Friday, December 09, 2005

Fred Pfeil, R.I.P.

I just received word about the passing of Fred Pfeil, on November 29. Fred, who taught in the English Department at Trinity College, was 56.

I had the great privilege of getting to know Fred during the First Gulf War. I had previously read some of his essays and had seen him at a conference or two, but I first met him in the offices of the Seattle Coalition Against the War (I think that was the name), shortly after the US invaded Kuwait, in early 1991. We got to be good friends. I was living in Seattle, teaching (sometimes) at UW, and looking for a tenure track job. Fred was on a post-doc and living in Seattle. We were both heavily involved in anti-war organizing. The day of the invasion the Seattle Coalition mounted a sit-in at the Federal Building in Seattle. (I was in the Coalition 'leadership', so I didn't sit in.) Fred cut off his long hair, put on a suit so that he looked like a bureaucrat, and stood outside the Federal Building, telling federal workers that they could go home. (And a lot of them took his word for it.) When the police started arresting protesters, Fred was one of the first they grabbed. (He later served a day or so in prison for the offence.)

So, we hung out a lot, discussing politics, film, music, and reading each other's work. I remember lots of great times, and one night in particular, when we went to a concert of jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine, who Fred turned me on to. It was a simply great and inspiring concert (although a lot of Courtney's recordings are too commercial). We next went and caught the end of Maceo Parker's set at Blues Alley. We topped the night off by going to the ReBar (Seattle's best dance club at the time), where it turned out to be Fetish Night. A truly memorable night.

Fred was working on his great book on masculinity, White Guys, at the time. In particular, he was doing the chapter on the Men's Movement. One Saturday he convinced me to go along to a men's meeting, he thought he should have a "real" ethnographer assist him with his fieldwork. It was quite interesting, and even though the stereotypical men's movement things happened, such as the dancing and drumming at the beginning and end and the passing around of the "wisdom stick" to those who addressed the crowd, I came away with a much more sympathetic and nuanced sense of the men's movement, thanks to Fred.

Fred was incredibly multi-talented, and I don't ever think he received the academic props he was due. His highest advanced degree was "only" an MFA, and this, I believe, kept him from landing a position at a more "prestigious" institution. But never mind that, and Fred himself was never bitter about this. His two "theory" books, Another Tale to Tell: Politics and Narrative in Postmodern Culture (1990) and White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference (1995) are first rate: smart, theoretically astute, witty as all hell, politically engaged and nuanced, extremely well written. Many scholars, as we all know, never manage a second book, and Fred produced two first-rate ones. But he was also a writer of very fine fiction. His novel, Goodman 2020 (1986), is a fabulous work of science fiction, very dystopian, very depressing. I've never understood why it is not more widely read and celebrated. I try to foist it off on friends to read, and those who do, seem to like it as much as I do. What They Tell You to Forget: A Novella and Stories (1996) got a lot more props, and won the Editors' Book Award of 1996. It is just brilliant. Also very depressing and has a very dreadful (because so depressingly bad) sex scene. Fred was brilliant at writing about the depressing stuff, in part because he came from a real working class family (but he never beat people on the left up with his proletarian background) and he had some good old Scandinavian blood (on his mother's side, I think). On occasion he'd venture into Ballard, Seattle's Scandinavian neighborhood and bring back some pickled herring to share with me. While we were sojourning together in the Northwest, he was also working on a libretto for an opera. I can't remember the title, it had to do with dogs, and it was performed. I mention it only to give another dimension of Fred's many activities.

I only got to hang out with him 2 or 3 times after I moved to Cairo in 1992. I visited him once in Trinity, in fall 1993, I think. I may have seen him in summer 1996, but I'm not sure. The last time was in September '02, when I was lecturing at Wesleyan and my friend Elliott drove me over to see him for a couple hours in Hartford. We had the usual great Fred conversation. One of the things I remember talking about was, what anti-war slogan was he gonna write on a highway overpass, once the Iraq invasion started. (Fred and his direct-action pals already had it planned out.) For me, Fred was an exemplary political academic, always working with students and community-based groups on progressive political action. One of his favorite activities was "improving" billboards, and he had lots of stories. He was also involved, after going back to Trinity in the nineties, in work with prisoners, promoting alternatives to violence. I don't think I've ever met an academic who was so politically engaged, and in such nuanced, lving, humane and non-dogmatic ways.

Fred wrote a very moving obituary in New Left Review for his departed buddy Michael Sprinker. (And Fred co-edited, A Singular Voice: Collected Writings of Michael Sprinker [2003]). I hope someone writes an equally brilliant and compelling tribute for Fred. (I'm not up to the task, either intellectually or stylistically.)

I miss you buddy. You made the world a much better place by your example. Thank you so much.

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