short stories) 1980
*Midquest (poetry) 1981
Castle Tzingal (poetry) 1984
†I Am One of You Forever (novel) 1985
Source (poetry) 1985
The Fred Chappell Reader [edited by Dabney Stuart] (poetry, novels, and short stories) 1987
†Brighten the Corner Where You Are (novel) 1989
First and Last Words: Poems (poetry) 1989
More Shapes Than One (short stories) 1991
C: Poems (poetry) 1993
Plow Naked: Selected Writings on Poetry (essays) 1993
Spring Garden: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1995
†Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You (short stories) 1996
Way of Happening: Observations of Contemporary Poetry (essays) 1998
†Look Back All the Green...
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SOURCE: Stuart, Dabney. “Spiritual Matter in Fred Chappell's Poetry: A Prologue.” Southern Review 27, no. 1 (winter 1991): 200-20.
[In the following essay, Stuart explores the role of spirituality in Chappell's verse, focusing on Lucretian and Christian perspectives.]
Tanto giú cadde, che tutti argomenti a la salute sua eran già corti, fuor che mostrarli le perdute genté.
—Dante, Purgatorio, XXX, 136-138
Our faith must be earned from terror.
—Fred Chappell, Bloodfire, IX
I. FLESH AND SPIRIT
The first two words of the title of this essay are a subdued version of Fred Chappell's more spritely rhymed phrase “attar of matter” (in “Firewood”). I intend, however, the same complementary attachment of terms. Chappell's phrase suggests, in sound as well as substance, that there is an essence embedded in matter and releasable from it, a sweet intangible spirit inexplicably meshed in the molecular arrangement of the elemental stuff of which all things, including human and other creatures, are composed. One direction in which Chappell aims the atomistic possibilities inherent in this perspective is Lucretian. The other primary direction is not, however, subject to the contained reshuffling of atoms. Chappell is more essentially preoccupied with, and hopeful of, images of release and...
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SOURCE: Gray, Amy Tipton. “Fred Chappell's I Am One of You Forever: The Oneiros of Childhood Transformed.” In The Poetics of Appalachian Space, edited by Parks Lanier, Jr., pp. 28-39. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Gray examines “the universality of Chappell's work” by applying Gaston Bachelard's principles of phenomenology to I Am One of You Forever.]
One of the most damaging charges brought against Appalachian writing is that it is merely the grandchild of the local-color movement dressed up and sent to college. Those who study Appalachian authors and their place in American letters devote much valuable time in repudiation of this charge, scattering the good seed of their conviction in the hope that some will fall on receptive ground instead of into the ubiquitous intellectual tares. It is especially ironic that the works of Fred Chappell, the most universal to arise out of the mountain particular, have received a heaping amount of this scorn. His first novels were labeled Gothic retreads; his poetry has attracted less attention than any to receive the Bollingen Prize. And his last, and finest novel, has been praised for its resemblance to the tall tale—and little more.
Thus an explication of Chappell's most recent novel, I Am One of You Forever (employing it as the representative of his corpus), according to the...
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SOURCE: Makuck, Peter. “Chappell's Continuities: First and Last Words.” Virginia Quarterly Review 68, no. 2 (spring 1992): 315-36.
[In the following essay, Makuck discusses the unifying elements within Chappell's verse from Midquest to First and Last Words.]
I had learned, maybe without really knowing, that not even the steadfast mountains themselves were safe and unmoving, that the foundations of the earth were shaken and the connections between the stars become frail as a cobweb.
—Fred Chappell, I Am One of You Forever
Since his tetralogy on the elements appeared under one cover as Midquest in 1981, Fred Chappell has published Castle Tzingal (1984), Source (1985), and First and Last Words (1989), all of which are linked, if not by voice, by an abiding concern with Ultimates, with faith and art, love and war. Midquest is an impressive compendium of forms and voices—poems that sing and laugh, paint and ponder, rhetorically expansive poems that tell stories and have a keen interest in the character and language of vivid mountain folk. Chappell's diction in the tetralogy ranges from pure lyricism to scatology, sometimes even within the same verse sentence, whereas the range in subsequent books is narrower, the difference, say, between symphonic and chamber music. Nonetheless,...
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SOURCE: Bateman, Claire. “Recent Poetry in the Carolinas.” South Carolina Review 25 (fall 1992): 154-57.
[In the following excerpt, Bateman explores Chappell's poetic development from The World between the Eyes to Midquest, offering a positive assessment of both collections.]
The World between the Eyes, Fred Chappell's first book (1971), dwells on “agonies of weather and enclosure” in a world that is “surcharged” (a word that appears frequently) with light, with the future, with sensation. And yet the child, a central consciousness, watches with “eyes that starve.” Surfeit and deprivation work in counterpoint through Chappell's song of “brutalities / of presence, brutality of abundance.” “Too bad, when things don't stay the same, / And worse still when they do,” comments the speaker in “Heath, Two Years Old.” There is a strong element of fatedness in this book, as characters act out their ritual roles in family and community, and the knowledge of what is to come is not a saving knowledge: “O it all stinks of childhood!” The child, even when “dismayed with delight,” is always in a “forlorn revolt” that cannot succeed:
… rooms of his fathers Hold him without mercy; he feels This house about him, a fantastic skin …
Feels too that outermost skin, the sky upon his skin …
There is no escaping...
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SOURCE: Lynskey, Edward C. “Fred Chappell's Castle Tzingal: Modern Revival of Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy.” Pembroke Magazine 25 (1993): 73-87.
[In the following essay, Lynskey argues for a critical reassessment of Castle Tzingal, calling it “yet one more vivid example of the extraordinary depth and variance of Chappell's poetic vision.”]
Fred Chappell's poetry collection Castle Tzingal (1984)—coyly derived from the Hungarian-derived word Tzigane for gypsy and Tintagel, court of the legendary Arthur and Camelot—represents a significant deviation from his poetic stock-in-trade. Critics in the past, though, have been too willing to dismiss and even overlook Castle Tzingal as only a distinctively minor work, describing it as a “toy” and “offbeat,” a versified curio resembling a Renaissance allegory, a poetic murder mystery, and a Tudor revenge play.1 However, as the seminal work of a major American poet, Castle Tzingal merits our further attention and critical reassessment. In fact, the groundbreaking title does revive a period and genre of literature, the 16th-century Tudor or Elizabethan revenge drama, too long neglected by today's writers, and it stands as yet one more vivid example of the extraordinary depth and variance of Chappell's poetic vision.
Ever willing to risk experimentation in diverse literary forms...
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SOURCE: Campbell, Hilbert. “Fred Chappell's Urn of Memory: I Am One of You Forever.” Southern Literary Journal 25, no. 2 (spring 1993): 103-11.
[In the following essay, Campbell assesses the various structural attributes in I Am One of You Forever, noting the role that memory and childhood play in the novel.]
Ah happy happy boughs! That cannot shed Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu; And, happy melodist, unwearied, Forever piping songs forever new.
—Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Fred Chappell's 1985 novel I Am One of You Forever should certainly come in the future to be acknowledged as a classic of American literature. For this is a book by a master storyteller and humorist, absolutely in control of his language and of the nuances of charged moments and telling gestures. But it is likewise a magical book, suggestive of the miraculous, the mysterious, and the transcendent in our lives and in our world. Shining through this entertaining story of family farm life in the early 1940s, of zany visiting relatives, of tall tales and practical jokes, is a persistent aura of rich suggestiveness of the transformations and transfigurations that characterize our waking and sleeping hours, our lives and deaths. Something like a kaleidoscope or a many-faceted gem, the book seems to undergo its own transformations in meaning or tone as it is...
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SOURCE: Walker, Jeanne Murray. “Ways to Move Beyond the Self.” Shenandoah 44 (summer 1994): 111-26.
[In the following excerpt, Walker offers a positive assessment of C, praising Chappell's verse as “vulnerable and affectionate.”]
The title of Fred Chappell's latest book, C, advertises what kind of book it is. It calls out flamboyantly See! spelling it with the Roman numeral C, both to signal its debt to the past and to advertise that it contains a hundred poems. The book is a bricolage of riddles and puns, translations and references to the classics. It is unashamedly satirical and irreverent. It pilfers from its elders, happily giving credit where credit is due. It is as full of good fun as anything to come down the pike for a long time.
Confessional poets come in for ribbing:
You've shown us all in stark undress The sins you needed to confess. If my peccadilloes were so small I never would undress at all.
But a critic, to be fair, has to admit that Chappell is funnier about critics and finds more to say about them. For example:
Peter Puffer piped a pack of poets into Undeservedly prominent public view: Then, just to prove the power of his pen, Provokingly piped them pouting out again.
Strychnine writes impartially Of novels, plays and poetry; His judgements upon authors...
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SOURCE: Middleton, David. “With Modesty and Measured Love.” Sewanee Review 104, no. 1 (winter 1996): 10-13.
[In the following review, Middleton outlines the major thematic concerns of the poems in Spring Garden.]
This impressive and delightful volume gathers together much—but by no means all—of the best verse written during the last quarter century by one of the South's finest poets. There are also new poems, including a general prologue and epilogue and separate prologues to each of the book's seven carefully ordered sections.
Spring Garden takes us through a late spring day with the poet's wife working in the actual garden while the poet himself selects his “metaphorical” flowers and arranges them in clusters governed by particular plants whose traditional virtues are invoked. Such plants include lettuce for “The Good Life,” thyme—and other aphrodisiacs—for “The Garden of Love,” mythic fern seed for the invisibility required to write objectively of others (while still speaking “modestly … with measured love”) in “Poems of Character,” and watercress for the bite in “Epigrams.” In the final section, “Poems of Memory,” the “memorable” salad is served with “chewy Italian bread” and several fine wines and cheeses.
Chappell's metaphorical linking of poetry with specimens from the natural order is more than a...
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SOURCE: Chappell, Fred, and Jennifer Howard. “Fred Chappell: From the Mountains to the Mainstream.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 40 (30 September 1996): 55-6.
[In the following interview, Chappell discusses his body of work and the critical response to his writing.]
Fred Chappell may be the most modest man of letters the South has ever produced. With nearly 25 books under his belt, and the praise of critics and fellow writers ringing in his ears (William Styron has called him “an immensely gifted, exuberant, versatile writer who should be ranked among our important contemporary voices”), Chappell maintains a resolute humility about his career. To hear him talk, he owes it all to luck, persistence and the kindness of strangers.
Editors do have a habit of walking up to Chappell out of the blue and asking him if he has a manuscript they could see. His first novel, It Is Time, Lord (Atheneum, 1963), was solicited by revered Atheneum editor Hiram Haydn, who had admired a story of Chappell's published in a Duke University literary magazine. His first book of poetry, The World between the Eyes (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1971), was sought out by LSU's Leslie Phillabaum, who introduced herself to Chappell at a writer's conference and asked him if he had a poetry collection. (“I didn't,” he remembers, “but I went home and wrote one.”)
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SOURCE: McDowell, Robert. “Poetry Chronicle.” Hudson Review 50, no. 1 (spring 1997): 137-46.
[In the following excerpt, McDowell offers a positive assessment of Spring Garden, calling the collection “well edited and full of pleasant surprises.”]
Spring Garden: New and Selected Poems by Fred Chappell includes selections from six previous volumes plus thirty new poems. Chappell is an inventive formalist who can be funny and serious. “The Fated Lovers: A Story” is a superior sequence demonstrating this poet's range. Section seven, “A Glorious Twilight,” especially stands out. In it a wife paints her nails, and the brilliant color she applies transforms the house. Special attention to a common activity turns life into art. The segment, and the poem as a whole, honors the subtlety and quiet drama of the stuff that makes up everyday life and binds us together.
Many of the characters Chappell writes about are not so much recognizable, living peers as individuals culled from old photograph albums, their lives evoked purely from an imaginative, refined sense of history rather than firsthand experience and observation. Yet they are quite alive, vital, and compelling. An exquisite case in point is “The Presences at Sunset.” The poem, inspired by a Mary Anne Sloan etching, consists of eight rhymed couplets. Each couplet features a different speaker describing the...
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SOURCE: Runyon, Randolph Paul. “Fred Chappell: Midquestions.” In Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, pp. 185-200. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Runyon examines the structural aspects of Midquest, particularly the placement of poems focusing on Virgil Campbell, a recurring character in the collection.]
Born in western North Carolina, in 1936, Fred Chappell has drawn increasingly on his Appalachian heritage in recent years. His best works—the epic poem Midquest (1981) and the novel I Am One of You Forever (1985)—are rooted in a quasi-autobiographical network of recurring hill-country characters, including his parents and grandparents, various eccentric uncles, and general-store proprietor Virgil Campbell, whose prankish independence harks back to Sut Lovingood but whose first name has a deserved Old World resonance.
This is particularly true in Midquest, which takes place in the Dantean middle of the protagonist's life, his thirty-fifth birthday (as well as Fred Chappell's), and where Virgil is, if not guide, at least a constant presence. The poem is actually four books of eleven poems each in which “the first poem is mirrored by the last,” according to Chappell in the “Preface,” “the second by the next to last, and so on inward. But the sixth poem in...
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SOURCE: Hovis, George. “‘When You Got True Dirt You Got Everything You Need’: Forging an Appalachian Arcadia in Fred Chappell's Midquest.” Mississippi Quarterly 53, no. 3 (summer 2000): 389-414.
[In the following essay, Hovis examines the themes of farming and Chappell's Appalachian past in Midquest.]
In his essay “The Poet and the Plowman,” Fred Chappell ponders what he considers to be one of the fundamental issues facing poets ever since the classical age: the fact that it is impractical, if not impossible, to pursue both a life of poetry and a life of farming. As the essay begins, Chappell recalls long Sunday afternoons in the mid 1960s when he and his guest Allen Tate (who was then guest lecturing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) would watch TV football and bemoan the disappearance of their Latin skills, along with the diminishing allure of the “traditional attractions of farm life.”1 Chappell recalls Tate's conclusion that poets should be only “spectator farmers”: “Then he would smile and say in his breathy ironic genteel Kentucky accent: ‘But we would make dreadful farmers, Fred, you and I’” (p. 73). In Chappell's portrait of the aging Agrarian, Tate comes off unmistakably more comfortable in his resignation than does Chappell himself, who goes on restlessly to ponder the age-old kinship between the poet—or, more generally, the...
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Chappell, Fred, and Teresa K. Weaver. “Master of Language: Relative Obscurity Suits Chappell, a Writer's Writer.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (30 August 1998): L1.
Weaver offers an overview of Chappell's life and work.
Drennan, Eileen M. “Chappell's Kirkman Finale Heartfelt but Hesitant.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (5 September 1999): K12.
Drennan offers a negative assessment of Look Back All the Green Valley.
“Tributes to Fred Chappell.” Pembroke Magazine 23 (1991): 77-89.
Members of the North Carolina Writers Conference present tributes and testimonials about Chappell.
Thomas, George. “Brightening His Corner.” Quadrant (January-February 2002): 109-11.
Thomas praises Look Back All the Green Valley, though he contends that it is the weakest volume in Chappell's Jess Kirkman series.
Additional coverage of Chappell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors Autobiographical Essay, Vol. 198; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 33, 67; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 40, 78; Contemporary...
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