A recent Twitter conversation got me thinking about great teachers who have inspired me, and one of the names that came to mind was Charles G. Bell. I met him in his ‘preceptorial’ about American literature in the summer Graduate Institute of 1984 at St. John’s College, Santa Fe (New Mexico). He would have been 68 or so at the time, but he still climbed trees for exercise and was infamous for, among other things, skinny-dipping when invited to parties by pool-owners.
Mr. Bell had, apparently, read every book ever written on every subject under the sun, and could read, write, and speak several languages. He was a polymath who started out studying physics but then switched to English. The St. John’s ‘tutors’ teach all the subjects, but he was one of the few who could rightfully claim expertise in almost all of them. He was also mentor and friend to the poet Galway Kinnell and, most importantly to me, a wonderfully kind, sympathetic, and inspiring teacher.
I keep writing in the past tense because I haven’t seen him in many years, but he apparently is still alive, well into his 90s, in Maine with one of his daughters. If anyone knows for sure, please drop a comment! UPDATE: Mr. Bell passed away on Christmas morning, 2010. His obituary in the Santa Fe New Mexican is worth reading.
Mr. Bell wrote both poetry and novels, but his great opus is Symbolic History, a comprehensive slide-and-sound history of everything. His autobiographical sketch, also on the Symbolic History site, is well worth reading.