Fred Chappell, Admired but Unsung Writer of the South, Dies at 87


Fred Chappell, a poet, novelist and critic whose Faulknerian capacity to express universal themes of love, loss and memory through his evocations of North Carolina’s rural, mountainous west earned him a reputation as the South’s “premier contemporary person of letters,” in the words of one reviewer, died on Jan. 4 in Greensboro, N.C. He was 87.

His son, Heath, said the death, in a hospital, was from respiratory distress.

Mr. Chappell (pronounced like “chapel”) was a leading figure among the generation of Southern writers who came of age in the 1960s, picking up the mantle of predecessors like Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty, all of whom influenced his work.

While his early novels paid fealty to the expansive, twisty prose of Faulkner and the unsettling Southern Gothic of O’Connor, his poetry and later novels moved toward the elegiac sentiments and literary precision of Welty.

Like Warren, he wrote in a wide variety of genres — including 12 novels, 18 books of poetry and two books of criticism — and was widely considered at the top of the game in all of them. Among other major recognitions, he won the prestigious Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1985, alongside John Ashbery.

“Not since James Agee and Robert Penn Warren has a Southern writer displayed such masterful versatility,” Frank Levering wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 1997.

Mr. Chappell’s regional forebears were only one influence on his work. His poetry in particular drew heavily from the European modernist tradition of Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke and Ezra Pound, though it remained rooted in its themes and imagery to the Piedmont South.

“He showed me that you could go to world literature and open up new possibilities of connecting with his region,” the novelist Ron Rash, a professor of Appalachian studies at Western Carolina University, said in a phone interview.

As an undergraduate at Duke University in the early 1960s, Mr. Chappell befriended two other future literary stars, Reynolds Price and Anne Tyler. If his name was never as widely known as theirs, it is in large part because he did not aspire to fame and rarely left his home state for book tours.

He was born, raised and educated in North Carolina, and the only significant period of time he spent outside it was a nine-month stint in 1967 and 1968 in Florence, Italy, on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. He helped found the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and then led it for four decades.

Like Thomas Hardy in late-19th-century England — and, closer to home, the novelist Thomas Wolfe, who was born in Asheville, N.C. — Mr. Chappell explored a rural, traditional world colliding headlong with the cosmopolitan present.

He reveled in the subtle sophistication of agrarian ways, in the artistry of a sampler quilt and the architectural genius of a century-old barn, and he understood that the way of life that made them possible was fast crumbling.

Among his major works are a quartet of long poems — collected in the book “Midquest” (1981) — and a companion quartet of novels, which he wrote from the 1970s to the ’90s, all set in the same fictional world and inspired by the people and places of his childhood.

His novel “I Am One of You Forever” (1987), widely considered his prose masterpiece, is a series of linked stories revolving around a boy named Jess, whose emergence into adulthood parallels his awareness of the fast-dissolving world of his parents.

Critics lauded the book for its unblinkered look at rural Southern life, as well as Mr. Chappell’s concise, rhythmic prose.

“The sun had gotten near to the tops of the far mountains and the light scalloped their broken edges, spilling toward us a flood of burning silver,” Mr. Chappell wrote. “The rocks around us began to hum and quiver and the birds began to clatter in the thickets. It was hard to look into that overbrimming forest and I looked into the valley where the grass and trees were fast becoming green.”

Fred Davis Chappell was born on May 28, 1936, in Canton, N.C., about 20 miles west of Asheville. His parents, J.T. and Anne (Davis) Chappell, were teachers.

Fred started writing as a teenager, submitting science fiction stories to the pulp magazines he found in a local drugstore. Most were rejected, but a few were published, under a pen name.

He enrolled at Duke, but was expelled after two years for missing classes. He returned home and worked in the fields and furniture factories around Canton.

He married Susan Nicholls in 1959. Along with their son, she survives him, as does his sister, Becky Anderson.

Mr. Chappell eventually returned to Duke, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1963 and a master’s in 1964, both in literature. That fall he joined the faculty at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, which was in the process of admitting male students and changing its name to University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

By then Mr. Chappell had already published his first novel, “It Is Time, Lord” (1963), which he would follow with three more in quick succession, all of them dark tales in the Southern Gothic tradition. Among them was “Dagon” (1968), a story that drew heavily on the Cthulhu horror tales of H.P. Lovecraft and was named the best foreign book of the year by the French Academy in 1972.

Mr. Chappell served as the poet laureate of North Carolina from 1997 to 2002. He took emeritus status from the university in 2004. In 2022, he was the subject of a documentary, “Fred Chappell: I Am One of You Forever,” directed by Michael Frierson.

Readers outside the literary South might be largely unfamiliar with Mr. Chappell’s work, but his admirers within it are passionate in their esteem, making his work the subject of countless dissertations, literary review essays and even whole books of critical analysis.

It was a situation he readily embraced.

“I don’t really have any confidence that I will be remembered, or any desire to be remembered,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1998. “If I am going to be remembered, I guess I’d like to be remembered as someone who did less harm than he was capable of.”



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