Fred Chappell Chappell, Fred - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Valley (novel) 1999

Family Gathering (poetry) 2000

*This volume is comprised of four previously published collections, River, Bloodfire, Wind Mountain, and Earthsleep.

†These novels comprise Chappell's “Kirkman Family” tetralogy.

Dabney Stuart (essay date winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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


The first two words of the title of this essay are a subdued...

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Amy Tipton Gray (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Makuck (essay date spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Claire Bateman (review date fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edward C. Lynskey (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hilbert Campbell (essay date spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jeanne Murray Walker (review date summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

David Middleton (review date winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Fred Chappell and Jennifer Howard (interview date 30 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Robert McDowell (review date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Randolph Paul Runyon (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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George Hovis (essay date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 175 words.)