In a time when academic specialization is the rule, Charles G. Bell’s career as a physicist, poet, novelist, philosopher, historian, art and music historian, and professor was a dramatic exception. From the Mississippi Delta to Europe and finally to the Santa Fe desert, Bell’s journey of learning and teaching helped to create an eclectic and impressive body of work.
Bell was born on Halloween night 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi. His parents, Percy Bell and Nona Archer Bell, encouraged their son’s intellectual development from the start. Indeed, Bell claimed that he could not remember learning to read. He excelled in school and survived the great flood of 1927. The river as much as the land was instrumental to his development. He often referenced his “Tom and Huck” childhood and acknowledged that the racial politics of his childhood informed his writing.
Bell’s voracious reading was the start of a lifetime of learning. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Virginia in 1936. He then won a 1938–39 Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford in England, earning two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree. During that time, Bell’s younger brother, a University of the South student, committed suicide; Bell returned home for a semester, and the tragedy shaped his future writing. After completing his formal education, Bell lectured at many colleges and universities, and during World War II he did physics research at Princeton. Bell also received a Rockefeller fellowship, a Ford Foundation fellowship, and a Fulbright fellowship.
Bell’s collections of poetry are Songs for a New America (1953), Delta Return (1956), and Five Chambered Heart (1986). His poems, especially those in Delta Return, are often recognizably the work of a southern male but also transcend the regional label. His novels, The Married Land (1962) and The Half Gods (1968), similarly come from the perspective of a man from the South but explore universal themes. Bell also made The Spirit of Rome (1964), a film for Encyclopedia Britannica. He published an autobiography, Millennial Harvest (2007), at age ninety.
Bell’s masterwork, Symbolic History through Sight and Sound, is a sixty-hour video cultural history of the world that brings alive history, art, music, politics, philosophy, and literature using thousands of images of art and architecture. Bell gave the dates of the project as 1970–1990, but his academic career suggests that he may have begun the endeavor as a child in his father’s library.
Bell befriended such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Walker Percy, John Berryman, William Carlos Williams, and scores of other famous and lesser-known people. In addition to his poetry collections and novels, he published numerous essays, poems, and stories in popular and academic periodicals. Bell spent nearly four decades living in Santa Fe and was tutor emeritus at St. John’s College. Through his career, however, traces of “the Yazoo and Mississippi flood plain of [his] Huck-Finn-and-Tarzan-of-the-Apes origin” remained. Near the end of his life, he moved to Maine to live with one of his daughters, and he died on Christmas Day 2010.
- Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, vol. 2 (1981)
- Mississippi Writers and Musicians website, http://www.mswritersandmusicians.com