FRED CHAPPELL was America’s greatest living writer. Of that I have no doubt, not that the modern miasma of contemporary letters offered him much serious competition. (His only rivals for the epithet were Cormac McCarthy, now passed, and Wendell Berry, nearing ninety.) He was a master of most every major literary genre – poetry, fiction, criticism, et al. His scope was wide and deep. He could write a “weird tale” worthy of Lovecraft as well as a lyric limning the people and landscape of his native Canton in western North Carolina. (Although his many gifts entitled him to an endowed chair at Yale or Harvard, he preferred to remain close to home, close to the source of his creativity, and taught for more than forty years at UNC Greensboro, where he served as mentor to many distinguished writers-to-be, among them the late Kelly Cherry and the gifted poet and musician Jim Clark.)
That he did not receive multiple Pulitzer Prizes and was never nominated for the Nobel in literature says more about the myopia of the organizations dispensing those awards than it does the astonishing quality of Chappell’s work.
In late 2002, I sent Fred a copy of my first book, The Shape of a Man, a collection of short fiction, without being invited to. He could very well have ignored it and castigated me for my presumption, but he not only read the book, he wrote me a three-page letter giving his thoughts on each of the stories contained therein. That’s the kind of man and teacher he was – exceedingly kind and generous with his time and opinions.
In 2012, we had Ol’ Fred (as he preferred to be called) down to USC Union for the second annual Upcountry Literary Festival at USC Union, where we also presented him the first William “Singing Billy” Walker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Southern Letters, a prize named for the Union, SC, composer and “song-catcher” whose arrangement of “Amazing Grace” is the most famous and most beloved throughout the world. Fred delivered a wonderful and funny keynote address in accepting the award and could not have been more gracious. I had hoped to have him back for other festivals, but because of various health concerns, he had to decline.
In the last couple of years, it had been my intention to write him and renew our correspondence. I didn’t, and it is too late now. Fred Chappell died January 4th in Greensboro, NC, at age 87.
In time, when all the “acclaimed” writers of the present day fall into literature’s gaping dustbin, Fred’s star will rise and take its place among the permanent luminaries of American literature.
RIP, Ol’ Fred. And God’s solace to wife Susan and son Heath and peace to those of us who love the man and his work.