Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story

Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story

by Scott E. Donaldson
     
 

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Death of a Rebel tells the story of Charles Andrews Fenton (1919-1960), a charismatic teacher, scholar, and writer who took his own life by jumping from the top of the Washington
Duke Hotel in Durham, North Carolina. At the time he was apparently at the peak of his career.
He had written excellent books on Hemingway and Stephen Vincent Benét, had

Overview

Death of a Rebel tells the story of Charles Andrews Fenton (1919-1960), a charismatic teacher, scholar, and writer who took his own life by jumping from the top of the Washington
Duke Hotel in Durham, North Carolina. At the time he was apparently at the peak of his career.
He had written excellent books on Hemingway and Stephen Vincent Benét, had three other books in press, and was working on a new version of his novel about World War II
(a 1945 account won the Doubleday Twentieth Century Fox award). He had earned Guggenheim and ACLS grants. Students flocked to his courses. He was widely regarded as the most popular professor at Duke.

Charlie Fenton’s story is a compelling one, and takes on further meaning in the context of the times.
An individualist during the notoriously conformist 1950s, he swam against the current, defying authority and openly inviting controversy. This jaunty refusal to accept received wisdom made him an appealing figure to many of his students and colleagues. But it was a dangerous stance that did not sit well with his superiors, and it cost him when his fortunes took a turn for the worse in the spring and summer of 1960.

Love and war had a lot to do with his suicide as well. Charlie Fenton, who had come down to Duke from Yale two years earlier with a promotion to full professor, fell in love with one of his graduate students. His wife, outraged, left and took their son Andy with her. The scandal left him alone and a social pariah around campus. Then he suffered one of his bouts of depression. Usually these periods were triggered by trauma, most of it derived from his service as a tail gunner with the RAF
bomber command in the summer and fall of 1942. In the past he’d always been able to shake free of his despondency. This time he was overcome by psychological pain deriving from loss: of wife and family, of public admiration, of companionship, and worst of all, of self-regard.

The book recounts Fenton’s last days in vivid detail. In writing it, Donaldson had the assistance of family members, of his devoted students, and even – at a painful distance – of the woman he fell in love with fifty years ago. They all share an abiding sense of what might have been, and a deep regret that he could not go on to inspire the uncounted students who would never get to know and admire and learn from him.

Editorial Reviews

Project Muse
The book is a labor of love, testifying to “what was forfeited with Charlie Fenton’s tragic death”- tragic not merely because his work, admirable as it was, did not reach its apogee, but also because so many students were robbed of this rare spirit’s charismatic teaching, denied the spark of an idealism so highly charges that it changes lives, including that of the author himself, one of the few remaining witnesses to Fenton in his prime.

This is Donaldson’s own last will and testament to the Age of the Book, issued from beyond the cusp of the electronic revolution that has laid it to rest forever

To write an honest biography, but also an artful one, Donaldson has adopted the tactic of purposefully exposing his own dishonestly.

Death of a Rebel is a crowning achievement for a biographer who has qualified again and again as one of our best. Had Fenton lived, he surely would have retracted his lacerating judgment. We can be certain that it has not been permanently dislodged from Donaldson’s mind.

The Hemingway Review
Donaldson’s account should appeal to many teachers, capturing well how colleagues, administrators, and students can both aid and impede a career

Donaldson’s biography pays a debt of gratitude to a professor who inspired him in the classroom, guided him through a senior thesis, and exemplified a career he could emulate, but mystified him by committing suicide at forty years of age.

James L. W. West III
This fascinating biography of the maverick scholar Charlie Fenton proves that the groves of academe, during the 1950s, were much as they are today—a dangerous place for anyone who won't follow the rules.
Hopkins Review
Bringing to the narrative of Fenton’s life and career the same effective blend of indefatigable archival skills and the gift of telling a compelling story in an engaging manner that he has displayed in his earlier work.

By combing through the university’s teaching evaluations and conducting interviews with many of Fenton’s students, Donaldson has amassed a great deal of eloquent and specific testimony to Fenton’s skill and popularity in the classroom

What is best about Death of a Rebel is that it gives us, convincingly and in depth, all the available, mostly first-hand, evidence we need to determine an answer while at the same time permitting the reader to draw his own conclusions. That this conclusion, whatever it may be, will be securely based on reliable evidence clearly and objectively presented, is the greatest tribute one can pay to this fine biography. In the end, while Charlie Fenton’s life was extraordinary in many respects, Donaldson’s book makes clear that we definitively assess and simplify any life at our peril.

Peter Matthiessen
Scott Donaldson's book on Charlie Fenton is fine indeed, incisive, well-written, compassionate, and also 'tough' where it deserves to be: Charlie himself took no prisoners, and I think he would have approved.
Calvin Skaggs
Death of a Rebelprovides an incredibly sharp and detailed picture of a very specific era — 1945–1960 — through the prism of Charlie Fenton's floundering and eventual flowering. Anyone who lived during that period will recognize the freshness of that picture.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781611476248
Publisher:
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
Publication date:
05/31/2013
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
198
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Meet the Author

Scott Donaldson is one of the nation's leading biographers. This is his 18th book.

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