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.