Stories in the Attic

By Tess Taylor ’00

The letter that began the love story

In July 1900, a pious, jocular Amherst alumnus named Alden Hyde Clark—a DKE and former captain of the football team—wrote to a woman he’d recently met at Smith College. On shipboard during his post-college tour of Europe, Clark addressed Mary Schaefer Whitcomb: “My dear Miss Whitcomb, no doubt you’ll be very much surprised indeed to get a letter from such a place on such paper and from such a person as this one.”

The two had met at a youth revival at Smith that spring. Writing under the guise of following up, Alden, having accepted a job as a YMCA chaplain at Amherst, asked Mary to explain how women at Smith ran their religious organization. Would Mary have advice for his role with the Amherst men?

Religion was a real draw, but it was also a red herring. Alden’s conversation quickly had other ends. Mary, Boston-bred, with auburn hair and delicate features, must have made quite an impression. By September, Alden’s letters had turned personal: “My dear Mary, I’ve been hoping you’d drop the Mr. on my name. I’m not so conventionalized as to like to be called Mr. and always feel like putting on my armor of conventional politeness when I am so called.”

Soon he’d switched to using her nickname, May. In December: “Merry Christmas, May. I’m sure I said it first, for my first thought when I woke up was of you. Yesterday morning I did not have to wait till I woke up. ... I seemed to have been thinking about you all night, and when I woke up, I just kept on thinking.”

A young Alden Clark in 1901

By March 9, 1901, Alden had proposed. May accepted by mail. “We have a great common end to work for,” Alden wrote after her acceptance, “and that is what makes our love sacred.” In fact, they did have a common purpose: each, the other had by now discovered with some surprise and delight, wished to be a missionary.

Alden Clark and May Whitcomb are my great-grandparents, and their letters are among a collection of family correspondence they passed on to their three children. Together the letters span a century in the life of a family, beginning in 1867, when Alden’s grandparents settled a prairie outpost that was rapidly becoming Minneapolis, and moving east to Amherst, and east again to a life of mission work in India. I discovered some of these letters a few years back in the attic of my grandmother’s cottage in Maine. In cardboard boxes, shoved under sometimes leaky eaves, were string-tied notes with sloping script and old postmarks, carrying a hundred years of family gossip—a great deal of which weaves through the Pioneer Valley.

Up in the attic, I read the letters, entranced, looking closely for clues. Who were these earnest, prayerful ancestors of mine? What about their educations and lives had led them to pursue missionary life? What might the life they shared say about Amherst? What might it say about me?

Little by little, I uncovered a landscape at once familiar and foreign.

I attended Amherst and graduated 100 years—to the year—after my great-grandfather. I’d heard stories of my grandfather, Alden’s son, singing “I’m the son of the son of the son of a DKE.” Continuing the family tradition, my grandfather also attended Amherst, graduating in 1927. He died before I was born, leaving behind a luminous, brilliant and absentminded ghost. In a faint way, I wanted to get to know him.

I am (as far as I know) the first woman in this long line of Amherst students. (My mother was, of course, not allowed even to apply.) But I also grew up in Northern California, a perennially forgetful place a literal continent away from Massachusetts, and attended Amherst on scholarship. (Missionaries, however monied their own families, don’t tend to leave many funds behind.) And even though the letters passed on an undeniable sense of legacy, I didn’t quite know what to make of that legacy.

As an Amherst student, Tess Taylor noticed a photo in the Alumni Gymnasium of her "mysterious grandpa"—John Clark, fourth from left—who was on the tennis team.

As a college student, I didn’t really think of Amherst as a land of grandfatherly ancestors, of old New England roots. Nevertheless, Amherst inescapably invited me into a family conversation. There was my mysterious grandpa in his tennis costume on the gymnasium wall. He seemed dapper and winsome. I liked the look of him. He rooted me somehow to this strange new institution I was attending. I felt confused about what to make of this patrimony. Heck, I wasn’t sure I even liked patrimony. But as a Berkeley kid coming east to a (mostly preppy) college, I had enough on my mind decoding the present.

The summer I read the letters, I discovered that I wasn’t the first in my family to “come East to college.” Alden’s father, John Bates Clark, had traveled back from the Minneapolis prairie to become a member of the Amherst Class of 1878. (His parents had settled in the prairie during the 1860s. My great-great-grandmother’s obituary says she “survived the Indian raids”—a biased and now totally un­savory way of describing the decimation of the Sioux.)

Back East, the missionary college that Bates Clark attended—thought to be a good alternative now that Harvard was more secular—was itself secularizing and expanding. Like elsewhere in the post-Civil War North, it was becoming more commercial, more cosmopolitan. Bates Clark exemplifies this Amherst. He was one of its first economics students, using work he began at the college to develop models of measuring marginal value—models he hoped might mediate the late 19th century’s ever-present struggles between labor and industry. In the 1880s he taught at Smith. In the 1890s, Bates Clark, by then a faculty member in Amherst’s economics department, built the yellow house on Snell Street that Professor Austin Sarat now occupies. Alden Clark, Bates Clark’s son, grew up in that house with his brothers and sister before they moved to New York City when Bates Clark, by then a rising star in the economics world, got a job at Columbia. (Economics aficionados will know the economics prize named after him; Lawrence Summers recently won it.) I didn’t know any of this really, or if I did, I only dimly cared. Somewhere in my grandmother’s attic was Bates Clark’s moldering, moth-eaten academic robe. But a hundred years later, I lived at the Zü without knowing that my great-great-grandfather had built the house next door.

Alden was part of a fresh revival of the earlier 19th-century evangelical spirit that had guided the college thus far—one that was capturing a whole new generation. (Indeed, as a religious adviser to DKE, Alden kept a notebook listing “some absurd things I can do for Christ,” in which he promises to “fight for the non-drinking rule in the fraternity house”—a promise perhaps unfamiliar to more recent DKE experience.) Alden and May bonded by reading a then-
popular book by John R. Mott, who hoped that, with a great influx of youthful effort, the entire world could be converted to Christianity within 30 years. This vision captured my great-grandparents, and they were not alone—Mott’s movement compelled a whole generation.

Alden (seated) and Mary with their three children in 1934

Indeed, as well as revolving around Amherst and Smith, Alden and May’s courtship also revolved around departing the Pioneer Valley. The Congregational Church called them to India. They planned their marriage accordingly and spent the three years of their engagement learning Hindi and Marathi in seminary. Almost immediately after they were married in 1904, they embarked on a six-week voyage to Maharashtra in west India. They had signed on for a minimum term of five years. In an area with about 90 small villages totaling 50,000 people, they worked to establish schools and churches and later a college and neighborhood house. The couple lived in Maharashtra for 14 years. Their three children—John (my grandfather), Bill and Mary—were born there.

Even though I never knew my Grandpa John, I always felt we had something in common: we’d both grown up part of the time in the same far away place. After spending much of his childhood in India, my grandfather became a philosopher at Colby College and spent his sabbaticals in India meeting and studying with Indian philosophers. John was a vocal supporter of Indian independence (my great-grandfather was apparently more doubtful) and during the 1950s he created a program at Colby to bring in visiting philosophers from India and to increase East/West dialogue. My grandparents’ house in Waterville, Maine, was a rest-stop for international travelers, who became lifelong friends. And John’s children—my mother, aunt and uncle—spent formative years in India. The India bug caught on, and my mother, in her turn, became an Indian historian. She also took me to live in India as a child. I knew very well that whatever had called my great-grandparents to India had been transformative to my family. I had a dim sense that India and Amherst were linked by a thread I didn’t understand.

Indeed, I had a lot to unpack in the letters. As it happened, there were clues in more than one New England attic. Alden and May’s legacy lived on in a variety of boxes belonging to a number of second cousins. I made a small tour of New England houses, meeting relatives and raiding their boxes. I spent a week at my mom’s cousin Joanie’s summer house poring over old photos. The cousins themselves started re-reading the letters and unearthing more. The collection grew.

The letters—mostly between Alden and May, but also from their parents and to their children—were fragile, sometimes in tatters. The collection balances a jumbled history writ large with a great deal of ephemera. Much of it circles around ghosts of Amherst past: class reunions, evenings in Northampton, the exuberance of young love. Here’s Alden, age 22, organizing something called the YMCA Ice-Cream Rush: “It’s a great thing among the sophomores to see who can eat all the ice cream.” But the feeding frenzy also served a religious purpose: after stuffing their faces, the freshman would register their decision to “live a Christian life in college.” Letters show Alden planning a trip to Boston that is partly to “do some good” and partly to visit May, his now-graduated sweetheart. In the familiar tone of an earnest-but-privileged do-gooder, Alden writes: “If my rather limited salary is not all gone I intend to spend a week in the South End House with Woods, whom I know. I think he would help me form some new ideas about the people in the slums of our cities.”

Some letters are just funny. After May accepts Alden’s marriage proposal, he writes her: “I did not dare shout because classes are held above me. But I did other things among which was the cracking of both panels of my door. My hand is sore now, but I had to have some outlet. Then I went and translated Greek with such a smile on my face that the whole class was puzzled.” (I can imagine this young man bashing the doors of some antique room in North College. As an adviser to DKE and as YMCA chaplain, he lived in a dorm, apparently—go figure.) A flower lies pressed into a love letter sent on a day nearing their wedding. And then there is a silence in the correspondence when, after marrying, the two lovers are united and embark almost immediately to a whole new continent.

A photo from a Clark album depicting the family's time in India

What’s recognizable—the landscape, the college—becomes strange by virtue of being part of another time and its different callings. In his 1922 book India on the March, Alden describes his view of Christianity as essentially democratizing, as a force that overcame inequality by stressing the common brotherhood of man. Throughout his life he would maintain that that Christianizing forces in India helped to unsettle the caste system, and that Christianity was particularly attractive to people within the lowest, “untouchable” caste. Even though I am saddened to report that he did not fully support Indian independence (he maintained that he wanted more widespread education for both women and lower castes first) he ardently defended India against others who attacked it, writing a long defense in 1911 of India’s greatness and potential in the Atlantic Monthly after a then-popular book denigrated the country. In 1936, he wrote that Gandhi’s “continued influence in the Congress Party keeps India from bloodshed.”

A postcard sent from Amherst to India in the early 1900s

Political commentaries interweave with the challenges of daily life. In India, Alden and May’s correspondence resumes. May is at home tending the children while Alden travels around in Bombay and Pune. The marriage is marked by a great deal of separation, along with the sudden deaths of babies and friends, reported often in matter-of-fact language: “Cholera strikes. The Smith baby dead. We are disinfecting strenuously.” Alden reports his progress in Marathi, sends rudimentary notes in Hindi and “tries to build a home for his May.” Sometimes he deals with a “wild cow” (common enough in India) or reports about another missionary who “had a breakdown from overwork and suddenly died.” (Again, dry language belies great stress.) Other letters describe the famines (worsened by the British colonial tax system) sweeping the villages. Some letters reveal elements of the caste and class system in which Alden and May were themselves inextricably involved: Alden writes about “keeping the sugar locked up so that the servants don’t take it.”

A postcard from Amherst to India

Ephemera snags in the bigger historical tides. A family friend sent a collection of postcards from Amherst to Ahmednagar between 1904 and 1907, wishing Alden home again. The college’s familiar landscape is postmarked with Indian directives. In another letter, my grandfather, age 7 or so, writes crookedly misspelled lines to his traveling dad: “Dear Daddy: I wish you could hury up and come here.” The letters innocently chatter along—and then suddenly become witness to their moment’s wider vistas. As Alden, the ambitious young minister to the world, says when he embarks for a missionary conference on Feb. 27, 1902, “It makes me feel that I am part of a great world movement.”

“Great world movements” swirl in the letters, though not exactly the movements Alden meant. In the summer of 1914, Bates Clark (by this time an economic adviser to Woodrow Wilson) was in the midst of peace negotiations in Europe, hoping to avert the coming crisis and planning next to attend a conference sponsored by the newfound Carnegie Institute on the role churches might play in securing peace. (One wonders how the missionary son and the economic statesman father might have forged a common worldview vis-à-vis religion and world politics—and what role Amherst’s teachings might have played in its development.)

Letters arrived in India marked "Passed Censor. Bombay."

We can wonder or infer, but we don’t get answers. Instead, life intervenes. The elder Clark would have attended the Carnegie conference on July 31, 1914, but on that very day, World War I broke out. Instead of receiving a letter about the church’s role in world diplomacy, Alden receives (weeks later) a rushed note from his mother, Myra, saying that his father is safely on one of the last trains from Belgium to Switzerland. The following month, Bates Clark writes from Lucerne to Maharashtra: “Dear Alden, I have little idea whether this will reach you, but I learn that the only outlet for mail from Switzerland which is now open will be closed the 8th. I have read that Italy has refused to help Germany and Austria has declared itself neutral.” The letter arrived in India, but the envelope was marked, “Open under Martial Law” and “Passed Censor. Bombay,” in deep purple ink. A month or so later, a telegraph from New York to India marked out, “All home well –Clark.”

Alden and May spent the entirety of World War I in a distant colony. And even after that, their letters at times record a dutiful loneliness. They came home on furlough in 1918, but Alden returned to India for the better part of the next decade. May stayed behind to see their children through high school in the United States. The family, minus Alden, returned to the Pioneer Valley. John and Bill attended Deerfield and then Amherst. Mary attended Smith. In typed letters to his children at college, Alden describes his mission work and hunting trips, as well as his meetings with a new force in Maharashtra—the activist Mohandas Gandhi. Indeed, Alden was working in the central districts in which the Indian independence movement was forming. In the years after the war, the very empire in which Alden worked was in question. In 1928, fully 19 years before Indian independence, Alden reports early Indian resistance to the formation of a British Government Commission.

The letters weave between the Pioneer Valley and India, and so, as I read, did my mind. They exemplify wider history—documenting the lives, journeys and musings of just one of the many missionary families Amherst produced. A photograph of my small grandfather in his topi in a distant colony also documents a worldview, a history, a wider cultural moment. My family reflects a class of settlers and pioneers who came to Amherst for a religious education and whose politics, influence and sense of mission were forged in response to a religious call. The letters began to feel like a core sample of one long strand of Amherst’s life.

Taylor in front of the house on Snell Street in Amherst that her great-great-grandfather built

I read these letters as a writer—I’ve included fragments of them in a current collection of my poetry (see “Attic Boxes,” page 31)—and as a family member to whom these ghosts are vital, generative, fascinating. I tried to decode what these ghosts of Amherst past might tell me about Amherst’s present. My answers were mixed. Although I don’t have any Amherst friends who feel called “to convert the world” in the way Alden did, I recognize something in the best part of the spirit he embraced. The very idea of a liberal arts education is steeped in the language of using one’s time to develop an intellectual (if not specifically spiritual) calling. Amherst’s chapel is now devoted to English—to liberal art, to time spent learning to hone the life as lived in language and ideas. The idea that Amherst students should find and use a call (intellectual or spiritual) to light up the world—and to change it—is at the heart of the college’s deepest ideals, even if we may have very different ideas about which global lamps to light.

Nevertheless, reading the letters, I also felt how much the college has changed, and not merely in its reorientation away from “missionary calling.” Amherst has struggled and continues to challenge itself to become more diverse, more inclusive. I admit I am uncomfortable with the ways in which Alden’s missionary work aligned itself with colonial action. And it was hard to forget, as I read, that I was looking in on an era of patriarchs, a time in which the works of men outstripped those of women, even though the women had clearly buttressed the men. What about May, who married Alden after that fateful evangelical revival? When we as a family came to Amherst last spring to donate our letters to Archives and Special Collections at Frost Library, my mother’s cousin Joanie (Alden and May’s granddaughter, who attended Smith) reminded us that in devoting so much attention to the long Amherst line represented in these letters, we were privileging the men in our family history. We had taken less care to figure out about the women. “After all,” she said, “the courtship—and the missionary activities—started at Smith.” (This makes sense: being a missionary itself might have seemed like one of the more liberating options for an ambitious young woman at the turn of the century.) I agreed. We all looked at the sloping postmarks one more time, reread a few of the love letters and then passed them on to be part of Amherst’s wider story about itself.

Last year, when my grandmother died, we all attended her funeral at the cottage in Maine. My mother recounted how my grandmother had fared as the wife of a Colby professor on leave in India and how my grandmother had become a host to the myriad Indian philosophers my grandfather had welcomed to 1950s Maine. Then my mother recited a poem by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, which we all have come to love: “When I go from hence, let this be my parting word/ that what I have seen is unsurpassable/ I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus/ that expands on the ocean of light/ and thus am I blessed—let this be my parting word.”

I reflected on the inadvertent loves and passions Alden and May set in motion 100 years ago. They set out to change the world by lighting up India, but more than Alden’s legacy to India, I feel in my family India’s legacy to us. I wonder if this, too, is part of “lighting up the world”—the afterglow of being reciprocally lit by it.

Tess Taylor’s first collection of poems, The Misremembered World, was published by the Poetry Society of America. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker and other publications. She currently writes Stanza, the Barnes & Noble Review’s column on poets and poetry, and is the 2010-11 Amy Clampitt Fellow in Lenox, Mass.

Photo credits: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Clark family, Samuel Masinter '04

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