A scholar, an editor, and a gentleman: Friends and colleagues remember UMass professor Jules Chametzky

  • This photo of the literary scholar and editor Jules Chametzky was taken around 1970 by the late photographer and Hampshire College professor Jerome Liebling, a good friend. COURTESY OF RACHEL LIEBLING

  • The cover photo of a special issue of The Massachusetts Review, the journal co-founded by Jules Chametzky. WIKIPEDIA

Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2021

AMHERST — He was, by all accounts, a first-rate literary scholar, writer and editor, an expert in American Jewish and ethnic literatures. He was also a founder of The Massachusetts Review, the Five College literary journal that recently won the 2021 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize, a $60,000 award recognizing the quarterly publication’s “finely written and imaginative stories from around the globe.”

But friends and colleagues of Jules Chametzky, who died last week at age 93, remember the retired University of Massachusetts Amherst English professor as much more than that. He was, they say, a seminal figure who pushed 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 common ground.

“He was a very, very social person who loved people and good conversation,” said Lee Edwards, a former UMass dean and English professor who worked with Chametzky for many years and also did a stint as editor of The Massachusetts Review.

“He was curious about the world, about different ideas,” Edwards said. “That never changed, right up to the end.”

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

One of his sons, Peter Chametzky, recalls James Baldwin and later the celebrated Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, holding court there. (Achebe, who taught at UMass in the 1970s, and his wife once stayed at the Chametzky home for a spell, too.)

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

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

“He lifted my spirits,” Clingman said.

Chametzky, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928 to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, came to UMass in 1958. A strong supporter of civil rights and unions from an early age, he joined the NAACP as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in the early 1950s and later, friends say, called for creating an Afro-American Studies department at UMass. He also helped professors in the UMass system unionize and served as the union’s third president in the late 1970s.

In an interview filmed by Amherst Media in 2012, Chametzky looked back on his time as the union president as a great if demanding experience, one that was “exhilarating in some respects. I never had such highs in my life, and I also never had such lows.”

With a laugh, he added that “You had to fight the administration, and you had to deal with your old faculty … you had 1,200 faculty members at the university, and if you said ‘The sun would rise tomorrow,’ 500 would raise their 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, for broadening the university’s educational and social parameters at a time when the Amherst campus, beginning in the mid-1960s, was also undergoing a dramatic physical expansion.

“He was interested in empowering new, younger faculty members, he was interested in diversity, in promoting women’s studies and Afro-American studies, he was interested in making the campus into a really modern place for learning,” 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.”

That kind of thinking also lay behind Chametzky’s proposal, not long after he arrived at UMass, that the university’s English Department sponsor a literary magazine. The Massachusetts Review, started at UMass in 1959 with support from other UMass and Five Colleges professors, would go on to become a forum offering space for less well-known voices — Black, women, Jewish and others — and international writers.

The writer Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, a former UMass professor and the founding chair of the school’s Afro-American Studies Department, took graduate classes in the late 1960s with Chametzky and became a good friend. He says his former teacher was among a number of people on campus, such as Black culture scholar Sidney Kaplan and Oswald Tippo, UMass Amherst’s first chancellor, who helped create what he calls “a golden age” for the university in the 1970s.

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

In 1969, Chametzky, who served various stints as editor, co-editor, and managing editor of The Massachusetts Review, worked with Kaplan to publish “Black & White in American Culture,” an anthology of essays and stories from the literary journal’s first 10 years; the collection was dedicated to 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.”

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

Chametzky retired from UMass in the early 1990s but continued to teach and advise graduate students for about another 10 years, Peter Chametzky says, and he also served for years as an editor emeritus for The Massachusetts Review. The journal’s current editor, Jim Hicks, says Chametzky had been a great source for him during his 11-odd years at the magazine’s helm whenever he had questions about an issue.

“This was kind of a formative experience for me,” said Hicks, who teaches comparative literature at UMass. “I had no particular expertise (in editing a magazine), so I would visit Jules every couple of weeks to draw on his knowledge. He always had good suggestions, and he read all the submissions…. He was always a pleasure to talk to.”

Though his parents were both literary figures, Peter Chametzky says they also enjoyed 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 a number of years teaching overseas — in Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, the former Yugoslavia — and the family also traveled widely, “which gave me a lot of exposure to art and culture in different places,” Peter said.

For all his accomplishments and leadership on different issues, says Lee Edwards, Jules Chametzky “never put himself out there as the person in charge, as some kind of big figure. He had a healthy ego and appreciated recognition for what he did, but he was never a grandstander, not someone who craved attention and applause.”

“He touched a lot of people’s lives, and I think he left the university and the world a better place for it,” she said.

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