Sunday, June 07, 2015

`Perhaps It Is Only a Fancy'

The North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell belongs to the rapidly diminishing genus of living writers whose work I have read in its entirety. For more than forty years he has defied genre prejudices and general readerly fickleness and kept me moved and amused. I periodically reread Dagon (1968) though I couldn’t again, under the threat of death, read the writer that novel imitates and honors, H.P. Lovecraft. His Midquest (1981) is one of the finest postwar American poems, and his Kirkman tetralogy ought to be the stuff of reading clubs. 

In “Everything an Anchor,” an essay in the Spring 2015 issue of The Sewanee Review, Chappell uses the arrival of inexpensive paperback editions of “classics” in the nineteen-fifties, while he was a student at Duke University, to review his own history as a reader. “Anchor” in the essay’s refers, in part, to the paperback imprint of Doubleday. They were, in marketing-speak, “quality paperbacks,” and Chappell has held on to some of those sixty-year-old volumes. Now seventy-eight years old, Chappell has retired after forty years of teaching at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. “I decided to start from the beginning,” he writes, meaning literature. He started with Homer and expects to finish with “whatever lies on my bedside table at the hour of my death.” He reminds me of a man about Chappell’s age who recently told me he is reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson for the second and, realistically, last time. Chappell, who is now reading “the bloody confusions of Josephus, The Jewish War,” writes: 

“Homer, Virgil, Theocritus, Plato, Aristotle, and the dramatists lie behind me; and I shall not have time to turn to them again . . . The knowledge that I shall not come again to the ways of Sophocles and Sappho, Homer and Herodotus is melancholy. I had not looked into Thucydides before I stepped forth on this last pilgrimage, and now I wish I had read him three or four times.” 

Chappell also recalls the books he has read about which he retains nothing –surely a common experience for the enterprising reader. Like me, all he recalls of Stanley Edgar Hyman’s The Armed Vision is that “it was about literary criticism.”  He says of numerous such books: “I expect some of the substance of these volumes has remained somewhere in my mind, corrupted by haphazard associations I cannot trace and misunderstandings that occurred at the time of reading. Yet I will not count the hours spent with them as lost.”

That sums up the spirit of Chappell’s essay. The tone is not maudlin or self-pitying, or even elegiac. Remembering some of his students in a poetry seminar from a decade or so ago, whom he had forbidden to use the trendy, meaningless lingo of theory – “empowerment, hegemony, signifier” – Chappell found they were unable to write without the aid of this pre-fabricated argot. He concludes: 

“But I do not despair; I do not think of them as lost souls. I cling to a hope—or perhaps it is only a fancy—that some day one of my earnest young friends will blunder into an odorous used-book store, come across a yellowed, beer-stained, thumb-worn paperback, Vintage K-24, Poems and Essays by John Crowe Ransom, browse a few pages, and, shocked by revelation, will look in wild surmise—`Silent upon a peak in Darien.’”  

Please do yourself a favor and read Fred Chappell’s essay and the rest of his work.

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