Friends and colleagues remember Professor Jules Chametzky from UMass

AMHERST – He was, by all accounts, a leading literary scholar, writer and publisher, an expert on American Jewish and ethnic literatures. He was also one of the founders of The Massachusetts Review, the Five College literary journal which recently won the Whiting Literary Magazine Prize 2021, a $ 60,000 prize for “finely written and imaginative stories from around the world.” quarterly publication.

But friends and colleagues of Jules Chametzky, who died last week at the age of 93, remember the retired English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst far more than that. He was, they say, a prominent figure who advocated for more progressive values ​​and greater diversity on the UMass campus in the 1960s and 1970s – and who had a unique talent for bringing people together and finding a middle ground.

“He was a very, very social person who loved people and good conversations,” said Lee Edwards, former dean of UMass and English teacher who worked with Chametzky for many years and was also a writer. in chief of The Massachusetts Review.

“He was curious about the world, the different ideas,” added Edwards. “It never changed, until the end.”

Indeed, Chametzky’s home in Amherst, where he and his late wife, poet and teacher Anne Halley, raised three children, served as an unofficial cultural salon where all kinds of people – academics, writers, artists and others – passed by. often for impromptu discussions.

One of his sons, Peter Chametzky, remembers James Baldwin and later the famous Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, courting his court there. (Achebe, who taught at UMass in the 1970s, and his wife also once stayed at the Chametzky house for a while.)

“People felt free to come,” said Peter Chametzky, now professor of art history at the University of South Carolina. “It was that kind of place.”

Stephen Clingman, a longtime English professor at the university, remembers how he and his wife lived with the Chametzky family for about three weeks when they were between two houses; he remembers his friend as a man “of remarkable generosity”. And Jules Chametzky was still full of ideas and enjoyed the conversation even in his final weeks when Clingman visited him at the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst.

“It cheered me up,” Clingman said.

Chametzky, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928 to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, arrived at UMass in 1958. A strong supporter of civil rights and labor unions from an early age, he joined the NAACP as a that a University of Minnesota graduate student in the early 1950s and later, friends say, called for the establishment of a department of African American studies at UMass. He also helped teachers in the UMass system organize and was the union’s third president in the late 1970s.

In an interview filmed by Amherst Media in 2012, Chametzky saw his time as union president as a great but demanding experience, an experience “exhilarating in some ways. I have never had such highs in my life, and I have never had such a low.

Laughing, he added, “You had to fight against the administration and you had to face your old faculty… hands and object.

A voice for change

Laughs aside, Edwards and other colleagues say Chametzky was a key voice, through his teaching, mentoring and personal scholarship, in expanding the educational and social settings of the university at a time when the campus of Amherst, from the mid-1960s, was also undergoing dramatic physical expansion.

“He was interested in empowering new, younger faculty members, he was interested in diversity, in promoting women’s studies and in African American studies, he wanted to make the campus a place of learning. really modern, ”said Edwards, who came to UMass in 1967.“ I think in a lot of ways he was really ahead of the curve… he was an institution builder. ”

This kind of thinking was also at the origin of Chametzky’s proposal, shortly after arriving at UMass, that the university’s English department sponsor a literary magazine. The Massachusetts Review, started at UMass in 1959 with the support of other professors at UMass and Five College, would become a forum providing a space for lesser-known voices – black, female, Jewish and others – and international writers.

Writer Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, former professor at UMass and founding chair of the school’s African-American studies department, took postgraduate courses in the late 1960s with Chametzky and became a good friend. . He says his former professor was among a number of people on campus, such as black culture scholar Sidney Kaplan and Oswald Tippo, the first chancellor of UMass Amherst, who helped create what he calls “a golden age” for the university in the 1970s.

This decade also saw jazz legends Max Roach and Archie Shepp arrive on campus to teach, notes Thelwell. “Jules was part of that central constituency that made (UMass) a place like no other at that time,” he said.

In 1969, Chametzky, who held various positions as editor, co-editor and editor of The Massachusetts Review, worked with Kaplan to publish “Black & White in American Culture,” an anthology of essays and stories from the first 10 years; the collection was dedicated to Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

The late writer and UMass professor Julius Lester, in a review of the book for The New York Times, called the anthology “more than a documentary”. It is an exciting book, with a higher degree of relevance to an America on the eve of a Second Civil War than almost any book of its kind.

Author of four books and editor and co-editor of several others, including Norton Anthology of Jewish-American Literature, Chametzky was also co-founder of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), an American organization of independent presses. literary publishers and magazines; George Plimpton, then editor of The Paris Review, was another co-founder.

Chametzky retired from UMass in the early 1990s, but continued to teach and counsel graduate students for about 10 years, says Peter Chametzky, and he was also a senior editor for years for The Massachusetts Review. The newspaper’s current editor, Jim Hicks, said Chametzky had been a great source for him during his eleven years at the helm of the magazine whenever he had questions about an issue.

“It was kind of a formative experience for me,” said Hicks, who teaches comparative literature at UMass. “I didn’t have any particular expertise (in magazine editing), so I visited Jules every two weeks to take advantage of his knowledge. He always had good suggestions and he read all the submissions…. It was always a pleasure to chat with him. “

Although his parents are both literary figures, Peter Chametzky says they also loved art (sculptor Leonard Baskin and photographer Jerome Liebling were good friends) and visiting museums, which helped spark his own. interest in art. His father spent several years teaching abroad – in Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, the former Yugoslavia – and the family also traveled extensively, “which allowed me to discover the ‘art and culture in different places, ”said Peter.

Despite all of his accomplishments and leadership on various issues, says Lee Edwards, Jules Chametzky “never came across as responsible, as a sort of big figure. He had a healthy ego and appreciated recognition for what he did, but he was never a mainstream audience, not someone who craved attention and applause.

“He touched the lives of a lot of people, and I think he left college and the world a better place for it,” she added.

A memorial service for Chametzky will be held at UMass Amherst on a date to be determined.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at