Amherst Magazine

English at Amherst: A History

Theodore Baird

In English 1, Theodore Baird would enter class through a window and ask whether the window shouldn’t therefore be called a door. If you’ve ever spent time in a college dormitory, you know how the door-window question might catch fire there.

By Theodore Baird, the Samuel Williston Professor Emeritus of English, edited and with an introduction by William H. Pritchard ’53, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English. Amherst, Mass.: Amherst College Press, 2005. 288 pp. $25 hardcover.

Reviewed by Dan Chiasson ’93

I have a single first-hand impression of Theodore Baird, Amherst’s legendary professor of English and the inventor of its most famous course, English 1-2. (A non-event, fall of my senior year, in the office of Bill Pritchard ’53: Baird, absorbed in a book, is introduced to me. He greets me with a grumbled “hello.” I excuse myself awkwardly.) But I have innumerable accounts of Baird, from Pritchard and others, and I have accounts of accounts, analyses of the man that run the gamut from those who knew him very well on down to those who knew those he knew or were taught by those he taught (and in one important case, taught by those taught by those he taught). People are interested in Baird, and interested, nearly as much, in others’ interest in him. How any man who published one book in his lifetime (and that an anthology, of classic writings on childhood) could have this effect on people, now 11 years after his death and 38 years after his retirement from Amherst, is something of a puzzle. Certain people have a gift for being talked about: Theodore Baird was one.

One excellent reason to read Baird’s posthumous study, English at Amherst: A History (Amherst College Press, 2005) therefore, is to come to know, or know better, Theodore Baird. Baird joined the Amherst faculty in 1927 and retired as the Samuel Williston Professor of English. He created English 1-2, a two-semester composition course for freshmen. (Pritchard, a man who knew Baird better than most, painstakingly assembled and edited this volume, as well as The Most of It, a collection of Baird’s essays. Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English.) Few American professors have insisted so totally, as Baird did, on being identified with the classes they taught, not as a side venture, but as the complete product, the issue, of mental life. (Imagine the response today if a junior professor were to claim, “My classes are my publications!”) And so it is indeed moving, as Pritchard points out in the book, to hear Baird say of English 1, “This was all I wanted. I didn’t want anything more.”

Moving, but also curious: How can it be that a man of such brilliance, imaginative prowess, social resourcefulness, tenacity and wit, an intimate of Robert Frost and many other people of broad consequence, might come to say such a thing?

Reading Baird’s English at Amherst goes a long way towards answering the question—a real question that should engage the thought not only of Amherst people but of anybody who cares about American intellectual life. Baird’s wishes for English 1 were primarily social (even utopian): to “establish a conversation” in an English department where previously nobody had “faced each other.” It took a pedagogy as attractive (some would say mystified) as that of English 1, and a figure as charismatic (some would say authoritarian) as Baird, to accomplish that goal. Whether you liked being involved in a conversation whose tenor and subject matter were so aggressively monitored (and whether such an experience even qualified as a “conversation”) turned on many factors, not least your own temperament and your capacity (some would say vulnerability) for finding Baird mesmerizing. The number of parenthetical qualifications in my own statements above is a sign of how hard it is to get a description of Baird’s course right, itself a sign of how persuasively contested the course has been, and still is.

The engaging English at Amherst shows what “establishing a conversation” meant for Baird. I think it meant two things: translating the “power of attraction” (Baird’s phrase) of Robert Frost into a stable, reproducible pedagogy; and fleeing as far and as rapidly as possible from the model of English study provided by the three ensconced professors Baird met when he joined the Amherst faculty. Baird’s descriptions of the three full professors—David Morton, Roy Elliot and George Whicher—are nearly as wickedly incisive as some of the best things in Henry Adams. Baird writes of Morton:

He was a boxer and he would box with his students…I can remember once he came into the locker room after having boxed with some student or other and he wasn’t able to speak because he had been hit so hard on the jaw it was numbed…He taught a senior course on Modern Poetry, only he didn’t call it Modern Poetry: he called it Moods of the World Today. [He] cultivated nostalgia and liked the idea of meeting ladies in the dark and talking with them and then never seeing them again.

And so it goes, from one tart insight to another and another. Of Whicher and Elliott he is superficially kinder but no less sharp. ( Whicher was “a very cultivated man,” Baird writes, “self-cultivated, I would say, in that he had trained himself with great articulateness and very deliberately.”) Baird is equally good at characterizing the departmental culture, or anti-culture, these men fostered, each of them a private planet orbited by students who perhaps liked to box, or perhaps to hear about mysterious ladies in their teachers’ pasts, or maybe just to be let out of class early every day because their professor had made a principle out of “only teaching as long as you had something to say.” For their loyalties, students would be marked not on what they had done but on who they were, or more precisely, whom their professors believed them to be. Morton graded his students, according to Baird, based on “something Dave felt about them.”

As Gerald Graff and others have shown, the study of English, being unusually porous, is unusually prone to the influence of whatever sits nearest it. Being an English professor still means coming up with a policy to deal with the claims of adjacent disciplines or moods. You either patrol the border, often fruitlessly and at great personal cost, or you make a virtue of—which often means making a study of—amorphousness. This general problem was perhaps intensified at Amherst in the years following the tenure of Alexander Mieklejohn, whom Baird calls, disparagingly, “the great liberal.” (Mieklejohn resigned the college presidency in 1923.) Claims could be made, were made, on behalf of very destructive ideas of professional conduct, as long as the ideas were sufficiently “progressive.”

It is in light of these excesses that Baird considers his friend Frost. Frost often seems in Baird’s account not much different from David Morton: a figure committed to fooling around in front of, if never actually boxing, the students. Chicanery and sleight-of-hand, never far from Frost’s authentic genius, often took the reins in his teaching. (One famous anecdote has Frost awarding an “A” to a student for handing in a blank examination booklet.)

Frost, for his part, felt hemmed by professional literary study: he meant his behavior to be understood as bracing and provocative. His chief value to the college was in providing, for a group of enthusiastic readers, a text (namely himself and his conduct in relation to Amherst) too interesting to put down. Whatever one thought of Frost was likely to be revised on subsequent consideration, and there was a great value to watching others stammer out their own interpretations of this person in their midst. Frost became, you might say, the “conversation” that the department, indeed the college, had been missing. What one made of Frost becomes the main measure of value for Baird throughout the latter parts of this book, as it was, I suspect, throughout Baird’s life. Like the trap-poem “The Road Not Taken” (a poem designed to be misunderstood as a ringing anthem for idiosyncrasy) Frost himself—his affect, his daily conduct—seemed intended for misreading. “Perhaps you think I am joking. I am never so serious as when I am,” Frost wrote. What is one to make of such a claim? Is its inverse also true (that Frost was never “joking” as much as when he was serious)? And if so, doesn’t that fact invalidate the claim to begin with (since, that is, Frost makes it under the aspect of “seriousness” rather than “joking”)? Which Frost was the “real” Frost? How does one define a phenomenon so self-consciously complex, so enticing to attempts at description, as Robert Frost?

It would be an exaggeration to say that getting Frost right was the great mission of English 1-2. For one thing, the course read no Frost. In fact, after its early, provisional years, it read nothing: no literature, no text of any kind. But I think it is true to say that the air of Robert Frost pervaded English 1-2. This has perhaps less to do with Frost’s deep sense, inherited from Emerson and James, of meaning’s being elusive or vague (dependent on proximate contexts rather than inherited definitions) and more to do with the kind of attention compelled by Frost’s personal mixture of candor and distance (the poet’s dalliances with the college, coming and going over the course of his mature career, reinforced this effect). Frost’s trick was to seem to be hidden in plain sight, a trick Baird learned and, indeed, taught.

The most famous example of English 1’s wisdom (or its sophistry, depending on one’s point of view) is Baird’s routine of entering class through a window and asking his students whether the window shouldn’t therefore be called a door. Hundreds of centuries of human thinking about the difference between doors and windows were not, needless to say, obliterated by Baird’s experiment. But if you’ve ever spent time living in a college dormitory, you know how a matter like Baird’s door-window question might catch fire there. (A couple of drinks even might be enlisted to fuel the fire.) It’s very easy to mock these kinds of assignments, as William Youngren has done brilliantly, but to me it seems impossible to deny them their value in consecrating freshman minds for analytic dispute. Do they come to rest, as Youngren suggests, on some pretty flaky ideas about language and reality? Do they conceal their traffic in 20th-century metaphysical clichés like order and chaos? Yes, yes. (Those terms order and chaos, borrowed from Frost and Adams, often sound silly even coming from them.) But Baird’s point was to make a course that worked in context and worked no matter what you’d been taught in high school; in fact, as Baird suggests, the better the high school, the more methodical a student’s writing was likely to be—and the more difficulty he would have adjusting to the standard of English 1.

Because the course resisted, even defied, students’ high school training, an intellectually nimble graduate of a public school could easily best a ship-shape boy from St. Paul’s or Lawrenceville. In a very limited sense, then, since the course leveled class differences, it could be called democratic. (Others have made claims for its radical social effect.) But the irony of Baird’s method is that it could only work if he insisted upon it. Far from some experiment in radical plurality, it was a top-down experiment in the establishment of an official institutional temperament. Many who did not share that temperament, or who developed their temperaments in deliberate contrast to the sanctioned aura of English 1, came to dislike the course or to dislike Amherst. If you had, as John Cameron says he did, a theoretical mind, or if, like Youngren, you knew Ancient Greek, these unseemly traits might disqualify you for entry into the holy of holies. Many, including Roger Sale, have suggested that the whole English 1 enterprise was elitist: a box filled with agile white men, like a squash court.

By the time I arrived at Amherst, Baird had long since retired, but the English department continued to inspire partisanship in its students, a fact that, while it made me (a French-Canadian kid from Vermont, with almost no college education in his family’s background) feel that I needed to take a side, also made me feel that it somehow mattered to the life of the place that I did so. (Then again, I also went out of my way to learn to play squash.) No such dynamic exists in the other places I’ve been as a teacher (Harvard, Stony Brook and Wellesley) where students take courses in a range of methodologies without feeling that anything so dire as the fate of their minds (or the fate of literature, for goodness sake) hangs in the balance. This seems to me Baird’s idea and the idea that inspires his marvelous English at Amherst: if you can convince a large number of 18-year-olds that making up sentences is an act of deep moral imagination, you do it, no matter how much work that entails, no matter how fudged the arguments seem after the fact, no matter how many times you have to enter your classroom through the window.

Chiasson is a poet and literary critic. The New York Times Book Review named his second book of poems, Natural History, one of the 100 notable books of the year for 2005.