*[I’ll tell as much of the truth this morning as I can in short compass about the motives and meanings of re-union, but, in the words of Emily Dickinson, who must be mentioned when it comes to the world of Amherst, I’ll “tell it slant” (Walt Whitman/Emily Dickinson, ed. Herschel Parker, poem 1129, ca. 1868; I might mention here the oddity, or essential contradiction, that our two greatest poets of the 19th century, Dickinson and Whitman, should excel at the contrary values of concision and expansion).]
Why do we gather for this special occasion, our 50th Amherst College reunion? I suppose each of us would have a slightly different answer. As each of us had a somewhat different experience at and of Amherst in the 1950’s, so each can tell a unique story about why “he” (and we only were “he/s”) has returned to alma mater, if only for a few days. In this sense, only our collective experiences, put together as a cubistic narrative, could make up our story. Picasso in the Connecticut Valley, as it were.
But, of course, I have a few ideas. When didn’t an English professor have some? There is a need, a virtual imperative, as one ages, matures, and gains some wisdom, to discover the source from which one springs or the spring from which one flows.
[I must say here that I believe in “wisdom” as a still viable form of knowledge. In this, I differ from many of my literary colleagues who believe, in one version or other of postmodernism, who believe that wisdom is as outmoded as one of Emily Dickinson’s “fascicles” (tiny booklets of six pages each, Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson, 268). The turn away from a culture of wisdom is part of our generational story, but it not the story I have time to tell today. At our next reunion, I’ll have something to say about “Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra vs. Deconstruction and Language Poetry.”]
Literature, especially poetry, helps locate these well-springs. Two poems come to mind, one by Edwin Arlington Robinson, the other, inevitably, given our history, by Robert Frost, our sage.
Robinson writes in “The Flying Dutchman”:[i]
Alone, by the one light of his one thought,
He steers to find the shore from which we came,
Fearless in what coil he may be caught
On seas that have no name.
I especially like the idea in the Robinson poem that the speaker, who is solitary, is looking for a common shore from which “we,” a plurality, came. The poet seeks a “littoral” truth as a shared reality. For many of us, Amherst at the cultural moment when we were here was, indeed, one of the shores of our lives, certainly of our future academic and professional lives.
For some of us who were the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of immigrants (who had relatives who perished in the death-camps – my mother’s Czech uncle, Ludwig Fried, for one), Amherst College during the post-war economic boom was a constitutive factor of our “Americanization.” In being admitted and coming to Amherst College, in 1954, less than a decade after the end of WWII, represented finding a home in an established America that was to become as important for many of us as the original homes from which we came.
[“Homecoming,” in this sense, is of special importance for us. I might tip in here that I had my first glimpse of traditional New England as a summer camper in Kent, Connecticut when I saw, at a distance, Kent School.]
Here are the relevant lines for me from Frost’s complex, entropic, and, in some sense, humanistically redemptive “West-Running Brook.”
“Our life runs down in sending up the clock.
The brook runs down in sending up our life.
The sun runs down in sending up the brook.
And there is something sending up the sun.
It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current to the source.
It is from this in nature we are from.
It is most us.”
This is one of Frost’s deepest and darkest poems, one that might justify Lionel Trilling’s having called him a “terrifying poet” in 1959; and one could tease many meanings from its contradictions and ambiguities (a favored critical word of our New Critical generation). [ii]
But I want only to touch upon a few aspects of the poem that relate to our being “back” at Amherst again. For most of us, sadly, for different reasons, this will be our last “backward motion toward the source” of our youthful selves
and all the ambitions we harbored. So we can be kind to ourselves now and take a regressive dip – if only for a few days – into the pond of the past (pace to all the therapists who have encouraged us to live in the “here and now”).
I’m not sure how “contrarian” most of us have been, how much we have resisted tides of public opinion, TV propaganda (in various forms), and prevailing prejudices; but I’d like to believe that our good and liberal education at Amherst when we were here half a century ago allowed us after college to push “against the stream” – a little like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imaginary oarsmen at the end of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
I’d like to think that we remembered the atrocities of World War II and the witch-hunts of the McCarthy period -- abuses of constitutional guarantees and horrific violations of human rights (issues we discussed among ourselves and in classes when we were here so many years ago) – and that we continued to support and defend, for example, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN/1948): “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
I’d like to think that we’ve all been morally and constitutionally offended by the obscene abuses of Abu Ghraib and covert acts of “rendition” and the
“outsourcing” of torture as if it were a multi-national enterprise.
This resistance to inhumanity would be one “tribute of the current to the source.”
But there is another level of meaning in Frost’s words, the sense that we formed something like a community with shared values. This sense of community existed at the level of one to one friendships and various forms of collective identity (including the controversial one of fraternities). The influential Martin Buber well might have thought that his “I-Thou” (Ich und du, 1923) imperative was operational when we were at Amherst, or so I’d like to think.
It allowed us in the years after college to feel that we belonged somewhere at times when it seemed that the world didn’t pay too much attention to us, when it felt as if we might drown in a stream of anonymity or obscurity, when the challenges of personal and professional existence seemed overwhelming. [I won’t mention on this festive occasion Frost’s mention, in the same poem, of
the “universal cataract of death.”] Or do I speak only for myself? But, surely, we all have known such a “panic moments,” to quote another phrase from the same poem.
And there is a sense in which we are potentially closer today than we were then. Time and humanizing experience have eroded many of the differences between us and made us something like an extended family whose members live at a distance from us. If fraternities – those social arbiters -- once separated us, fraternity and the family of man now join us. Youthful claims to exclusivity and privilege tend to yield to general truths about shared human nature and the wear and tear of survival. We were primed for education at Amherst, but Life, with a capital “L” is the great graduate school.
Norm Carr (hope he’s here this a.m.) gets at something like this as quoted in Allen Clark’s Jan. 10/08 reunion publicity letter:
“The most interesting thing about the reunion process to me
is how one ends up recognizing that some of the people one
might have thought of as a bit odd in college are in fact very
In this sense, reunion is perhaps, a union for the first time as well.
I’ll end at this point with a “slant” reference to Noah Webster, one of the college’s founders – whose frieze, I believe, still stands at the base of
the late Walker Hall – who spoke to the assembly when the cornerstone was laid on August 9th, 1820 (F. Curtis Canfield, The Seed and The Sowers, 11-12).
As much, if not more than, anything, language, of whatever symbolic form, makes a human community possible. And, as George Orwell taught us, whenever and wherever language is degraded, so is the human community of that time and place.
Amherst’s literary heritage and voice -- past and present – always
has insisted on the specificity, concreteness, and authenticity of individual existence and the ways in which the meeting of such individuals makes a community meaningful and worthy of both commemoration and celebration.
Given this legacy, it is not surprising that Richard Wilbur’s (AC 1942) recent poem in The New Yorker (May 19, 2008), “Young Orchard,” gets beautifully, intelligently, and quietly at the dialogue between individuality and community. The poem begins where each tree “stands alone” and ends with all the trees
Swept by flutterings
So that they appear a great
Consort of sweet strings.
We may not have been the “sweet birds” of Shakepeare’s sonnet, “That time of year thou mayest in me behold…,” but we often lifted our voices in common song as we shall on this memorable gathering.
Addendum A: Who We Were in 1958?
I remember chatting once with John Moore, Hellenist and educator, about literary criticism. He said that he didn’t believe in it very much, but that it was irresistible. Much the same thing could be said, I think, about the historical impulse. How could we celebrate our 50th reunion and cerebrate about it without wondering and asking who we were in 1958 – if it can be assumed, as I think it can, that we had some kind of generational identify then and one that lingers now. We weren’t Hegelians in the 1950’s, but we were part of a zeitgeist
T.S. Eliot says in “Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919),” perhaps the most influential critical essay for those studying English Literature in our generation, that the “historical sense” is “indispensable…to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year.” Well, few of us are poets as practitioners of the craft, but if we follow Emerson, we all are poets to the extent that we try to express ourselves.
George Frisbee Whicher, distinguished Amherst professor of the pre-WWII period (1915-1954), notes in his deep and elegant This Was a Poet (1938) that Emerson gave a series of six lectures at the college in 1865 and spoke there again in 1872 and 1879. Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, was so moved by Emerson’s remarks, that he became a passionate collector of English Renaissance materials – hence, the Folger Shakespeare Library.
It “seems to me,” a typical qualification of the time, that we were poised between the “silent generation” and The Angry Young Men in Britain and Beats in America. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Allen Ginsberg's “Howl” were part of the same literary atmosphere. Born closer to the end of the 19th century than the beginning of the 21st, graduates of primary schools at
mid-century, 1950, we like to keep the seesaw balanced.
[ My erstwhile roommate and co-writer for The Amherst Student, Edward David “Dave” de Lima Luria, of Hamburg an exile, of America a citizen, of the world a friend, always told me that “it seems to me” was my favorite expression. He may have thought, in fact, that it was my nickname. His late mother, by the way, a truly gracious lady, made the best daiquiris in Manhattan.]
Wedged between passivity and rebellion, we were at the cusp of change between the “tranquility” of the Eisenhower years and the excitement of the brief Kennedy period. We were, in the words of Frost’s “The Oven Bird,”
a variety of “mid-wood bird.” We believed, to the extent that our values were conscious ones, in irony and balance, equipoise and tension. We always would be wary of extremes and extremism.
The idealistic interlude of the Kennedy years was followed by Viet Nam, the longest war, so far, in our history (if McCain were to be elected and to keep his word about Iraq, we might beat the record). The opposition to the Viet Nam war created a counter-culture of articulate and theatrical protest for which few of us were prepared and which left few of us unaffected.
If any of us felt that we had missed a heroic opportunity to fight against Fascism in WWII, we had a chance during the Viet Nam to enter history with a sense of moral purpose. This was not an easy period for many of us. Given our essentially centrist values and residual patriotism (we were, after all, children of the Second World War), it was not easy to condemn our leaders;
and the style of protest was often for us “far-out.”
Little did we know on Thursday, April 24, 1958 at 8:00 p.m. in Johnson Chapel when Henry Kissinger, then Executive Director of Harvard University’s
International Seminar, gave a talk on Nuclear Testing that he would become one of the architect’s of a war that would transform our history and our sense of history (bound volume, The Amherst Student, 87-89, 1958-59).
As the country was divided then between those who supported and those who opposed the Viet Nam War, so is there now a debate about the usefulness and morality of the Iraq War.
It would be interesting to find out how we feel about this war (a grave misadventure and national moral lapse from my point of view) and whether our attitudes about it were shaped by the tension between the values of our Amherst education, liberal and pragmatic, and those of the Viet Nam period, radical and pre-revolutionary – a period that was coincident with the beginning of my career as a teacher and yours in your chosen professions.
But I don’t want to sound as if we were on a moral rack all the time. Far from it. Irony and humor are, of course related, and require that one be able to see and to acknowledge more than one point of view about an issue. The comic, like an adroit juggler, can keep more than one attitude suspended in the air at the same time.
This is one reason why comedy and Totalitarianism are incompatible. Ernst Fischer, Marxist humanist, says wonderfully about laughter in his The Necessity of Art (Penguin, 1070, pp. 220-221): what comic artists have in common is
“a triumphant rejection of all that is heavy, puritan, oppressive.”
At Amherst in our time, we were steeped in the Liberal Tradition, as that tradition is defined in John Stuart Mill’s famous tract, “On Liberty.” Mill’s book has no jokes in it, so far as I can recall, but a liberal disposition primes one for laughter. One of my enduring memories of Amherst is sharing a joke with Miller Brown (of Hutchinson, Kansas a son, of France an ami, of Trinity College a Dean) in our freshman year, a joke, long forgotten, that began and sealed a lifelong friendship.
And one of my other great roommates, Roger Porter, and I have been punning for half a century. (Roger is a man for all seasons, a man of seasoning, of Elizabeth, New Jersey a son, of Reed College, Portland, Oregon a thinking reed.)
Liberalism, laughter, and enduring personal bonds – I’m sure that characterizes many Amherst friendships of our time.
[ I cannot claim that I have located the “veritable ding an sich” of our generation in this essay-memoir, but I hope I have hit a few nails on the head.
I take the above phase from Wallace Stevens’s “The Comedian As The Letter C” in his The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Knopf, 1957), a gift volume given to my by Bob Thompson, a gift I have treasured for half a century. ]
Dr. Howard R. “Howie” Wolf, AC 1958
Professor of English
The State University of New York at Buffalo
“Life Member,” Wolfson College, Cambridge University
* Bold brackets are interpolations and ruminations not written to be read aloud.
[i] Howard R. Wolf, “E.A. Robinson, “Relevance of Character,” in Modern American Poetry,
ed. Jerome Mazzaro, 1970.