In Ohio, Lane Theological Seminary, pictured here in the 1840s, sent its graduates to help seed the Midwestern frontier with liberal arts colleges.
Willis Hall, completed in 1874, was the first building constructed by Carleton College in Minnesota, a school founded as a center for humane learning.
By Marilynne Robinson
Decades before she won the Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson taught creative writing at Amherst. The experience led her to a forgotten piece of American history—and to lessons that still hold weight today.
It was only after I left the Pioneer Valley that I really began to learn where I had been. I always felt drawn to American history, especially the 19th century. There is so much history in this valley, much of it tacit, implicit. I’ve often wondered in what way forgotten history abides and what the consequences are of its being forgotten or brought to mind again. While I was still at Amherst, I knew enough to daydream about a statue of the regicide Edward Whalley standing on the green in Hadley, Mass., recreated as he looked when he rose once from the tomb of his concealment, or so the story goes. And I used to imagine a group sculpture of all the wonderful old radicals and abolitionists who were part of the early life of Florence, Mass. I’m delighted to see that Sojourner Truth has indeed materialized as a statue in Florence, that Henry Ward Beecher still has a place at Amherst. Lydia Maria Child and Arthur and Lewis Tappan should be next, because of their local associations and their greatness and relative obscurity. Then Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison.
I’ve always felt that people somehow immortalize themselves in a landscape, that the mere fact of a specific human presence in a place leaves it changed. The earliest American poetry is haunted by the Indian soul so palpably present here. How many souls have passed through this slightly secluded valley since the glaciers receded? Walt Whitman was right about everything, never more so than when he celebrated the epic and melancholy beauty created in a place by all the transient multitudes and generations that passed through it. Anonymity is beautiful, and names are beautiful. The universal is beautiful, and so are the particulars. Certain vivid souls have made an impress on this valley in the course of their pilgrimage, as we all know. The list of local saints is very long. And who they were and what they meant is inscribed in highly legible forms, which are preserved and enjoyed as the special charm and richness of this valley, without much thought to the intentions that set them here, the hopes they were meant to fulfill. The same is true in many places in America.
We do not query our own experience, which in so many cases is formed by the generous intentions of well-meaning strangers who, for example, collected and kept many somber volumes in Frost Library that, when I was here, I felt I needed to read in order to piece together in my mind a prehistory of the postmodern world. That is what I did while I was teaching at Amherst, thrall to a compulsion that amazes me when I look back on it. Sometimes it seems as if one’s own earlier self is a stranger to whom one is also indebted.
As I recall, I first learned something about the origins of our Florence, Mass., from Friedrich Engels, who listed it among the viable communist societies in an early work I read because it had occurred to me, in my long hours in Frost Library, to wonder what Karl Marx might actually have meant by the word communist. I was teaching a creative writing class at the time, and then descending to the dim interior of the library to read up on the political thought of Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, to slog through Frederick Eden, Thomas Carlyle and the Fabians. During this time I read the first volume of Capital and a number of the books that Marx notes, including England and America, by Edward Wakefield, which prompts the most direct discussion of the United States to occur in Capital (though Marx wrote a great deal elsewhere about America and for American publication). I read Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith. I found and read forgotten writers mentioned by those writers whose work is still invoked by educated people, though, as I learned again and again, it is actually read somewhere between seldom and never.
I was reading my way through what is called the dismal science—no science at all but thoroughly dismal. Its innumerable contributors called it political economy. This immersion of mine was a strange project by any standard, made satisfying by the fact that Frost Library was almost always equal to the demands I made on it. So passed a certain percentage of my relative youth. This was after the publication of my first novel, Housekeeping, when the reasonable expectation of anyone who gave the matter a moment’s thought was that I would be working on a new novel. But I was in the clutches of an obsession.
Like Persephone I passed from a lovely, sunlit world into the darkness of old certitude and severity. There I learned that there was an iron or, alternatively, a brazen law of wages. This meant that the great class of those who lived by their labor could not earn more than subsistence—and subsistence very strictly defined. Even the death clubs (in which 19th-century British workers pooled their pittances to pay for their own funerals) furrowed these lofty brows, being evidence that wages exceeded the minimum required for survival and therefore transgressed against that iron law and threatened to destroy civilization. Starvation could be rationalized as the friend of civilization, a natural mechanism for restoring balance in the labor market. What was forbidden in all these texts, to the great majority of the people, was precisely the pursuit of happiness—happiness in the 18th-century sense of that word: prosperity or well-being.
This iron law has come into force again in much of the world as a consequence of a form of competition that has based national economies on the poverty and low expectations of the mass of their populations. To my sorrow, I have more use now than I could have ever imagined for the terms and assumptions that I learned in Frost Library. For this reason alone, I would recommend this grueling mental pilgrimage to anyone who has an interest in the news.
A few hours given over to the realm of Pluto, and then out into Amherst again, where other hopes formed with precise reference to and rejection of that old plutocratic resentment and severity were still inscribed on the landscape, the one visible to me and to anyone I knew. I had read that Emily Dickinson’s grandfather largely founded this college from his own resources, working his carriage horses to death when he could no longer afford to hire help. Amherst College was to be, in the terms of the time, a charity school from which no earnest and capable young man would be excluded for want of money. Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was founded a few years later on the same principles. I learned at some point that Amherst was also intended as a sort of intellectual rampart against the spread of Unitarianism, which had already claimed once-Congregational Harvard. I had read that after bankrupting the family, Dickinson’s grandfather went to Ohio to recover his fortune, then returned a prosperous man. After I became a little familiar with the history of the Middle West, I fell to wondering what trove of wealth the elder Dickinson could have discovered in frontier Ohio. In fact, he seems to have found his way to the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, a reputable institution intellectually, but not one known for paying its staff adequately or, for that matter, reliably. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s eminent father, Lyman Beecher, and her husband, the Arabist Calvin Stowe, taught at Lane, and after 17 years there she returned to New England lacking even an intact pair of shoes. So the mystery remains, for me at least.
All of this would, however, place old Dickinson in the circle of religious activism associated with social reform, including the abolition of slavery, which was important in the early settlement of Cincinnati. I went on to learn that Emily Dickinson and her family had friends in common with John Brown. I knew of a house in Florence that was said to be, and surely was, a part of the Underground Railroad, which I knew had been active here.
Like Amherst, Oberlin College in Ohio, shown here in the 1840s, was built by people whose determination was their primary resource.
Grinnell College in Iowa as it appeared circa 1880.
There were other hints at participation in the great issues of an earlier America and in the world that were interesting to me, but their real significance did not strike me until I went into the Middle West. There I found any number of Amhersts, so to speak, scattered over the landscape. These colleges are younger by two or three decades but strikingly similar architecturally and in scale—and no wonder, because they also were built in the first instance by people whose determination was their primary resource. They were founded as stations on the Underground Railroad and as centers for humane learning of a kind that would make their graduates and those influenced by them resistant to the spread of slavery. Some of them are famous: Oberlin in Ohio, Grinnell in Iowa, Carleton in Minnesota, Knox in Illinois. And there are many other honorable liberal arts colleges that have contributed to the cultural and intellectual life of the region and the nation for a century and a half or longer.
How directly Amherst itself was involved in this seeding of the frontier with fine little colleges I don’t know. Their faculties seem to have been composed largely of graduates of divinity schools in New England and New York and graduates of Lane and then Oberlin as the educational and reformist culture took hold. No institution figures more prominently in it all than Yale Divinity School, which sent bands of its graduates out into the West to advance the cause of liberal education and the reforms it was meant to promote, including the abolition of slavery and the advancement of women. Many of these colleges were racially integrated, and integrated by gender also, before the Civil War. Progressive philanthropists, notably Arthur and Lewis Tappan, funded these schools because the reformist innovations undertaken by them in the Midwest were not tolerated in the East.
These schools were radical, despite the fact that an intense, if to us rather mysterious, piety was cultivated in them. There were instances of students being expelled for celebrating Christmas. The movement as a whole was inspired or stimulated by the Second Great Awakening, and its leaders were often referred to as revivalists. As it happens, I’ve seen early presidents of Amherst and Williams referred to as revivalists. Charles Finney, one of the greatest abolitionists, the president of Oberlin who insisted that blacks and women be admitted on an equal basis with white men, was indeed a revivalist by any definition of that word.
The elements of culture recombine and are changed by their changed associations. It would be interesting to trace the transformation in American society that broke the link between popular religion and high intellectual achievement, between religious enthusiasm and generous and transformative change. In my experience, many of the schools in the old abolitionist archipelago are entirely forgetful of their history or are embarrassed by the little they know about it, in most cases because they are very progressive and enlightened and therefore do not wish to trace their paternity to a clutch of fiery preachers, and in some cases because they are piously conservative and do not enjoy association with a clutch of New England radicals.
In any case, a very generous hope was abroad in America that undertook to realize itself in the diffusion of a kind of education historically associated with privilege. That it was intended to break down the barriers education had historically enforced is clear from the fact that it was open to otherwise excluded groups: African Americans and women. Also, many of these schools were organized according to what was called the manual-labor system. This meant that everyone in the college community, including the faculty, did the work involved in keeping it fed and housed in order to assure that there would be no economic barriers to education. On the frontier this meant everyone chopped weeds and butchered hogs and operated the printing presses that poured out abolitionist pamphlets, many of them mailed into the South. If it is true that Mary Lyon baked the bread for her female seminary, the same egalitarian principles were at work here. Again, the association of learnedness with privilege or leisure was intentionally undercut.
Already in the early 19th century there was organized philanthropy. A group of wealthy individuals and families called the Great Eight met once a year in New York City to review plans for which their help was sought, and a fair amount of this help seems to have gone to the founding and sustaining of schools and colleges. Nevertheless, the strength of this movement was based on the willingness of a surprising number of highly educated people to leave the relative comfort of the East for lives of almost unimaginable difficulty, based on the assumption, which proved true, that the populations that also found their way to the prairie would have an interest in Latin and Greek, mathematics and logic.
Mary Lyon made extraordinary intellectual demands of the girls she brought in from the hill towns, and so did Josiah Grinnell of the Iowans who sought him out in what is still more or less the middle of nowhere. Charles Finney founded the music school for which Oberlin is still renowned, as well as the theology department, which left long since for friendlier climes. To an extraordinary degree, the generations between the Second Great Awakening and the Civil War established lasting excellence in what would seem unlikely places, despite great practical difficulties and with very modest resources. Their intention was to recreate American society by practicing, as well as promoting, standards of justice and freedom to which the nation had not risen.
If I had not read so deeply into political economy, the thinking that prevailed elsewhere and had authority everywhere about the natural order of society—the inevitable subordination of the many to the few that was the single condition under which it was said a civilization could emerge and prosper—I would not have understood the gallant humanism reflected in the existence and flourishing of these lofty little institutions.
The fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate took place at Knox College in Illinois on October 7, 1858. This painting is based on an illustration by Victor Perard that appeared in McClure’s Magazine in October 1896.
Yes, and then what happened? I mentioned before the tendency of aspects of culture to recombine and to change as they fall into new configurations. In the 20th century, despite all I have said, higher education was resistant to the integration of women and people of color—as if this were a novelty and a threat to excellence. A great amnesia had settled over the whole society, a forgetfulness that there had been racially integrated towns with black mayors, even that there had been regiments of black soldiers in the Civil War. It is not only interesting but truly ominous that such a significant part of our history could slide into eclipse. This is another thing I learned from moving to Iowa (and could have learned in Kansas and virtually anywhere else in the Middle West): that a society with a history of hope and intention can forget that anything bold or generous, anything of interest, ever happened there.
We in the Middle West have our fine little colleges and our great universities, certainly—but recently legislators have been finding it difficult to justify the cost of liberal education. What is it for, after all? Does it produce better workers? Does it attract investment? Does it prepare graduates for the kind of employment they will need to pay off the cost of their education, as legislators continue to back away from the obligation to maintain the universities, and the universities increasingly make up the difference by raising tuition? These are rhetorical questions. The answer is not welcome, even—or especially—if a good case can be made for it.
If rumors of such notions happen to reach the empyrean, those old worthies who established the culture of education along the frontier (defying poverty, frostbite and yellow fever) would most certainly be tearing their beards. No doubt they had read many of the same books of political economy I read. They would have known from their own experience what kind of world results from the subordination of all other considerations to a utilitarian economics. They were not prudent, but profligate—pouring out the best treasures of learning in swamps and mudholes (their language) in a general project of liberation from which we all would have benefited more if we had simply been generous enough to remember it.
But something else happened. There was a recoil from the horror of the Civil War that affected the thinking of many abolitionists and that certainly affected public attitudes toward their movement. There was the emergence of Social Darwinism, which enjoyed a long run in this country and which had precursors in many forms—not surprisingly, since there is nothing easier to do than to persuade people of their natural superiority to other people. But when this view of things entered the culture as science, through those very institutions that had promoted social equality in earlier generations, it carried all before it. Those same hill towns that had provided Mary Lyon with her students suddenly became proof of the dysgenic effects of inbreeding. Immigrants were worse, and everywhere were to be found marks of imbecility, degeneracy and parasitism.
Since the future of humankind depended on the flourishing of superior types, the first duty of the favored was, of course, to look after themselves and their own. Social Darwinism always had racial assumptions: a Mongoloid was an evolutionary throwback from the superior status of Caucasoid, and so on. This “science” was a catastrophe for anyone who labored under any kind of disadvantage, no matter how obviously the disadvantage was a consequence of social constructs, since society is (for these purposes) the field or the forest of evolutionary struggle, and losing is losing.
It is a dangerous error to imagine that opinion had to have been more benighted in 1835 than it was in 1935. The fact that black students had done well at Oberlin or at Lane—there was no use for that information once racism became “scientific.” So for all purposes, that information disappeared, together with the history that surrounded it. Equality as an ideal was seen not only as impossible but also as undesirable, since it threatened the enhancement of the species that came with the rise of an elite. I think some of the intellectual leaders whose lives spanned the Civil War chose to forget that they’d ever espoused equality, though they may have championed it eloquently in their youth. As for women, how half the species could be thought of as somehow not participating fully in its evolution, I don’t know. But our status fell precipitously in the Social Darwinist period, perhaps because we were considered unlikely to have stalked the woolly mammoth. There is no arguing with science.
I do not want to overstate the degree to which the ideals of the founders of these erstwhile charity schools, these manual-labor-system schools, have been abandoned. They have always been open to gifted students and ready to lower or remove barriers of cost for anyone otherwise qualified, granting that for a long time whiteness and maleness were among these essential qualifications. Innovations such as intelligence testing, which had its origins in the eugenics movement, have given admissions something of the character of screening for a Spenserian elite, but perhaps this is unavoidable. Immigration made these schools into Anglo-Protestant redoubts. This was understandable in terms of their origins, and intolerable because of their very great role in establishing social norms and conferring status. It may have been a factor in their marked tendency to forget where they came from, a creditable rejection of the nativist exclusivism with which they came to be associated.
That said, the old dream of integrating the highest levels of thought and learning into a life of humane labor in which everyone has a part—the ideal of equality without condescension: this is what I am afraid we as a culture have lost. Every aspect of contemporary life assumes a lowest common denominator that is very low indeed. What politician would be so bold as to refine a point, to confess an ambivalence or allude to literature or history? We’ve been at great pains to winnow thoughtful language out of public life, so perhaps we would all have to get used to the sound of it again.
We would have to persuade the press not to bullyrag any utterance that seems to them too complex for the common mind. One of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was held on the lawn of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., one of the oldest and most important of the abolitionist schools. Thousands of people stood in the open air to hear a very lengthy, un-amplified debate. Lincoln’s own few months of education might not have been unusual in that crowd, but no one would dare to speak to any crowd as substantively and respectfully as he spoke to them, and no one would expect the patient attention they gave to Douglas and to him. Lincoln was well prepared by his own history to know that intelligence, eloquence, intuition and sensitivity could emerge despite obstacles, and that they could be quietly present where no one would expect them.
I’m afraid we have not learned what we should have learned from the greatest experiments in democracy that have taken place among us. If I had not gone from Western Massachusetts to Iowa, and if I had not been struck by the anomalous presence of what might be New England schools surrounded by what might be New England villages, and if I had not wondered why these colleges should be the oldest things on the landscape and why there should be so many of them, I would never have learned that aspirations for American democracy had once been so generous and at the same time so high. I would not have known because it is not a story we tell ourselves. We praise democracy most of the time, but we practice it as if we had accepted every argument against it, as if we believed it must depress the level of culture and of public life.
So both of these are depressed, preemptively. In the absence of the romance of the individual, the Emersonian celebration of consciousness, the Whitmanesque openness to the beauty and grandeur of the mortal throng, we slide back toward that dark world whose testaments I read in Frost Library. Now we speak of the great mass of people as workers who must be conditioned and pressed toward always-greater efficiency, toward accepting lives they do not define or control, lived in service to some supposedly greater good that is never in any humane or democratic sense their own good or their children’s good.
Those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it, and society does indeed seem to be reverting to a dismal past, which, in our ignorance, we call an inevitable future. But this is true, too: those who are ignorant of history deprive themselves of the hope that they would learn from what is best in it, and are condemned to finding hope an aspect of a past they can not repeat. Generous hope is embedded in this landscape, and in the national landscape, waiting to be remembered.
Marilynne Robinson, a writer-in-residence at Amherst in the early 1980s, is the author of Housekeeping (1981), which received the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel, and Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This essay is adapted from the address she gave at Amherst’s Commencement Weekend, when she received an honorary degree.