Time for a change
I have just finished reading Professor Kevin Sweeney’s well-written and entertaining article on Lord Jeffery Amherst (“The Very Model of a Modern Major General,” Fall 2008). Based on the information he presented, it seems to me that an assessment of Lord Jeff’s military career need not be “cautious” at all. A quick review: he bought his way into the army and appeared to owe his promotions entirely to his connections, not to his skill or experience, since he never had a field command and, indeed, was apparently only once under fire. His victories were due entirely to his possessing overwhelming superiority in men and equipment, as well as luck.
While his military career might perhaps be said to have risen to the level of mediocrity, on a personal level, one would have to call him odious. His contemporaries, apparently, could not stand him. He was the very essence of a “sore winner” when he twice denied the French the honors of war after defeating them, not by skill, but by brute force. Worst of all, he advocated and perhaps originated a savage policy of genocide toward the Indians that has been perpetuated to the present day. His contempt for them as subhuman was a forerunner of the monstrous philosophies of the past century that resulted in the death and suffering of so many millions. As for Professor Sweeney’s summation that Amherst was “a very model of a modern, managerial commander,” the generals who brought us Vietnam and “shock and awe” do, in fact, leap to mind.
Our Fairest College, we know, was named after the town of Amherst, not the man. Yet our nickname is the “Lord Jeffs” and we still sing about the entirely fictional “Amherst, brave Amherst,” who, “to the Frenchmen and the Indians . . . never did a thing.” Perhaps it’s time to get a new song and a new nickname that reflects the noble aspirations of President Marx to make our alma mater a reflection of the tolerant, multicultural society we will need to conquer the enormous problems faced by the whole world. Invoking false memories of an ancient scoundrel hardly seems the way to get there.
A dubious honor
Professor Sweeney’s fine article on Sir Jeffery Amherst has special meaning to me. In 2003, I discovered that my home in New York’s Southern Adirondacks is within sight of the “Amherst Patent,” a range of heavily forested hills and mountains. Further research revealed that “a mandamus ws granted at the court of St. James, April 14 1769, directing that the Governor of New York cause 20,000 acres to be surveyed where the memorialist might select.” Accordingly, on March 17, 1774, the tract was “conveyed to Lord Amherst”—nine years after his return to England.
At that time, the nearest settlement must have been at least 50 miles away. The first village in Hamilton County wasn’t founded until 1806 and the only evidence that the patent was ever inhabited is an abandoned fire tower on Pillsbury Mountain. The area truly was, and is, “the wilds of this wild county.”
All of this seems to support Professor Sweeney’s contention that Amherst’s performance was regarded as less than satisfactory.
A final irony is the fact that, during the War of 1812, a “Military Road” was constructed through the patent to move men and matériel to the Canadian border at Lake Ontario. The route of that road is still shown on current topographical maps.
Lake Pleasant, N.Y.
Rearranging the furniture
Doug Wilson was my friend, mentor and editor, and news of his passing (“In Memoriam: Douglas C. Wilson ’62,” Spring 2008) brought back many memories of his wry, gentle sense of humor and his light but always inspiring touch as an editor. One time, he told me that after 15 years at Amherst, he was feeling a midlife crisis coming on; he shared this thought with Coach Bill Thurston. The coach, Wilson said, exclaimed, “I went through the exact same thing! I have the solution for you.”
“What’s that?” Doug asked hopefully.
“Rearrange the furniture in your office!” Coach Thurston exclaimed.
I don’t know if Doug did that, but he certainly rearranged the furniture in my brain as a writer, and I will always be grateful to him.
Re. The Thing Itself, by Richard Todd ’62 (“Exerting their grip,” Amherst Creates, Fall 2008): Todd’s book is a quest for authenticity. This is no easy chore. I remember how we struggled, when I was at Amherst, to define an authentic liberal education, while the fraternity system was being said to create a dichotomy between thought and pleasure.
Todd recognizes the difficulty of his quest, for he probes at authenticity by writing of specific places, people and things. Ultimately he finds the authentic by casting the quest for authenticity aside. Thus he suggests that we judge politicians not by what they “are,” but by what they believe and do. That’s practical advice, in this very thoughtful book. At the very least, Todd demonstrates in his search that thought and pleasure can be experienced together.
Read and post comments about Todd’s book (and others) at Amherst Reads, an online book club.
Seeking information on Orra White Hitchcock
In the fall of 2010, the Mead Art Museum will open an exhibition devoted to the extraordinary life and work of Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863), including watercolors, drawings, prints and the classroom charts made for her husband, Amherst President Edward Hitchcock. The co-curators, Daria D’Arienzo and Robert Herbert, are eager to learn of any family letters and diaries in addition to artworks by Orra White Hitchcock, including decorative objects, residing in private hands. Owners’ names would not be revealed without written permission, and the museum would not necessarily wish to exhibit objects discovered in this way. Anyone with relevant information to share is encouraged to contact D’Arienzo at email@example.com or Herbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barker is director and chief curator of the Mead Art Museum.