Life After Amherst?

By William H. Pritchard ’53

The secret horror of the last is inseparable from a thinking being whose life is limited and to whom death is dreadful.
—Samuel Johnson

Way back in the ’60s and ’70s of the departed century, I would occasionally think about just when I would retire from my life of teaching at Amherst. Since back then there was a mandatory retirement at age 70, I figured my number would come up around 2002, by which time I would have taught here for 45 years, a pretty good run it then seemed to me.

But fate intervened when the law decided it was unlawful for colleges and universities to fix on a specific date when professors must stop professing. So the easiest, most attractive option for me was to keep at it full steam. Not quite full steam: over the last decade I gradually lowered my course load from four to three courses a year, then—entering what is called phased retirement—to one course a semester. Having served out my Phase, I became, last June, an Emeritus, honorably discharged from service, as the dictionary has it.

But the college administration in its benignity invited me to stay on for another three years, teaching a course each term and advising the occasional honors candidate. Having completed the first year of that three-year extension, where do I find myself?

William H. Prichard ’53 in front of Johnson Chapel
Pritchard is the college’s Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus. In the coming academic year he’ll teach “Shakespeare” and “Modern British Literature, 1900–1950.”
John Goodman photo.

Dr. Johnson’s invocation of the “secret horror of the last” has always resonated with me insofar as I have been not always horrified but usually fascinated by the Last: Much of my life ever since high school has been a matter of saying: well, this is the last time I will… do this, do that, read and write about that. When the Boston Celtics began their decline back in the early 1990s, I posted a picture of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish sitting disconsolately on the bench near the end of a Boston defeat in the playoffs. I considered my 35 years of Celtic fandom all the way back to old times at the Boston Garden, sitting up near the top to watch Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn and Bill Russell. Perhaps it was now time to pronounce as over that phase of my life? Still, I hung on through the lean years at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one; then, lo and behold, there were Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to win one championship and come close to a couple of others. Now they too are gone and the question remains: how long, if at all, should I hang on through the next few lean years with the Celtics, waiting for the fat ones to come round once more?

The secret horror of the last makes me want to hang on to things generally. This past year one of my two, great, enormous KLH speakers, bought as part of a high-fidelity set in the 1950s, went on the blink. The electronics guy suggested I might get some new ones, more compact, not all that costly. No, I said, please fix the one I’ve got.

Accordingly, with both speakers now producing, plus a new amp, I’m listening to Toscanini conducting Schubert, Pollini playing Chopin, Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” as all the old music gets revived in the late afternoon, just before drink and suppertime. Speaking of drink, as we must, shouldn’t I try out a new beverage, new cocktail, something to vary the daily routine? No, there is only one drink, and it’s made with Booth’s Gin and Tribuno Dry Vermouth. How could anyone improve on that?

William H. Prichard ’53 in class, 1995. And then there is Amherst College. How has it changed over the years, how much and for better or worse? Alumni back for their reunions wonder how different things are from their undergraduate days decades ago. (“Is there still a required curriculum?” they inquire, haplessly.) When asked, I answer them in two ways, both equally true and false. The first is, Oh yes, no fraternities, coeducation, no curriculum to bother with, plenty of—I pause for the swell in the word—diversity! Then, on the other hand, no, it hasn’t really changed, still a lot of smart kids among the less so, lively classrooms, faculty who care about and read their students’ work without the benefit of teaching assistants, unlike Harvard.

Left: Pritchard in 1995. In class, he promotes the idea “that the function of literature is to instruct through pleasure.” Amherst College Archives

When I consult the course catalogue, one of the few items left deemed worthy of hard copy, I find it swollen to 600 pages, whereas 200 used to be more or less the rule. As for the courses contained therein, most of them with much too lengthy and pompous descriptions, I find this or that one—mainly in the humanities and social sciences—to be absolutely preposterous. Whoever thought that could be worth spending a semester on?

A similarly swollen expansion may be noted in the realm of athletics, a particular example being lacrosse, which at one time was a minor sport, coached rather informally by the minister of Grace Episcopal Church, a muscular Christian. Today large crowds gather Friday and Saturday afternoons for seemingly endless contests complete with amplified music (well, sort of music) and watched by older visitors with their enormous cars, families, dogs and cases of bottled water. As one who has lived for a long time across the street from Pratt Field, I see and hear this firsthand, the onetime football field, as it was called, having been replaced by a sports palace worthy of Ohio State. There are moments when I wonder whether this, along with all the other sports, is what the college is really about.

But I have no right to complain: As a teaching emeritus I have retained my office in the basement of Johnson Chapel. My IBM Selectric typewriter still serves me well, even though I have bowed to the exigencies of the 21st century and have a computer at home (courtesy, of course, of the college) where I can word-process my essays and reviews. These continue to mount up, even as reviewing outlets have shrunk. The noble Hudson Review, though read by few, now in its 56th year, continues to welcome my quarterly reports on subjects such as Jonathan Swift or Duke Ellington.

For shorter flights I depend on the friendly editors of The Weekly Standard and Commonweal magazine. The Standard is strongly Republican, but has back pages presided over by a literary editor who doesn’t require me to choose parties, just to write about books. Commonweal, a liberal Catholic journal, is also reassuringly hospitable, even though I’m no more a Romanist than a Republican.

William H. Prichard's 1953 yearbook photo When I revealed to my spouse that I was going to write something vaguely on the subject of life after Amherst, she scoffed, declaring that there was, for me, no life after Amherst. A shrewd remark, reminding me of how bound to (or stifled by) the place I have been, ever since as a 16-year-old freshman I wore my green beanie and dutifully said hello to upperclassmen. (Freshmen say hello first, was the rule.) Now I hardly speak to anyone, don’t go to faculty meetings, don’t go to department meetings, don’t have student advisees. In fact, students are to be encountered pretty much only in the classroom, since email and online resources have eliminated the need for office visitations.

Right: Pritchard’s yearbook photo from 1953. He majored in philosophy at Amherst. Amherst College Olio

As for my classroom, I do what I’ve always done, that is, I read aloud from a poem or novel and try to help students get better at becoming the kind of “ear reader” Frost admired, and to promote an idea that some students seem never to have encountered in an English course—that the function of literature is to instruct through pleasure, and that literature exists to provide supreme instances of that pleasure.

And my colleagues, where are they? Not, it seems, in Frost Library browsing for books, since everything more or less can be done at home over the wires. The digital world has triumphed: When I recently turned in my grades by hand instead of doing it online, I asked a staff member in the registrar’s office how things were going. Fine, she replied, except we miss seeing people, to which I replied that I was there handing in grades on paper so as to keep up standards. I felt even more quixotic than usual.

Shall I go on? Or have I said enough? Thus speaks the Lady in Milton’s Comus. The answer is plain to anyone who has ever been visited by a secret horror of the last.

Never Stop Writing

Excerpts from three of Pritchard’s recent book reviews

The Weekly Standard
Updike by Adam Begley
It is much to Begley’s credit that he has managed the job in 12 chapters—each of them, beginning with Updike’s upbringing in Berks County, Pennsylvania, clearly focused on and skillfully intertwining the most important events of Updike’s life and the many works that he produced as a prolific man of letters.

George Orwell: A Life in Letters
Edited by Peter Davison
Orwell was a very sick man by the time he finished rewriting and typing Nineteen Eighty-Four—much of the work done in bed and, as Davison points out, with a mechanical typewriter and the accompanying carbon copies. Rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four, as I have just done, with the picture of a desperately ill man behind the words, has increased my admiration for that strong, imperfect, painful novel.

The Hudson Review
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington
by Terry Teachout
But unless my own case is atypical, I think Ellington will continue to be listened to mainly for the short, three-minute numbers from the years 1927–1942. Teachout says about “Ko-Ko,” perhaps the most impressive and most praised recording from this period, that it constituted “a relentless procession of musical events that contained not a wasted gesture.” Repeated listenings to its propulsive excitement prompted me—as when reading a poem notable for its diction and rhythmic movement—to look for critical help in unpacking some of its richness.