Amherst Magazine

My Life: William H. Pritchard ’53

William Pritchard '53

Critical Eye

A drive with Robert Frost in an oil-burning Dodge, and other stories.

Interviewed by Ania Wieckowski ’03

William H. Pritchard ’53, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, graduated from Amherst with a degree in philosophy. After earning his Ph.D. in English from Harvard, he returned to Amherst as an instructor. He has been a fixture at the college ever since, renowned for his dry wit, his demanding courses and his finely tuned critical ear. Pritchard’s academic interests lie in American and British 20th-century fiction, poetry and criticism; richly intertwined with these is his attention to Amherst’s own history. One of the most important present-day critics of poetry, Pritchard contributes frequently to the Hudson Review and The New York Times Book Review. His own books include biographies of Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell, collections of critical essays and an autobiography, English Papers. He also edited English at Amherst: A History, by the late Theodore Baird (see review in this issue). Pritchard spoke with Amherst about his life and work, past and present.

On using your wits

The notion of there being good questions and not-so-good questions continues to haunt me. If in a class some attempt at discussion sort of fizzles, I say to myself, “Well, I didn’t ask the right question.” There was that emphasis on a certain kind of active pedagogy and looking over your own shoulder: [Professor Theodore] Baird used to say you can talk about kingship in Henry IV and Elizabethan ideas of rule, et cetera (although I couldn’t have talked very well about that either); but the question of what to do with the first scene of Henry IV and how to deal with the character of Hal as he presents himself to the audience, that’s something, that’s a challenge, and you have to use your wits there.

On literature as a social something

We still teach English 1 every fall—it’s called “Novels, Plays, Poems” now. This is built on the cooperative model of an old-fashioned Amherst staff course in which you agree on a common reading list and you meet weekly and you share your thoughts and then you have an argument, maybe. Literature as a social something—what is it Henry James says: art survives on comparison and discussion and providing of standpoints. That was an Amherst thing to me: exposed to as a student, participated in as a faculty member when I came back here and still, to some extent, do. I think of that as part of Amherst English.

Pritchard, archival photo
On driving Robert Frost

I was in charge of Frost’s program, and I was only a first- or second-year instructor. Frost got a little restive after 10 days and wanted to go back to Cambridge. I said, “Well, I’ll drive you.” That’s where I had come from, recently, and I knew the way pretty well. But our car was a 1950 Dodge, I think—1951 Dodge, maybe—and it burned oil fiercely. I carried an oil can in the car, ready at any moment to get out and put oil where you put the oil, but I didn’t want to run out when Frost was—well, I feared that something would happen with this good, great poet in the front seat along Route 2. So I remember tanking up and putting the oil in before we started back to Cambridge, and we made it successfully! But to drive along with the equivalent of what now would be the poet laureate or Walt Whitman in the front seat: that was pretty scary driving.

On Frost’s advice

There were a lot of moments in which he made his presence felt. I was writing a dissertation on his poetry and had the idea that it would be nice to have this published, and some publisher had made a move in my direction. So I sort of said to him, “Well, what do you think, Mr. Frost? I think I’d like to publish this, make this into a book about you.” He shook his head. “Keep it around,” he said. “Deepen it. Deepen it.” That was not what I wanted to hear at the moment, but it was good advice, and I did, and eventually I published a book about Frost, and surely it was a little deeper.

On music at Amherst, then and now

Well—and this is true of fine arts as well as music—it’s an incomparably richer and more extensive program that is offered now [compared to in the 1950s]. There’s a jazz orchestra, there’s a terrific symphony, there are all sorts of choral groups. There were a few groups back in the old days, but the department had two tenured professors and a young instructor. The department used to live in the Octagon; they had the music library there, and you could borrow albums of 78s, but it was a very limited thing. I did a lot of piano playing and accompanying. I played piano in the dance band, and I accompanied Gilbert and Sullivan productions at the Amherst high school. I helped out on a number of productions at Kirby Theater. Most of that was extracurricular. Now, when I teach Midsummer Night’s Dream, I bring in Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream—so there’s that sense always that I’m eager to show the relationships and the mutual influence of music and literature.

On a critic’s life

Amis is on my mind because in the mail today arrived a 900-page life of Kingsley Amis that I’ve got to review. Nine hundred pages! I’m also about to review—I’m reviewing, it’s in the typewriter—a really welcome and very interesting biography of the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, the first one in 40 years. It’s caused me to go back and read a lot.

Wieckowski is a writer in the Boston area.

Photo: Frank Ward