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Remembering Fred: Frazier, Rash, Burnette

Fred Chappell. Donated photo Fred Chappell. Donated photo

Editor’s Note: A renowned Western North Carolina writer, Charles Frazier burst onto the worldwide literary scene with his seminal 1997 novel “Cold Mountain,” which won the National Book Award for Fiction. In 2023, he released “The Trackers” to widespread acclaim. 

Though I’d been reading Fred Chappell since I was a teenager, and though our Haywood County families had ties going back at least into the 1930s, I was forty-something before I met him. Fred and Reynolds Price and Wilma Dykeman were the standard bearers for North Carolina writers. I recognized the world they wrote about and the characters living in it.  

ae Charles Frazier

Charles Frazier. File photo

Before my first novel, “Cold Mountain,” was published, I was introduced to the book page editor of the Raleigh News and Observer. He told me he had just assigned my book to a reviewer, and then he said the reviewer would be Fred Chappell. Whatever expression my face fell into — apprehension, concern, dread — it caused the editor to pause and ask if there was some issue or problem between the two of us that he should know about. I told him that I had never met Fred Chappell. The only way I knew him was from the page, from reading his fiction, poetry, and reviews, since I was a teenager. My reaction was very simple. Many of the reviewers he could have assigned my book could dislike it and I would be able to take it in stride. But if Fred Chappell didn’t like my work, no way could I shrug that off. I’d have no choice but to take it seriously, because I knew from decades of reading that he was a serious writer in his own books and a serious reader in his reviews. If he didn’t like my book, it would matter a great deal. The editor breathed a sigh of relief and went away happy. I went away on pins and needles. 

Happily, when the review was published Fred liked my book. Liked it a good bit. And it wasn’t one of those polite, mostly-summary, rush-jobs. He dug in. When I finished reading the review that Sunday morning, I felt like I was really a writer.      

Very shortly after that, I met Fred for real in Mobile, Alabama, at a book conference. I went to his reading and afterwards stepped up to introduce myself and shake hands. The first thing I remember saying was, “Your daddy was my daddy’s high school English teacher,” which was not only a good opening line but had the benefit of being true. 

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I can’t even imagine how long an inclusive list of names would have to be to include all us writers who have been beneficiaries of Fred’s encouragement and generosity and influence. In particular, though, I’ll miss his old-fashioned, self-deprecating, well-educated mountaineer sense of manners and of humor that have now become one step closer to extinct.

— Charles Frazier

Editor’s Note: An award-winning Southern Appalachian writer, Ron Rash has written numerous beloved novels, including “Serena” and “The World Made Straight.” His latest work, “The Caretaker,” was released last year. Rash is also the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University.

ae Ron Rash Maryan Harrington photo

Ron Rash. Maryan Harrington photo

Fred Chappell’s “I Am One of You Forever” is one of my all-time favorite novels. I return to it for edification, inspiration, and, most of all, the joy of knowing that a human being is capable of such creative brilliance. Of all the endings I have read, this novel’s last words have the greatest emotional impact. I tear up every time. Such a gift to us as readers is all that we should expect of an artist, but what I also appreciate was Fred’s kindness and generosity. Graciousness. That is the word that most comes to mind. His encouragement meant so much to me early in my career. It still matters. In “I Am One of You Forever,” the novel concludes with the words “Are you one of us?” The question is asked by those, now dead, whom the narrator has loved. The answer is the novel’s title and its evocation of the power of memory. As with so many fellow writers and readers, Fred will remain an abiding presence. I have been blessed by not only knowing the work of Fred Chappell but also knowing the man.

— Ron Rash

Editor’s Note: A cherished longtime educator, journalist and writer in Haywood County, Edie Burnette was a classmate of Fred Chappell, both of whom graduated from Pisgah High School in 1954. To note, Burnette taught for 33 years in Haywood County and wrote for the Asheville Citizen-Times. 

Fred Chappell’s literary talents have been recognized and honored by numerous awards and titles, including Poet Laureate of North Carolina.  

However, Fred, personally quiet and unassuming, called his 40-year career as a professor his “most important work.” He also established a nationally acclaimed creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

 “He always thought of Canton as ‘home,’” said Becky Anderson of Asheville, Chappell’s sister, adding that he regarded mountain people as “hardworking and creative” and undeserving of the stereotypical images of “hillbillies.”

ae Edie Hutchins Burnette author

Edie Burnette. File photo

Fred hoped to reflect the values of working with purpose and caring about others in his words and, early on, attacked the trend to portray Appalachian natives as ignorant and unsavory folks, Anderson related.

Raised by a family of teachers, Fred would talk to Pisgah High School English classes during infrequent home visits, encouraging them to write and to take advantage of the education provided for them. 

His high school friends may remember Fred as a horn-tooting band member, a mischievous friend who didn’t always accept the expected mold of perfect student, but his creativity, his high school yearbook designation as “most intellectual,” and his independence hinted his future. 

On a senior trip to Washington, D.C., Fred’s interest was in confronting the late Senator Joseph McCarthy (censured for claims of “communists” in the U.S. government) while the rest of us seemed focused on the novelty of the trip and having fun. I recall my impression that he was better informed about national news than his classmates. 

— Edie Burnette

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