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I Carry the Mountains with Me Wherever I Go: Remembering Fred Chappell 

Photo by Martin W. Kane, courtesy of UNCG Magazine.

By Jesse Graves 


Imagine for a moment, a boy and his father building an ornate wooden bridge over a backyard creek, conceived as a surprise for the boy’s mother as she returns from visiting family. Imagine a flood released by a villainous corporate entity, the paper company that rules the town, washing away all the hard work of the father and son. Imagine the mother crying when she learns of their gesture, and one of her tears growing so large that it engulfs the boy in its warm and salty embrace, and that he begins to swim inside that enormous tear toward his adored parents. Welcome to one of the most memorable opening scenes in all American fiction, I Am One of You Forever, and to the vision of Fred Chappell, one of our most singular writers. On Jan. 4, readers of Appalachian literature said goodbye to a true national treasure — the poet, novelist, and mentor to two generations of writers, Fred Chappell.  


Known to readers for the range and versatility of his work, Chappell is surely the only writer to receive both the World Fantasy Award for fiction (1994), and Yale University’s Bollingen Prize in Poetry (1985), previously awarded to such literary giants as Robert Frost and W.H. Auden. He also received the Best Foreign Novel Prize (1972) from the French Academy for his novel Dagon, a Southern gothic re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos that still has the power to terrify with its human-amphibian imagery and portrayal of haunted houses, landscapes, and bloodlines. Chappell reached across worlds that others have not bridged, writing in the horror, science fiction, and fantasy genres, alongside his erudite literary poems and fiction. He did this world-bridging in his writing, and also in his life, leaving the family farm where both his parents were also schoolteachers in the Appalachian mountain town of Canton, NC, to go off to college, winning an academic fellowship to attend prestigious Duke University.  


In 1964, Chappell began a 40-year career teaching at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he helped build one of America’s first Master of Fine Arts programs in creative writing. Chappell was awarded a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, a Rockefeller Grant, the Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as the Aiken-Taylor Award in Poetry, and the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing from the Ingersoll Foundation. He was the author of more than thirty volumes of poetry, novels, short stories, and essays. “Ol’ Fred,” as he was known to his friends and admirers, was the subject of “Fred Chappell: I Am One of You Forever,” an excellent PBS documentary from 2022. The opening sequence of the film shows the steep and sweeping western North Carolina landscape, and Fred Chappell looking out over the peaks. He says, “When you stand on a mountain top here, you feel a little like a prophet, and I never felt that way around cotton fields… I don’t know, I carry the mountains with me wherever I go.” 


One of my most memorable experiences as a young writer was reading my poems at the North Carolina Festival of the Book on a panel titled “Student, Teacher, Writer” with my former professor Robert Morgan, and his former professor, Fred Chappell. The festival took place on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall of 2009. My first poetry collection had not yet been published, and I had certainly never read my poems in front of as many people as filled the auditorium that September afternoon. I joked at the time that for a young poet from Appalachia, this was like opening a show for the Rolling Stones. Morgan and Chappell were then two of the most celebrated North Carolina-born authors of their generation, and two of my own favorite writers and primary influences. I knew Morgan well by this time, but I had only briefly met Chappell once before, and what I remember most about the day was his good cheer and encouragement. This was especially true when my 10-year-old daughter, Chloe, her face painted with cheetah spots from one of the children’s book tents, somehow mustered the courage during the Q&A session following our reading to step to the microphone and ask what made us all want to become writers. Chappell smiled at her and said something along the lines of “Well, young lady, if you are here today, I bet you like to read books, and that is how I decided to become a writer, because I liked books when I was your age, and I thought it might be a good idea to try and write my own someday.”  


Many scholars and writers have examined Chappell’s work, including in Dream Garden: The Poetic Vision of Fred Chappell, an entire book of essays about his poetry edited by Patrick Bizzaro, and Understanding Fred Chappell, by John Lang. Not surprisingly, it is Robert Morgan who best articulates the particular brilliance of Chappell’s writing. In an essay on Midquest: A Poem, an expansive poem-cycle, Morgan says, “There is a wholeness about the work of Chappell. Everything he does seems a piece of the same cloth, whether story, poem, novel, or essay, and whatever he does fits with all the rest. It is the voice that dominates and is recognizable, no matter where you start any of his works, speaking with great richness of mind and language, deeply learned, acid at times, but always improvising, engaging whatever is at hand with all its attention, true overall to a wonderful good will and wit.” As the novelist Lee Smith says in the PBS documentary, “He’ll just shuffle around and call himself Ol’ Fred, but he loves the work, he loves the writing. It’s the purest form of art that he has.” Farewell to one of Appalachia’s purest artists, Fred Chappell. 

Jesse Graves is the author of four poetry collections, including Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine, and a book of prose, Said-Songs: Essays on Poetry and Place. He has edited several volumes of poetry and scholarship, including the forthcoming The Complete Poetry of James Agee from University of Tennessee Press. Jesse’s work has received the James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He teaches at East Tennessee State University, where he is Poetry Editor for Appalachian Places. 


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