College loses professor, friend

Williams professor Michael Bell died Wednesday evening after more than

20 years of teaching in the English department and serving the broader

college community. Chair of the English Department Stephen Fix described

Bell as “one of the most distinguished scholars of American literature

in the country.” Professor of English Karen Swann described Bell as

“sharp-witted, barbed and completely generous to us all.”Bell, 56,

passed away after a five-year battle against cancer.During the past

week, members of the college community have mourned the loss of Bell,

who, according to many, will be remembered for his critical thinking and

teaching skills, his loyalty and his wit. Sunday members of the college

community gathered to remember Bell at a Memorial Service in the

Thompson Memorial Chapel.Bell, who was the J. Leland Miller Professor of

American History, Literature and Eloquence, taught both introductory and

upper-level American Literature classes at Williams. He was chair of the

English department from 1987 until 1994.Fix, who team-taught several

classes with Bell, noted that throughout the years he witnessed ample

evidence of Bell’s exceptional and unique skills as a teacher.In

particular, Fix said Bell had a knack for helping students to construct

critical, precise, well-evidenced arguments.”I learned an enormous

amount about teaching from Michael, from watching the ways he could

teach [students] how to construct arguments,” Fix said. “He was

wonderful at listening to students, and not only in the ordinary sense

of getting at content, but also at listening to the way they said

something.”Fix noted that Bell often would pick up on a line of imagery

or a metaphor that a student used and consider not only the meaning, but

why the student chose to use that particular kind of language.”It was an

unusual skill,” Fix said. “I have stolen it shamelessly from him.”Fix

also cited Bell for his contributions to the integration of computer

technology into the life of the college. “He knew an extraordinary

amount about computer technology,” Fix said. “And often you get Division

II or Division III professors with his kind of knowledge, but it is more

unusual for an English professor. But, Michael really knew this stuff

cold.”Fix said he especially will miss Bell’s sense of humor.”Michael

loved to post things, any joke, any funny piece of internet mail,” he

said. “He was constantly forwarding some internet joke … . It wasn’t

just wit — these were instances of his loyalty.”As a permanent

testament to his humor, the tombstone which Bell had erected in the

college cemetery says in small print across the bottom, “If you can read

this you’re standing on me.”Also, a quote taken from a student’s exam

which is posted on the door to Bell’s office in Stetson under the title

of “Literary Contortion of the Week,” reads: “It is difficult to place

Faulker in any one character’s shoes and claim where his voice emanates

from.”In addition to his sense of humor, Fix cited Bell for his

dedication to teaching, his friends, and his family, in particular to

his two daughters, Sophie and Cathleen Bell. “Of all of Michael’s

greatest creations, they are the best,” he said.Tessy Seward `97, who

first met Bell at an English Department information session during her

senior year in high school, said she was impressed immediately with Bell

and chose to take English 101 with him as a result of the session.”As he

spoke to our group he impressed me as scholarly and sharp-witted,

qualities I had expected of a college professor, but beneath that there

was something else,” she said. “I knew we could be friends.”Seward said

throughout the years she has known Bell, her respect and admiration for

him both as a professor and a person has grown strong.She said of her

English 101 class: “The class was fun; it was small and we all got to

know each other fairly well. Michael invited us to his home for a big

dinner, and almost everyone showed up. We stayed too late, talked and

laughed, and had a few beers. Later, Michael played the piano, and we

belted out some oldies.”Seward added that it was Bell’s support in

English 101 which helped her to develop confidence as a writer.”I wrote

my final paper for him about the little girl in Toni Morrison’s `The

Bluest Eye,’” she said. “It was, I think, while unsophisticated and

naive, one of the most personally significant papers I have written at

Williams. Michael’s response to the paper gave me the affirmation and

confidence I needed. I had attended a public high school, and while I’d

been successful, I had no idea whether that meant I could hold my own in

classes at Williams College. The support and admiration of someone I had

come to respect a great deal gave me the confidence and therefore the

freedom to trust my ideas and my writing.”Swann said she will remember

Bell for his vivid, intense presence, and his loyalty and generosity to

both friends and colleagues.”There was something about the incredible

quality of his mind– you felt like you were stepping into another place

when you were with him,” Swann said. “Things would get really

interesting, and slightly mad-cap when you were near Michael.”Bell, who

graduated from Yale University in 1963 and earned his Ph.D. in English

from Harvard University in 1968, taught at Princeton for six years

before coming to Williams in 1975.He published three books: “Hawthorne

and the Historical Romance of New England,” “The Development of American

Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation,” and “The Problem of American

Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea.”He also

published numerous articles and reviews, many on 19th century American

literature, which was his area of specialty.Last December, his essay

“Magic Time: Observations of a cancer casualty,” was published in

Atlantic Monthly. The article described his increased acceptance of his

approaching death.In addition, Bell’s work has won grants and fellowhips

from the American Council of Learned Studies, the National Endowment for

the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.