Remembering Charles Greenleaf Bell (1916-2010)
by Curtis Wilson, tutor emeritus, Annapolis
Charles G. Bell, poet, novelist, philosopher, and St. John’s tutor since 1956, died on Christmas morning, 2010, at the home of his daughter, Sandra Colt, in Belgrade, ME.
His life had had a singular unity of purpose. It was, he said, “a fond attempt to bring all realms of knowledge into creative cognizance.”*
Growing up in the Mississippi Delta and living the life of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, he could yet make all A’s in school when he wanted to. He entered the University of Virginia at age 16, majoring in physics, completing the program in three years and winning a Rhodes scholarship. Already in 1933 he had been struck by the complementarity of light, its revealing itself as both waves (when questioned in one way) and as particles (when probed differently). To Bell such antinomies were exciting quarry. He sought them out everywhere, even in classical physics:
…mass resists motion only by moving; inertia and acceleration [are] counterfaces of the same stress…
Stringfellow Barr’s class, “History of the Ancient World,” brought an explosive expansion of aim. Barr was troubled by Spengler’s Decline of the West, a vision of civilizations coming to birth, rising to eminence, then passing away. He couldn’t rebut it. After a week or so Bell went up to argue with the professor, citing the Century of Progress Fair in Chicago, which he had just visited, as evidence of new culture, new philosophy. Barr dismissed it: the Fair buildings were of cardboard, the color-organ (mixing music and color) was a fad. Beethoven and Bach, by contrast, were real. If you wanted to argue about history, you needed to know the artifacts. “The day I tackled Barr,” Bell wrote, “my life was changed, opened from the usual sciences to a total science (and poetry) of cosmic and human action. Barr had fired me to such a life-search.”
Arriving in Oxford in 1936 to take up his Rhodes, Bell managed to shift his major from physics to English to pursue this quest. Nevill Coghill, the Chaucerian scholar, became his adviser, and under Coghill’s guidance he read everything relevant to English literature from Anglo-Saxon on down. In the summer of 1937 his younger brother’s suicide took him back to Mississippi, and he returned to Oxford with an essay on tragedy that Coghill pronounced first-rate. Bell and Coghill would remain close friends while Coghill lived.
During his second and third Oxford years Bell, with a small group that included Northrup Frye, pursued Barr’s project of correlating cultures. They blazed their way through the glories of art from Graeco-Roman to the Renaissance. The artifacts of Medieval and Renaissance music were lacking, giving the false appearance of a 200-year lag between music and the other arts. Yet as Bell discovered, this music had been explored, chiefly by two American expatriots, Safford Cape and Guillaume de Van, and the music had been recorded by French record companies. Bell purchased the records in Paris and brought them back to Oxford in the 1939-40 Christmas break. Soon he was discovering resonances between the music and the visual art contemporary with it. He began to present the shows that would become his Symbolic History Series.
Returning to the States with his first wife, Mildred, Bell held a number of positions during the 1940s, including a five-year stint at Princeton. He went there initially to work on telemetering as part of the war effort, but at the same time started reading groups among the European émigrés. He adopted Erich Kahler (of Man the Measure) as his Princeton father. Also, he began giving his shows in the Parnassus Book Shop. When the War ended he was invited to join Princeton’s English department. A couple of years later, however, he was informed that “his wider studies constituted a liability in that department.” 1948-49 was his last year in Princeton. Simultaneously, his marriage with Mildred, strained by his wide-ranging ambition, proved irrecoverable.
In the spring of 1949, returning on an ocean liner from Europe where he had been photographing art works, Bell met Danny Mason; their marriage is celebrated in his novel The Married Land. In 1949 began for Bell a seven-year connection with the undergraduate college at the University of Chicago. During the last of these years he was an exchange scholar at the University of Rio Piedras in Puerto Rico, where an attempt was under way to establish a college on the Chicago model. In Puerto Rico termites destroyed books at an astonishing rate, and Bell was faced with the dilemma that if he returned to Chicago he would be competing with a friend for the one available tenure slot. Bell wrote to Kahler of his difficulty, and Kahler forwarded the letter to Victor Zuckerkandl at St. John’s. The upshot was an appointment for Bell at St. John’s beginning in 1956. He and Danny would move to the Santa Fe branch of the college beginning with the 1966-67 year.
From the 1970s to the 1990s Bell refined his Symbolic History series. Of this development the poet Galway Kinnell has written
I have watched Charles Bell’s mighty project evolve – from slide shows at Princeton and Black Mountain in the forties to this magnificently interwoven presentation. The matchings are more vivid, the drama intensified, the technique perfected, until now it amounts to a new art form. One suddenly feels close to the ‘soul’ of human history: consciousness unfolding.
It puts a new demand on the listener-viewer. One must pay attention in the usual way; but one must also learn how to pay inattention. We concentrate on this or that aspect of the visual, musical, and poetic content; and at the same time we must let in the waves of this chant of consciousness.
One of Bell’s students at St. John’s (Philip Chandler, SF’68) writes of Bell’s teaching:
St. John’s could not survive with a faculty of Charleses, but it would have been a far poorer place if there had been none. Charles carried forth a spirit of intellectual adventure, a daring to look beyond received opinion whether in the world at large or at St. John’s. That spirit lives on, in however attenuated a form, in those who knew him.**
Shortly before his death, Charles said he was waiting for his father to take him deeper into the woods.
With all his unswerving ambition, family and friends will remember Charles especially for his great sweetness of temper and generosity of spirit.
Bell is survived by his five daughters, Nona Estrin of Montpelier, VT, Charlotte Samuels of Fairfax, CA, Delia Robinson of Montpelier, VT, Carola Bell of Santa Fe, NM and Sandra Colt (SF ’75) of Belgrade, ME, and by many grandchildren and great- grandchildren. A memorial celebration of his life will be held on Sunday, May 22, 2011.
*All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, from Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol.12, pp.17-40.
**Personal communication from 4-6 pm in the Junior Common Room at St. John’s College in Santa Fe; all friends and colleagues are welcome. Charles’s ashes will be scattered privately in the mountain stream above Santa Fe where in 2004 he scattered Danny’s ashes.
Curtis Wilson, tutor emeritus