Amherst Magazine

My Chapel

By William H. Pritchard ’53

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Pritchard with typewriter

I mainly live in the basement of Johnson Chapel, Room 2, although it’s true I maintain a more conventional residence elsewhere with refrigerator, television set, clothes closet, garage and loved one. But most of the work that occupies what for lack of a better word I call my mind takes place in the chapel cave of books, papers and IBM Selectric typewriters (three of them) that sustain my literary life. I have been in Chapel 2 since the summer of 1967 when, the college administration having decamped for new grounds in what had just ceased to be Converse Library, our English department was invited to take its place. We saw it as an opportunity: since the heart of a liberal education was, surely, “English,” and since Matthew Arnold and William Butler Yeats had lectured there, Johnson Chapel would be the central conduit for Wordsworth’s poetic impulses in “Tintern Abbey,” “Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into [the] purer mind.”

But the chapel was having its way with me even before the English department took it over and I was ensconced in its basement. As a very green freshman in the fall of 1949, I, like my classmates, was expected to attend two out of the four weekly “chapels” (8:50 a.m.) under penalty of suspension for failure to show up. There were upperclassmen designated as monitors to check us in, mine an extremely sardonic figure who referred to me, not with great respect, I thought, as “Mr. Pritchard” (“Mr. Pritchard has been seen talking with fraternity men”). The morning service lasted nine minutes or so, included a short talk from an administration or faculty member and was preceded by a single, Christian, religious act, a singing of the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow;/Praise Him all creatures here below”) with less than enthusiasm by those who had rudely dragged themselves bleary-eyed out of the sack so as to be in attendance. Next to me, one morning, stood a very clever sophomore named Frank Randall, who ended his version of the Doxology with “Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host/ Praise Father, Son and Buttered Toast.” As a Christian yet to leave the fold, it made me slightly nervous, such impiety.

When Christmas vacation approached, the college put on its usual Vespers (still extant) followed by carols outside the chapel, while the Christmas tree on Octagon hill did its thing. Over the course of the school year many distinguished visitors lectured in the building and there was a well-attended debate between an Amherst leftist professor of economics and the young, brash William F. Buckley, who had just published God and Man at Yale. But for me Johnson Chapel was mainly something to gaze at while thinking vague, deep thoughts, as I could do looking out the window of the Philosophy Seminar (third floor, Converse Library) instead of trying to understand the philosophy of George Santayana. Once, in an orgy of overreaching perhaps prompted by a few beers, I stretched out on Chapel hill one gorgeous May evening of senior year and fantasized about coming back as a faculty member, continuing on forever in this grove of academe.

That was the Idyll, and there would come a powerful anti-Idyll in the late 1960s and early ’70s when the chapel hosted angry students, and a beleaguered president attempted to reason with crowds of bodies sprawled about the aisles and pews once devoted to morning service (“We don’t trust you, President Plimpton, we don’t trust you,” shrilled a voice). After another angry gathering, during the 1970 strike (prompted by the incursion into Cambodia and the violence at Kent State), it was decided (by someone, who?) that Amherst should inspect its own educational procedures; thus departments would meet with their majors and attempt to clarify what was wrong with the course curriculum and how to improve it. One of the English majors complained that professors treated him callously and that he wanted instead to be treated as a human being. To which Theodore Baird rose up and informed the aggrieved young man that he, Baird, was not a Human Bean—as he termed it—but a professor of English with a Ph.D. That was not the answer anyone had been waiting for, though now it seems incontestable.

Those contested days, I felt the chapel was under duress, but it survived the ordeal. The 1990s, however, posed a graver physical threat at least to the occupant of Room 2 when it was suggested, as part of a general reconstitution of the building, that he (yes, it was still I) be moved elsewhere, his office being an ideal site for new lavatory facilities for gentlemen and ladies. Promised a brand-new room on the top floor, I panicked, dug in my heels and held out until an alternate plan was suggested. But a close call. Later, Room 2 was designated as an especially “impacted” area when a sprinkler system was introduced into the chapel, involving weeks of constant noise and plaster dust everywhere to form, in the end, an impressive labyrinth of pipes running about my ceiling. More recently there has been the addition of our faithful dog, Kirby the Corgi, beloved, it seems, by students and tourists who pay visits to the chapel. After eight years, her presence has doubtless humanized academic life and caused her owner’s reputation to rise a notch in the eyes of some (“I don’t know Professor Pritchard, he seems sort of distant, but he’s got a cool dog”). Though no custodial foot is now permitted to cross the line into my office and empty the wastebaskets, even if Kirby be absent, it is a small price to pay for her spiritual presence.

But what about the absences, the ghosts that haunt the chapel? I myself know only a few of them, even while working hard to stay in touch. Senior Assembly in the spring (it was then called Senior Chapel) used to begin with the assembled graduates lined up in preparation to enter the building while singing the Senior Song with words no longer befitting a co-educational college: “Strangers once, we came to dwell together,/Sons of a mother wise and true.” They were instructed to “Gather closer, hand to hand/The time draws near when we must part”; but the professor fancied himself in a special relation to that time, which drew ever near each spring yet, in its grace, permitted him to return in the fall even as the departed seniors were replaced.

“Tintern Abbey,” mentioned above, is perhaps the right poem to sum up with since, as a great utterance, it never succeeds in yet never gives up on the attempt to find adequate words to express what Wordworth’s not-yet-30-year-old self was intent on memorializing. Among other things he called it “a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused,” and after locating it in the ocean, the air and the sky, lodged it finally in the mind of man: “A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/And rolls through all things.” Terras Irradient? Not really, but something like the way each day the man in the basement of the chapel hopes to startle his IBM Selectric into a touch of that sense sublime.

William H. Pritchard ’53 is Amherst’s Henry Clay Folger Professor of English.

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04