A remembrance of professor chatfield
An unexpected telephone message awaited me one day when I returned to my dorm room at Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut, in the fall of my senior year. One of the most admired professors on campus had called about my latest essay in the college newspaper. The man whom I had observed from afar – the man of legend among my nerdy acquaintances who hung out in the history department – had been reading “my writing.” I had written a few opinion pieces for the school paper, and I was writing my senior thesis about Russian women. I was not aware of “my writing.” The professor invited me to meet him for coffee. I grew nervous as I listened to his voice through my telephone. I would not be able to keep up with him, and I would never be able to hold his interest. Yet, I was thrilled, too: Professor Jack Chatfield, who inspired a cult of personality and enjoyed quasi-celebrity status among students, wanted to meet me.
I was twenty-one years old and back on campus after a year in Russia when I began writing for The Trinity Tripod. A friend and I co-edited a new opinion section called “Dialogue” that was making waves on our secluded, urban, liberal-arts campus. I made it clear in my first few mini essays, with the subtlety of prose used as a sledgehammer, that our campus was lacking intellectual discussion and that the newspaper could be a catalyst for candid exploration of serious matters. I was a senior, and I had nothing to lose. My “Dialogue” pieces were an invitation to others to step forward and enter into conversation. My year in Siberia had given me a fresh perspective. I returned to campus changed, and I wanted to change the campus. Others did in fact step forward, and I found new friendships across all four classes.
And now Jack Chatfield from the history department had stepped forward, too. Despite my nerves, we met at The Cave, the basement café in the student center. For two hours, we talked about my writing, his writing, my year in Russia, his time in the South during the civil-rights era working for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, my thesis as a Russian major, his scholarship as an American historian, the social scene at Trinity, and the need for intellectually-stimulating conversation of the sort that “Dialogue” was intended to stir on our complacent campus. Professor Chatfield saw profound parallels between his experience in the South and mine in Russia, our respective love for the literature of those places, and the subsequent deep effect that our time away in a foreign culture had on us. His generosity in expressing those parallels and their significance as a connection between us made me feel worthy of his company. This was my first look inside his character, of which generosity was a cornerstone. He helped me to believe within our first hours together that I was offering him something of value. There could be no question of what I stood to gain from him.
We discussed Dostoevsky and Faulkner, Yeltsin and Clinton, the disturbing side effects of political correctness, and the role of the campus newspaper in the life of a liberal-arts college. He entrusted me with his thoughts and convictions. He listened in a way that assured me I could trust him with my thoughts and convictions. We talked like two old friends who could not fit everything into an hours-long conversation. We talked like two new friends hungry for more of the delicious treat that we were tasting for the first time. We talked like two people with many common interests, a slew of intriguing differences, and a growing desire to know one another better. At the end of our first conversation, we found easy words to express our mutual joy. We parted with a promise to meet again soon. In the years to come, that was how we always would part.
I walked back to my room that afternoon intoxicated from bliss. At last, I had found the person that I had been hoping for since I arrived on campus three years earlier. The beautiful mind of Jack Chatfield, combined with his earnestness, his gentle presence, and his interest in everything that mattered most to me, made him from that day my most beloved college friend. Our friendship spanned nearly twenty-two years and never failed to intoxicate me.
When he died in September 2014 at the age of seventy-two from Parkinson’s and cancer, we were mid-conversation via email about James Joyce’s story “The Dead.” I am, as it turns out, a writer—mostly of novels, also of essays, and a former newspaper reporter. There is, as Professor Chatfield detected all those years ago, such a thing as “my writing.” From the beginning and until the very end, he was a mentor and a muse to me. We always discussed literature, in our letters and in our conversations. A few years ago, he returned to the classics precisely at the time when I began a focused reading of the Western canon. When he mentioned “The Dead,” I read it again to look for what he saw in it. I am still looking. When he asked me in July to read a story or novel with him that we would then discuss, I saw my chance at last to hear in detail what he found in Joyce’s renowned masterpiece of short fiction.
I had hoped to visit Professor Chatfield last fall to continue our discussion in person. I had hoped beyond hope for one more visit, one more conversation with my dear friend, one more glimpse inside the most beautiful mind that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
* * *
Jack Chatfield was the quintessential liberal-arts college professor, right down to the tweed coat and suede loafers. He was born in 1942 in Baltimore, Maryland, and he attended the conservative military school Randolph Macon Academy in Virginia. He graduated from Trinity College in 1964. After earning his master’s and doctorate degrees from Columbia University, he taught at the Watkinson School in Connecticut for several years. In 1977, he joined the history department at Trinity, where he stayed for thirty-five years until his retirement, due to Parkinson’s, in 2012.
As a freshman at Trinity in 1960, Jack Chatfield underwent a transformation that could only be called his intellectual enlightenment. Close friendships with three other freshmen—Ralph Allen, Ron Spencer, and George Will—formed the foundation for his new exploration of philosophy, literature, and the politics surrounding the civil-rights movement. Allen and Spencer would remain his close lifelong friends. His self-guided studies meant that the bulk of his time was devoted to reading books unassociated with his classes, discussing them with his pals, and listening to Will, the conservative columnist who was a liberal during college, deliver pointed speeches on books and politics that wowed and instructed Chatfield. He remembered those times in an autobiographical piece in Trinity’s alumni magazine:
“My life is pervaded by an intellectual tension – a sense of paradox and ambiguity in human affairs – which is perhaps more congenial to the novelist than to the historian. In this respect it reveals a certain continuity: in my first two years at Trinity (from 1960 through 1962), despite a growing fascination with history and contemporary society, I read almost nothing except novels, short stories, and poetry. I ‘devoured’ (as we said) works by Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner, the war trilogy of Jean Paul Sartre, and the novels, plays and essays of Albert Camus. I had begun to discover literature as a high school student, but at Trinity I owed a good deal to the advice of friends. Ron Spencer ’64 (now associate academic dean at the College) recommended Dylan Thomas and the literary essays of T.S. Eliot, and showed me my first copy of the New York Times Book Review. I had never seen the New York Times Book Review, nor did I imagine that anywhere in the world there were publications devoted entirely to essays on books. I can still remember being transfixed by the Old English heading, and by the neat, spare ribbon of words – a kind of martial procession – which seemed to embody the high culture I was seeking.”
This account of his early days at college appeared in The Trinity Reporter in 1988. In April of that year, Chatfield had organized a conference on the history and activities of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, or “Snick”). The three-day conference was a reunion of more than 120 former SNCC workers and leaders. In his Reporter piece, entitled “SNCC: Coming of Age in the ‘60s,” Chatfield wrote about the events that had led him into the South as a civil-rights volunteer. In the summer of 1962, he took a class at Harvard because he had failed geology at Trinity and could not go on to his junior year until the requirement had been fulfilled. He wrote:
“As the summer wore on, I retreated into my dormitory room, where I finally pored through The Brothers Karamazov and other works, both fiction and non-fiction, which I do not now remember. I followed the civil rights news, especially the reports from Albany, Georgia, where the movement once again heated up during the summer months. I spent an hour each day with the Times, looked at a number of political journals, and browsed in the Harvard Coop. At one point I answered a want ad for a truck driver and considered taking an apartment in Cambridge. When William Faulkner died during that summer, I fashioned that I was in mourning and waited expectantly for the commemorative issue of the Saturday Review, devoted entirely to the Mississippi writer. I read and re-read the Nobel Prize Address. But I was at loose ends, and even the oracles would not tell me how to fulfill my curricular requirements. Ralph Allen, a roommate and intimate friend, lived in nearby Melrose. I never tried to contact him. I did not want to see my Trinity comrades at this time.”
Chatfield went on to describe his reaction to a dispatch by Claude Sitton, dateline Sasser, Georgia, in the Times:
“Deep in the article, Sitton recorded the names and hometowns of the SNCC workers and recounted an attack made upon them by a hot-tempered, pistol-packing Sasser policeman earlier in the week. One of the workers was Ralph Allen, whom I had supposed was filling potholes with a summer construction crew in Melrose, Massachusetts. It turned out that Ralph had been enlisted by the Northern Student Movement to deliver a vanload of used books to Yale University, from which point they would be carried to their final destination, a struggling black college in Birmingham, Alabama. When Ralph arrived in New Haven, the other drivers had not appeared, and he was persuaded to make the long journey to the South. Swept along by the stream of events, Ralph joined the tiny band of SNCC workers in southwest Georgia and helped inaugurate the voter registration drive in the heavily black counties adjoining Albany.
“Dizzy with emotion, I hurried from the dining hall to my dormitory chamber. I cannot remember the exact course of events. The decision to go South, however, came quickly. Within days I had returned home to pack my trunk. My dear mother, disheartened and exasperated by my academic failures, tried to steer me into another channel. But my compass was fixed, and she knew it. I had already phoned the Atlanta SNCC office, and had spoken to Ralph in Albany. I contracted to drive a family car to Camden, South Carolina (I was provided with AAA maps and a generous allowance, rather like Lenin being delivered to Petrograd by the Germans in 1917). I deposited the car and caught a bus to Atlanta, where I awoke a SNCC staffer with a 2:00 a.m. phone call. I walked the streets of the city until morning, when I appeared at the SNCC headquarters to meet the office staff and receive bus fare to Albany.
“My nerves were fairly ablaze with excitement and expectation. On the bus, I drank in the countryside and listened to the soft, melodious speech of my fellow passengers. So this was the South – the South of Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, of Huey Long and Pitchfork Ben Tillman, of Joe Christmas, Flem Snopes, Quentin Compson, John Sartoris, the South of Lucas Beauchamp and Dilsey. It was not mere politics or principle that had brought me here. It was, rather, my seething energy, my shameful failures, my impatient search for philosophical order, my spells of confusion and doubt, my ardent friendships, my dazzling and unsettling initiation into the wider world. I am suspicious of explanations. But I will hazard that I was brought to Georgia by my college days.
“Within a week, following a veritable torrent of experiences, I preached to a small group of black Georgians about the character of Alyosha Karamazov. I remember none of my words, only the exultation I felt during this fleeting moment of emotional and philosophical clarity.”
This riveting crossroads of American history and Chatfield’s personal history, of the civil-rights movement and his coming of age, was more than a pivotal experience in his life. Jack Chatfield’s bold decision as a twenty-year-old college student to go to Georgia in 1962 and volunteer with SNCC was the defining event that set the course for the rest of his life—as a teacher and scholar of U.S. history, as a writer and thinker, and as a human being.