In Memoriam: Philip Appleman, 1926-2020

Philip Appleman (Dale Robbins / Moyers & Company)

Philip Appleman died on April 11, 2020. He was a poet, novelist, editor, and humanist. Appleman earned degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Lyon. During World War II he served in the US Army Air Corps and was a merchant marine after. At the time of his death, he was professor emeritus in the Department of English at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Appleman was a lifelong writer, producing numerous volumes of poetry, three novels, and many collections of prose. He was well known for his social commentary on politics, sex, and morality and was a recognized expert on Charles Darwin, editing the critical anthology Darwin, and penning two books of poems on the theme of evolution. Bette Chambers wrote in the Humanist of the second edition of Darwin: “Laypersons and scientists alike will treasure this new edition as an essential reference work. Appleman’s own lucid style emerges in ‘Darwin Among the Moralists’ and ‘Darwin: On Changing the Mind.’” An excerpt from his poem “The Skeletons of Dreams” from Darwin’s Ark (2009) concludes:

…Back home in his English garden,
Darwin paused in his pacing,
writing it down in italics
in the book at the back of his mind:
       When a species has vanished
       from the face of the earth,
       the same form never reappears…
So after our millions of years
of inventing a thumb and a cortex,
and after the long pain
of writing our clumsy epic,
we know we are mortal as mammoths,
we know the last lines of our poem.
And somewhere in curving space
beyond our constellations,
nebulae burn in their universal law:
nothing out there ever knew
that on one sky-blue planet
we dreamed that terrible dream.
Blazing along through black nothing
to nowhere at all, Mastodons of heaven,
the stars do not need our small ruin.

Daniel Thomas Moran, the Humanist magazine’s arts editor, recalls meeting Appleman at a poetry reading in 1985: “He read several things, including his humorous and insightful retellings of stories from the Old Testament. I was astounded to meet a man who was, at once, a poet, a scientist, and also an atheist.” The two became lifelong friends, and Moran reviewed both his 2011 poetry collection Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems—A Satirical Look at the Bible and his 2014 prose work The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life for the Humanist. Describing Appleman as humble, distinguished, soft-spoken, and generous to a fault, Moran cites the poet’s courage as his most remarkable quality.

Through many years of his life, when atheists were forced into the dark corners of our society, Philip Appleman was bold, unafraid, and, yes, unrepentant as a voice for reason, for humanity, and for the transcendent joys of being able to think and speak one’s thoughts openly. More importantly, he encouraged and empowered others to do the same. And Phil was a true romantic. His love poems to his wife Margie are among the most beautiful poems I know.

Appleman’s writing appeared in dozens of publications, including the Nation, the New York Times, the New Republic, the Paris ReviewPoetry, and the Yale Review. He was a founding member of the Poets Advisory Committee of Poets House, New York; a former member of the governing board of the Poetry Society of America; and a member of the Academy of American Poets, PEN American Cente, Friends of Poets & Writers, Inc., and the Authors Guild of America.

Appleman was a longtime member of the American Humanist Association. He received the Humanist Arts Award in 1994 and was a signer of the third Humanist Manifesto. His contributions to humanism have made a lasting impact on the AHA’s work.

“Phil Appleman wanted the world to be a better place,” says Moran, “and I can say, without hesitation, that the world is a better place because of Phil Appleman.” He is survived by his wife Marjorie Appleman, a playwright.

Read more of Philip Appleman’s poetry here.

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