Amherst Magazine

Amherst Authors

 

 

The Most of It: Essays on Language and the Imagination.

By Theodore Baird, late Samuel Williston Professor of English, Emeritus, selected and with an Introduction by William H. Pritchard ’53, Henry Clay Folger Professor of Engnlish. Amherst, Mass.: Amherst College Press, 1999. 254pp. $20 cloth.

Several months before Theodore Baird died, I called on him at Shays Street with Bill Pritchard, who had arranged the visit. Our meeting went well and anxieties in Baird’s presence that resurfaced after almost 50 years’ dormancy were dispelled and replaced with an all-too-brief exchange of letters. I don’t know when I have regretted more my neglect of a relationship that might once have been offered, but such regret feeds on memory that itself may be imagination foraging in the past.

Baird introduces his own exploration of the imagination in the first essay of "Amherst College in Its Early Years," with Samuel Johnson’s observation that imagination preys upon life, and Pritchard in his introduction picks up the "challenge to the imagination" offered by these essays collected under the title’s organic metaphor. Pritchard goes on to describe Baird’s reading as "eclectic" and the essays might be so described as well. Their coherence and delight owe much to the editor’s arrangement, and one closes this volume shaking hands with Professor Baird at the door of his Frank Lloyd Wright house, where Pritchard has conducted us.

Baird’s imagination situates Amherst in a "stupid" past and feeds on minds "richly and lovingly stored with the misinformation of centuries" but which composed a "story . . . heroic in its simplicity." Not the sort of conventional valorization of the past to stir audiences at commencement speeches, but not mockery either. Pritchard in his introduction catches the right tone when he describes the essays inclusively as "passionate attempts," and passion for the lives of his subjects, mixed with incredulity—even anger—fires Baird’s reading of their texts.

The passion burns in "Missionaries: The Martyrs of Sumatra," which traces the "disturbing story" of Henry Lyman, class of 1829, sent at 25 by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions "to certain and painful death" at the hands of a Sumatran tribe known as the Bataks. Almost more appalling was Lyman’s eager embrace of this hazardous opportunity to convert the heathen, to which he seems to have been prepared to sacrifice not only himself but his wife, "who was consumptive and was already spitting blood" when Lyman and his party arrived in Java. Forging into the interior despite warnings and with the help of both sign language and an interpreter, Lyman and his partner Samuel Munson "were suddenly surrounded by two hundred armed Bataks" and "murdered."

This "disturbing story" stalks the following essays of Part I, where it surfaces at least a half-dozen times in different settings, including "the back row of every Amherst classroom" which "has always been occupied by representatives of the Bataks of Sumatra." But perhaps most appalling for Baird are the thousands of words uttered and written lamenting the deaths while celebrating the cause that soon condensed into the single word "martyrs." For the culture of 19th-century piety, "there was no assertion that about the finality of death there was nothing whatsoever thatcould be said in words. There was much to say, and it had been said many times before . . . ."

Yet in the presence of the armed Bataks Lyman and Munson failed to find those words that would make everything all right—unless it was when Munson, only wounded in the first attack, fell on his knees in prayer.

But the Bataks also escape even these essays, and many Amherst graduates will recognize the English 1-2 experience in the theme of language failure at its worst.

The English 1 mid-term examination of 1950 retells the plot of Lyman, Munson, and the Bataks through the narrative of the 1869 Powell exploration of the Colorado, when the "Three Deserters" were killed by "Hostile Indians." The exam tortures students through a series of nine questions that, of course, has none of the coherence of a "series," to impale them on question No. 10 that directs the student to "define Hostile Indians." "The Martyrs of Sumatra" was not in print in time to help the exam taker, and the only quarrel I have with Baird’s conclusion to his essay that "Language was the instrument of self-definition, and, some might add, of self-deception," is his use of the past tense.

Readers may feel more comfortable settling in with the essays of PartII on Darwin, Defoe, Thoreau and Chapman than struggling to manage the complexities of "Amherst College in Its Early Years," but their boundaries are less distinct than suggested by the subject matter, and the first essay, "Sympathy, the Broken Mirror" itself defies classification. I won’t challenge Pritchard’s comment that it is "[t]he strangest, most unclassifiable essay of Baird’s," but its discrediting of the commonplace advice to "put yourself in his place" in order to understand another’s behavior takes us back to Baird’s perplexities in trying to make sense of Henry Lyman’sdeath in the service of his faith. Baird confesses that he cannot puzzle out the secrets of people’s "loyalty and devotion to bad causes" which remains "one of the heart-piercing, reason-bewildering facts of life," and therefore "I do not understand my neighbor. I cannot put myself in his place."

As I mentioned, the boundaries separating the other essays tend to vanish with the discussion of Darwin’s self-conscious metaphorical representation of evolution, itself a metaphor, set side-by-side with the illusionist skill of Defoe who "transforms language . . . into truth" and "thus relocat[es] the place of the imagination by seeming to deny its very existence." Darwin says to imagine nature through metaphor; Defoe claims to speak truth that dispenses with imagination. The boundary wall separating science and fiction tumbles. I’d like, however, to force them to stay apart by suggesting that the essay on Thoreau occupies the middle panel of a neat triptych, but Baird himself undermines my shaky structure by showing how Thoreau moves from Nature as "‘all but a figure of speech’" to "the rich multiplicity of the naturalist." This protean quality of Thoreau perhaps explains his appropriation by teachers and students eager "to make quick and easy relations between literature and life," relations that all these essays not only deny but expose as both false as well as dangerous to your health.

I suppose that in the universe defined by Baird’s essays our efforts to categorize, classify, organize, and make relationships are fraught with peril and constantly threatened with failure. But the mystery, the heroism, is that we keep trying, so that life becomes a series of "momentary stays against confusion," to paraphrase Frost slightly. The Frank Lloyd Wright house on Shays Street rejects the confinement of domiciles that purport to represent their owners but instead "is open to the world outside its walls," with all its denial of our passion for pigeonholes and order. One is led by "the ceiling boards of the interior [that] carry the eye down the hall without, seemingly, a break to the outside," where we too are led and leave Baird in the "beautiful and violent world" we both share.

—William G. Sayres ’53
Instructor of English,
University of Maine at Farmington

Back to Top

Trying It Out In America: Literary and Other Performances.

By Richard Poirier ’49. New York, N.Y.: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999. 320 pp. $25 cloth.

In an essay on Henry and William James suggestively entitled "In Praise of Vagueness," Richard Poirier argues against the notion that an author’s style must finally be about something else, some "encapsulated secret" that calls for a "professional locksmith." The technician in question is the literary critic or professor of English—people like Richard Poirier and the writer of the review you are reading. Poirier says as much when he notes that the search for such secrets is "[w]hat keeps a classroom hour going" and "what keeps literary quarterlies humming." In particular, that seemingly innocent preposition, "about," bothers Poirier, who quotes William James’s condemnation of "the stolid word about engulfing all . . . delicate idiosyncrasies in its monotonous sound."

What is a literary critic—or any intelligent reader—to do if not decide what Portrait of a Lady or Song of Myself or The Scarlet Letter is about? If you have read any of Poirier’s books, you probably already know the answer to this: the really worthwhile work lies in listening very carefully: paying close attention to stylistic nuances, tonal ambiguities, surprising word choices, sentences that turn back upon themselves, and the authors’ own elusive statements about their work. All of these matters come under the portmanteau term "performance," the emblematic word of Poirier’s long and distinguished career. The word invokes a constellation of related ideas about literature: that the author adopts a fictive (not to say "false") persona; that poetry and prose have a "voice" (or voices) to attend to; that reading and writing are fluid, improvisational acts; that words are always fleeting, inexact approximations of consciousness.

Despite Jamesian reservations about "that stolid word," one is mischievously tempted to say whatPoirier’s latest collection of essays, Trying It Out in America: Literary and Other Performances, is all about. To use two significant words that appear throughout the collection, we might surmise that the collection is about fun and play—"fun" in the sense of pleasure, exhilaration, intellectual delight; "play" as in an allusive "play of voices," a playful game of poetic hide-and-seek, a play of literary light and shade. In counterpoint to this sense of play and fun, Poirier examines the figures of "effortfulness" that authors use to externalize the internal and largely invisible act of writing—in particular, the idea of labor in American writing. William James, for instance, imagines his writing as heroic, manly endeavor, the better to associate his brother Henry’s prose with "inertia and powerlessness, with self-sequestration and a near-paralytic curtailment of manly activity"—qualities, Poirier goes on to note, that William feared in himself. On the subject of authorial defensiveness, Poirier is most engaging in his observations about T.S. Eliot and the notion of difficulty. In deftly deflating Eliot’s sense of matching difficult writing to difficult times, he quotes a gem from Frost: "It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God." Poirier, one of Frost’s finest critics, frequently seems to be channeling the spirit of the poet in these essays—particularly in the Frostian attention to what the poet called "sentence sounds."

The remarks on Eliot appear within the context of a review of Christopher Ricks’s edition of Eliot’s unpublished work, Inventions of the March Hare. Without denying Ricks’s erudition, Poirier tweaks the scholar’s exhaustive footnotes as the sign of an "evident need to dazzle," and associates it with Eliot’s idea of Tradition, which is essentially "meant to warn and intimidate any reader who aspires to understand his poetry, particularly any American reader." Getting Eliot’s allusions can be hard work, of course, but once the work is accomplished, "fun and games oughtn’t to be ruled out as a possibility."

There’s that word again—"fun"—what seems to be emerging in Poirier’s writing as the thing Henry James famously called "the figure in the carpet." Is it possible that Ricks himself was having fun with his extravagant footnotes, that he meant to amuse and dazzle, or, in the Horatian dictum, instruct and delight? Poirier doesn’t say, but it becomes clear that "fun" is a complicated business, certainly not a stable category on which to found a church of literary criticism. And this seems to be precisely the point of Poirier’s pragmatic approach. "Fun" is something to be discovered in the process of reading, rather than known a priori.

It is also a standard against which to measure other critics’ writings. In a critique of Martin Amis’s The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America, Poirier remarks that the author "doesn’t seem to have much fun on his visits" to the States. Poirier has a particularly sharp ear for Amis’s gaseous pronouncements about America and Americanness, and finds Amis’s own ear to be pure tin when it comes to picking up the "complicated inflections" of American literature and culture.

Amis’s hearing problems can be at least partly attributed to a gap in cultural understanding, but some American critics are subject to similar criticism. Poirier quarrels with two recent studies of 19th-century American literature, David Leverenz’s Manhood and the American Renaissance (1989) and Walt Whitman’s America (1995) by David Reynolds ’70 on the grounds that their historicist approaches fall far short of comprehending literary subtlety. It is not that the search for the cultural contexts of poetry is inherently flawed—and here Poirier characteristically invokes Emerson on "Necessity"—but rather that in practice, the emphasis on historical, psychological, and social coordinates often suffers from an "indifference to literary allusiveness." How, Poirier asks, can Leverenz discuss early 19th-century American manhood without attending to the shaping rhetoric of the writers that American authors most admired—Homer, Spenser, Milton, Byron, Shelley, Scott? Here we have Amis’s problem in reverse: an American critic afflicted by partial deafness to the lower frequencies on the other side of the Atlantic.

The phrase "trying it on" in Poirier’s title evokes the French, Montaignian sense of the word "essay"—an attempt at a subject, an exploration. The book contains very few sustained readings or arguments; rather, it makes suggestions, or what Emerson called "advertisements of power." If Whitman is "easily the foxiest and most manipulative of American writers," you will simply have to take Poirier’s word for it, or go back and read Whitman for yourself, since Poirier does not spend much time elaborating the observation. The reference to an author’s nuances, or play, or elusiveness can become—like any other critical category—a reflexive mannerism, of course. "Over time," Poirier says in his thoughtful essay on Eliot, "every great poet or novelist begins consciously to repeat himself, specifically to repeat certain metaphors that he can’t be done with, always with slight alterations." One could add "critic" to this observation, again with that hopeful phrase, "with slight alterations."

Poirier’s title, as I have said, has something to do with what it means to write an essay, but the emphasis on performance might lead us to ask what else it is doing. So swayed I am by Poirier’s own habits of reading that I can’t help notice that "Trying It Out in America" sounds very like the title of William H. Pritchard’s own recent collection, Playing It By Ear—same grammatical form, same vague pronoun, similar colloquialisms, similar gestures toward the tentative, the improvisational. And, needless to say, the same literary training in the Amherst English department. We might add that the subject of Pritchard’s own recent scholarly work, John Updike, has a similarly titled collection of essays on art, Just Looking. Without making heavy-handed sociological observations, I think it is possible to say this genre of title says something about a generation (or rather, overlapping generations) of literary critics schooled in habits of close reading, and about an ideal that Renaissance writers would have understood as sprezzatura—the making the intellectually effortful seem offhand, easy, fun.

If you love poetry, Trying It On In America should not be your only introduction to Poirier’s criticism; by all means, buy Poetry and Pragmatism and Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Both are readily available in paperback, just an Amazon.com order away, hardly any effort at all.

—Christopher R. Miller ’90
Assistant Professor of English
Yale University

Back to Top

 

Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism

By Thomas E. Wartenburg ’71
Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1999. 254 pp. $24 paper.

The films of Julia Roberts as trenchant social criticism?

Thomas E. Wartenburg ’71 makes a convincing case for this possibility in Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism, an examination of the ways in which films use unlikely romantic pairs to undermine social heirarchies around race, gender, class and sexual orientation. In doing so, Wartenburg (a professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke College and former chair of that college’s film program) also argues persuasively that movies can serve as something more than entertainment, erasing arbitrary distinctions between art and commerce and demonstrating that films with popular appeal can also make important social statements.

Noting that his analytical style was born "in the collegiate culture of the late 1960s," when he first became an avid filmgoer, Wartenburg explains that, for him, movies have always been "a jumping-off point for discussion of war and peace, anomie and solidarity and other pressing issues." This philosophy shapes Unlikely Couples, as does the work of film critic Stanley Cavell, who, Wartenburg says, "places film and philosophy in dialogue, according neither pride of place."

This dialogic approach is particularly effective in light of the smart selection of films that Wartenburg focuses on in this text. He offers close readings of 10 films, ranging from Frank Capra’s classic It Happened One Night (produced in 1934) to Neil Jordan’s brilliant The Crying Game (made in 1992). In between are other classics of the Unlikely Couple genre (including Pygmalion and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and several newer films (including Jungle Fever and Desert Hearts) that serve as examples of contemporary renderings of the model, and proof of its ubiquity. Wartenburg also includes one film not made in English (Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), which he believes is an outstanding example of film’s power to draw attention to racial injustice.

Wartenburg applies the Unlikely Couple template carefully and thoroughly, providing a thoughtful examination of each of his 10 featured films. This exhaustive approach does the job. Wartenburg’s detailed studies draw attention to social assumptions about romantic norms, while demonstrating how effectively — and sneakily — film can subvert those norms. And by including blatantly mainstream entertainments (Pretty Woman is an outstanding example) Wartenburg proves, too, that films don’t need to announce themselves as weighty or serious to have social meaning. Sure, Hollywood has given us Double Jeopardy and The Waterboy, but studios increasingly are providing fare that’s simultaneously entertaining and substantial. (But more about Julia Roberts later.)

Wartenburg’s book ends with an analysis of The Crying Game, released in 1992, but the Unlikely Couples template will stay with the reader and can be applied to any number of films released since then. In the past few months, for example, we’ve seen a friendship between a homophobic security guard and a flamboyant performer in Flawless and a romance between a woman and a robot in Bicentennial Man. And the ouevre of Julia Roberts alone could provide a sequel to Wartenburg’s text. Look at Dying Young’s unlikely coupling of Roberts’s simple but kind-hearted nurse with her rich employer, played by Campbell Scott. Or the pairing of Roberts’s movie star character with Hugh Grant’s bookstore owner in last summer’s hit, Notting Hill. And Roberts’s 1997 smash My Best Friend’s Wedding features a classic Unlikely Couple ending that stands the Prince Charming metaphor on its ear.

Wartenburg’s analysis provides a useful lens for filmgoers who believe that mainstream entertainment can also be meaningful.

—Stacey Schmeidel

 

Back to Top

What they are reading

Prof. John W. Servos teaches the history of science and medicine at Amherst.
Below he offers some suggestions for those interested in doing some reading in medical history.

The history of medicine went through its own "science wars" during the 1960s and 1970s, when physicians committed to viewing medical history as a story of progress defended the ramparts against professional historians intent on demystifying, exposing, or sometimes just disparaging medicine. The dust is now clearing and even some of the most outspoken critics of the older medical history are beating their swords into ploughshares. The best of recent books take the development of medical thought and technique seriously and acknowledge the growing power of medicine to heal and prognosticate, as medical historians once did almost universally. But they attend, as well, to patients, who after all are as essential to medicine as healers, to the social matrix of medical practice, and to the limitations and costs of our healing arts. Some picks from the new crop:

Jacques Jouanna, Hippocrates (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). This rich and discursive book assesses what we know of Hippocrates and how we know it. Jouanna skillfully places Hippocrates in the context of Greek historical and philosophical writing and offers a sensitive reading of the texts attributed to Hippocrates and his school.

Nancy G. Siraisi, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine (University of Chicago Press, 1990). Intended as a text for students, Siraisi’s book focuses on how medievals acquired and elaborated ancient traditions of medical learning but offers intriguing glimpses, as well, of how healers of various backgrounds applied their knowledge in encounters with the sick.

David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (Harvard University Press, 1997). Herlihy’s lectures, published posthumously, are as sweeping in generalization as they are succinct in exposition. The black death, he argues, was not a consequence of overpopulation, as many social historians maintain, and may not even have been caused by the microbe Yersinia pestis, as medical historians have long believed. Herlihy is interesting even when unconvincing.

Gerald L. Geison, The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (Princeton University Press, 1995). The first biographer to make extensive use of Pasteur’s notebooks, Geison is critical of his subject but always with a clear eye for his science. This book complements the older, but superb, biography of Pasteur by René Dubos.

Judith Walzer Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health (Beacon Press, 1996). We’ve all heard of "Typhoid Mary." Leavitt tells us who she was in the sparkling book about a collision between personal liberty and public health.

Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (W. W. Norton, 1997). An English social historian who writes more than most of us can read, Porter takes us from shamanism to Salk in 800 lucid pages.

Rosemary Stevens, In Sickness and In Wealth: American Hospitals in the Twentieth Century (Basic Books, 1989). Stevens explores the unique features of American hospitals, business enterprises that emphasize the ideal of charity, while recounting how they have repeatedly re-invented themselves over the past century in response to new technology, social pressures, and professional tensions.

David J. Rothman, Strangers at the Bedside (Basic Books, 1991). The strangers to whom Rothman refers are lawyers and bioethicists. Rothman explains how these professionals have assumed a prescriptive role in American medical practice since the 1960s.

Back to Top

Amherst College Books

In the King’s Wake: Post-Absolutist Culture in France. By JAY CAPLAN, Professor of French. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 224 pp. $45 cloth, $19 paper.
Caplan maintains that the culture of absolutism had already perished long before the guillotines of the 1789 French Revolution brought a political end to the ancien régime. In the King’s Wake traces the emergence of a post-absolutist culture across a wide range of works and genres: Saint-Simon’s memoirs of Louis XIV and the Regency; Voltaire’s first tragedy, Oedipe; Watteau’s last great painting, L’Enseigne de Gersaint; the plays of Marivaux; and Casanova’s History of My Life.

Going Wild: Hunting, Animal Rights, and the Contested Meaning of Nature (revised and expanded edition). By JAN E. DIZARD, Charles Hamilton Houston Professor in American Culture (Sociology). Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. 232 pages. $15.95 paper.
First published in 1994, Going Wild examines the ways in which differing concepts about nature shape responses to specific environmental issues. In this revised edition, Dizard adds a new chapter, updating the controversy over the state-managed deer hunt at the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts and placing it in a broader national context.

Mythos: New and Selected Poems, 1966-1999. By H. R. COURSEN ’54. No. Chelmsford, Mass.: Magic Circle Press, 1999. 136 pp. $12 paper.
Coursen, in his 24th book of poems, writes of children and parents, hope and despair, war and death, love and memories, nature and weather, mortals and mythology, attitudes and prayers. He includes a tribute to Amherst titled "War Memorial: Amherst College."

Postales Salvadoreñas del Ayer/Early Salvadoran Postcards, 1900-1950. By STEPHEN GRANT ’63. San Salvador, El Salvador: Banco Cuscatlan, Maria Escalón de Núñez Foundation, 1999. 327 pp.
With background explanations written in both Spanish and English, this large artistic volume features 100 postcards, all depicting El Salvador during the first half of the 20th century. The postcards reproduced depict buildings that have disappeared, a lake that vanished in a volcanic eruption, city transportation before roads were paved, indigenous peoples and their dress, market scenes in 1900, a centennial celebration in 1911, a parade in the 1920s, and a gas-lit street in the 1930s.

Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age. By R. STEPHEN HUMPHREYS ’64. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1999. 297 pp. $29.95 cloth.
Humphreys claims that Israeli and Palestinian views of their own history tend to be clouded in myth; this affects perceptions, habits and attitudes and leads to manipulation, distortion, and an inability to consider ways to accommodate each other. Humphreys analyzes Middle Eastern conflicts over power and resources and examines the major ideologies that have shaped these conflicts, the Muslim understanding of the secular versus the religious and the impact of Islam on public life. He exposes key issues: the failure of Arab state-building, the failure of Arabs and Israelis to attain peace, and the failure of modern Islamics to forge a practical social and political program.

Personal Injuries. By SCOTT TUROW ’70. New York, N.Y.: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999. 403 pp. $27 cloth.
In his latest legal thriller set in Kindle County, Turow combines corruption, deceit and love in his novel about a charismatic personal injury lawyer with a high-profile practice who deposits funds into the pockets of the judges who decide his cases. In the process, Turow explores the ethical dilemmas
of ambiguous legal situations and the morality of undercover work.

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. By STEPHEN COPE ’71. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1999. 385 pp. $24.95 cloth.
A scholar of both yoga philosophy and Western psychotherapy offers a personal account of the ancient tradition, philosophy, psychology and practice of yoga. With more than 11 million Americans currently doing some form of yoga, Cope shows how yoga can heal the feelings of self-estrangement that pervade our society and how followers may achieve a new sense
of purpose and a more satisfying life.

Transpersonal Hypnosis: Gateway to Body, Mind and Spirit. Edited by ERIC D. LESKOWITZ, M.D. ’73. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1999. 208 pp. $39.95.
This collection of writings on transpersonal psychology and hypnotherapy presents a multidimensional view of human awareness that integrates disparate biological, psychological and spiritual therapeutic techniques. It offers insights into the nature of life, healing and consciousness, using techniques on the frontier of health care, such as energy healing, meditation, past-life regression and channeling.

Epic Traditions of Africa. By STEPHEN BELCHER ’74. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1999. 288 pp. $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Much of Africa’s history is known only through its oral tradition. Belcher explores the rich past and poetic forces of African epics and places them in historical, social and artistic contexts. He includes colorful narratives originating in Central and West Africa, as well as more widely available texts.

Diva. By RAFAEL CAMPO ’87. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. 112 pp. $39.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.
In his third volume of poetry, written in formal and free verse, Campo writes about caring for AIDS patients, his Cuban heritage and his sexual identity. His poetry blends pop culture and classicism, humor and pathos, beauty and realism, and bravery and shame. His subjects range from empathy to AIDS, from birth and motherhood to death, and from Cuba to translations of Federico García Lorca’s love sonnets.

--Compiled by Elizabeth J. Rolander

Back to Top