I have just read online of the death at 82 of the great Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe. Achebe virtually created the modern African novel with his first work, Things Fall Apart, and though he was never awarded the Nobel prize [a terrible failing on the part of the Nobel Literature Committee], he was widely recognized as one of the great novelists of the twentieth century. I had a glancing personal connection with Achebe, which it is perhaps worth mentioning, with the understanding that it is, on my part, an attempt to grab on to a little piece of immortality.
In 1974-75, four years after I joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts, then Chancellor Randolph Bromery [who has, himself, recently passed away] decided to inaugurate an annual series of lectures called Chancellor's Lectures, as a way of showcasing the distinguished members of the UMass faculty. That first year, three of us gave Chancellor's lectures -- Achebe, the great mathematician Marshall Stone, and myself. Achebe gave an elegant and extremely controversial lecture attacking Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Seventeen years later, when I joined the Afro-American Studies Department, I discovered that my colleague, Michael Thelwell, was a very close friend of Achebe, and had in fact name his son "Chinua" after the great novelist. In my first year in the department, I sat in on Mike's lectures on Achebe's works and read most of his novels.
Achebe was badly injured in a car crash, and spent many years of his life paralyzed from the waist down. He left UMass to go to Bard College, where Leon Botstein, the president [and an old friend of mine] had a cottage specially constructed for Achebe. Some years after Achebe went to Bard, Mike took me down to Annandale-on-Hudson to see Achebe, and I had the great privilege of spending an afternoon with him.
Ever since my disastrous tea with Bertrand Russell in 1954, I have shied away from meeting famous people, but I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity, even briefly, to spend a bit of time with Achebe.