By Robert Bagg ’57
Now 91, Wilbur is a John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at Amherst.
Richard Wilbur remembers, midafternoon in North dorm on Sept. 21, 1938, watching the soundless wind through a thick-paned door window as it pulled—like a giant—“huge trees out of the quad by their roots.” This storm, a Category Five with winds greater than 186 miles per hour when it roared up the Connecticut River, toppled some 500 trees at the college alone and became the inevitable source of a nickname––the Hurricane Class––for Amherst ’42. The class studied for four years in an increasingly violent world, aware they would likely play a central role in the war already engulfing Europe.
While unprepared for the hurricane, Wilbur was ready for the camaraderie and shared interests he quickly found at Amherst, having grown up with his family on an isolated but sheltering gentleman’s farm in North Caldwell, N.J. Its owner, Joshua Dickinson Armitage, an expat British industrialist, had gathered as tenants a few friends and relatives with whom to enjoy its amenities: home-grown vegetables, eggs, pork and beef; flower gardens and fruit orchards; horses; a tennis court and two bowling lawns. With no age-mates living near the Armitage farm, Wilbur pursued solitary interests—shortwave radio, cryptography, merit badges—and developed a penchant for pied piping at grammar school in nearby Essex Fells. Once, during recess, he led his schoolmates in 14 circuits of the school building before the alarmed principal called a halt. In seventh grade his interest in scary words and deeds led him to found a “Death Club” whose sole agenda was to initiate new members.
This need to disconcert, vividly exercised during his editorship of Montclair High’s newspaper, found fresh scope at Amherst, where Wilbur soon defined himself as an outspoken pacifist who felt the United States should neither declare war against Nazi Germany nor provide military aid to the British Empire. As a columnist and cartoonist for The Amherst Student, the inveterate provocateur in him seized the role of campus wit and political pundit. In the April 10, 1939, Student, for instance, under the byline “Lenin,” Wilbur published an interview with Earl Browder, secretary general of the American Communist Party and its presidential candidate in 1940: “Likeable, practical, and in dead earnest, Mr. Browder is an excellent argument against the popular idea of the American radical.”
Wilbur attributes his early radical bent to an adolescent relish for asserting contrarian positions, and he regards his socialist and pacifist attitudes as more opportunistic than carefully thought through. But the sophistication and logic with which he asserted leftist ideas in the Student and Touchstone (Amherst’s New Yorker-ish magazine) remain impressive. His aversion to middle class smugness and unfettered capitalism had been heightened by witnessing the Depression’s effects firsthand: In the summer of 1940 he left the farm behind to hitchhike and ride boxcars through 46 states, sharing meals, stories and songs with drifters and hard-luck families at their roadside encampments.
Today, Wilbur’s legacy is not that of a pacifist or socialist but that of a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate. From the vantage afforded by his 70-year career, his lifelong imaginative practice has been to assert, within the flow of life and thought, an unexpected, often religious, coherence and significance—whether as an Amherst freshman when, for him, the mysterious presence that was uprooting trees coalesced in an image of awe for nature’s powers, or three and a half years later, when the attack on Pearl Harbor shook his confidence that pacifism was the surest cure for war.
When normal campus activities resumed after the hurricane, Wilbur joined Chi Psi, the college’s most athletic fraternity. Though he never played a team sport in high school, his commute—seven miles each way, two of which he spent jogging across fields—enhanced his running and jumping skills. Thinking he ought somehow to demonstrate his physical prowess to his fraternity brothers, he signed up for boxing lessons at the gym. When bruises and black eyes appeared, the football team’s center, Gene Hubbard ’41, expressed puzzlement: “We didn’t pledge you to be an athlete; we expected your grades would lift the house average.”
They didn’t—at least not until junior year. Wilbur’s ambition to become chairman of the Student took precedence over academics in his first two years at Amherst. Aspirants to the paper’s high office began as freshman reporters, and so Wilbur published news stories—a few were straight-faced accounts of imaginary happenings —as well as caricatures of familiar campus types indulging themselves (Dekes drinking, Betas brawling, Phi Psis sipping tea). His front-page account of a pro-FDR parade in Northampton during the 1940 presidential campaign was both partisan and triumphal, despite its blithe tone:
We marched clamorously around the [Smith] campus, 200 strong, and before we were through there were 300 of us, whether drawn to us through Democratic leanings or boredom I have no idea. Occasional groups of Mongoloids hissed the gaudy caravan, or shouted “we want W–––” [Wendell Willkie, FDR’s Republican opponent]; in the quadrangle we had to hold our placards over our heads to avoid the water bombs of misguided Smithlings.
Wilbur was also a reliable source of topical light verse. One pair of poems, from a May 1939 Student, offers advice to prom-goers. The first is titled “Mens Rooms.”
When the collar hangs askew
And the necktie drips awry,
When the forehead glows with dew,
And creeps a glaze upon the eye,
Pause, my friend, and think upon
The virtues of the simple john.
Tis there the harassed male retreats
To set his sorrowing soul aright,
To still his heart’s impassioned beats
And turn with courage to the fight.
Friend, who has not restored his soul
Before the simple washing-bowl?
The second reads like a warning to potential dance partners.
The thing that makes me
Chew my nails
Is girls who wear angora
When I’m wearing tails.
These poems hardly presage the somber and ambitious work he would begin when he entered combat in Italy, but both—indeed, all of his college poems—exhibit his commitment to writing poetry that is intelligible, agreeable, witty and rousingly rhymed. His columns and editorials frequently recoiled from the savagery about to transform him, his friends, the college, the country and the (insufficiently) civilized world. They also displayed a social consciousness that underlies a prescient sentence he wrote, while in basic training, to Amherst English Professor Theodore Baird in early 1943: “Most war poetry shd. deal with the one and the many, is my guess.” He implies that it should extend beyond the soldier-poets, their opinions and suffering, to include the civilians among whom and for whom the war was being fought. When Wilbur finally saw action at the Rapido River and Monte Cassino in Italy, he took his own advice.
Editors-in-chief of the Student, then as now, oversee the competition among their would-be successors. During the fall of 1940 the job of overseer fell to Robert Morgenthau ’41, son of President Roosevelt’s secretary of the treasury and future long-serving district attorney for Manhattan (see “Law & Order in Real Life,” Winter 2011 Amherst magazine). Morgenthau assigned editorials and other tasks to the two juniors vying for the editorship, Wilbur and Miner D. Crary Jr. ’42.
In addition to his work on the Student, Morgenthau had founded the Amherst Political Union to sponsor appearances by national figures (including Eleanor Roosevelt). The Student treated their speeches—and others by professors, politicians, pacifists and interventionists—as front-page news. Wilbur sometimes quoted and dissected these speeches in his Student editorials and Touchstone columns, many of which were vehemently anti-interventionist. A March 1941 editorial, for example, used the metaphor of a runaway toboggan to denounce what he saw as FDR’s maneuvering to drive the nation into war. Wilbur was just as biting when editorializing about campus matters: He denounced a student-body vote on fraternity hazing that “brought back the institution of paddling in all its medieval glory,” and he praised Smith President Herbert Davis (in obvious contrast to Amherst President Stanley King) for arguing that higher education’s goal should be to “produce free spirits, and to let them work freely.”
Wilbur in his days as Student editor
Wilbur’s editorial stance angered some students, quite a few faculty members and alumni, and President King, who had served in the Woodrow Wilson administration as an adviser at Versailles and as an envoy to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Wilbur’s boldness and pungency as an editorial writer made him the front-runner for the editorship. And his radical positions on political issues did not deter Morgenthau from backing Wilbur to succeed him in January 1941.
A few months after he became editor, Wilbur met, in a Manhattan bar, a U.S. sailor on leave from patrolling the North Atlantic. This soldier confirmed Wilbur’s suspicions that Roosevelt sought to provoke the Germans into attacking an American warship, thus committing a casus belli to which the United States could legitimately respond by declaring war. Wilbur quoted the sailor in the April 1941 Touchstone: “We’ve been hanging around in waters trying to create an incident. We’ve had orders to fire on anything that looks remotely like a German U-boat. The whole crew is nervous as hell; it’s no fun just lying around hoping to be shot at.”
During his watch as Student editor, Wilbur maintained not only his opposition to America’s entering the war but also his composure, retaining within his scathing editorials his ability to startle, amuse and discomfit, as well as to enlighten. If Amherst’s mission was to produce lucid and independent thinkers who couldn’t be intimidated, Wilbur exemplified its success.
Yet Amherst’s president continued to disapprove of him, and Wilbur’s published barbs, such as this one in Touchstone, must have stung King: “I am told that most all authors … of letters [protesting compulsory chapel] in the ‘Student’ have been hauled onto the Presidential mat. I also hear that schoolboy pranks of any sort will be punished with immediate expulsion. A little more of this and I shall feel guilty about smiling in public.”
In this cartoon, from the student magazine
Touchstone in March 1940, Wilbur caricatured
familiar campus types.
Wilbur resisted King’s expectation that Amherst undergraduates be automatic patriots and on occasion satirized him as a warmonger––in print, and by name. King wasn’t the only Amherst worthy that Wilbur caricatured. In a cartoon that, if published, might have gotten Wilbur expelled, he depicted Professor of History Lawrence Packard as Don Quixote astride a reluctant donkey, armed with a long, pen-tipped lance, about to charge a windmill whose four fan blades are configured as a swastika. Cooler heads (perhaps Wilbur’s own) suppressed that cartoon, but it remains today a white-hot flashpoint in Wilbur’s campaign against a war he believed the United States shouldn’t fight.
Wilbur did publish, in the February 1941 Touchstone, a prose satire in which President King calls an all-college meeting in Johnson Chapel to announce that, because Congress seemed reluctant to enter the war on Britain’s side, Amherst would: “By virtue of the authority vested in me by the trustees of this college, I hereby declare war on Nazi Germany!” After revealing to the docile assembly that he has hired a battleship, the satirized King personally leads the student body on a forced march to board the privateer in Boston Harbor and sail her into battle. With a typewriter as his weapon, Wilbur was a pacifist who took no prisoners.
Despite Wilbur’s high profile as an editor and honor society member (both Sphinx and Scarab), his social life at Amherst languished. He’d invited two high school girlfriends for prom weekends, but by halfway through his junior year, he knew hardly any Mount Holyoke or Smith women he could ask out. Then, in March 1941, he met Charlee Ward, the poetry editor of Smith’s literary magazine, on a blind date.
He picked her up at Sessions House, the college residence on Elm Street where Charlee lived. There, gentlemen callers waited in the first-floor drawing room while the women upstairs were notified by house phone that their dates had arrived. Dick stood as Charlee entered the room, and they set out on foot. Within seconds she took his hand.
In the pre– and post–World War II eras, housemates and fraternity brothers matched their college friends intuitively, without the questionnaires and algorithms now in vogue. Optimism concerning such pairings wasn’t universal, as The Tatler, Smith’s humor magazine, observed in 1940: “Someone once heard of a girl who married a man she met on a blind date, but it was probably pure fantasy.” Charlee had made her own specs clear, at least to herself, long before Smith: She wanted to marry an Amherst man (as both her father and grandfather had been), one prominent on campus, and a poet whose first name was Richard (as in Coeur de Lion). Once in a while, fantasy prevails.
Charlee recognized Dick as a “racehorse,” that era’s term for a man who would lead the pack in any race he entered. But although he was 6 feet, 2 inches tall, with a striking presence, many accomplishments and an engaging manner, he had, as he recalls, “an oddness” about him, and he thought of himself as shy. Charlee was an instant cure for anyone’s shyness.
For the next few weeks they saw each other frequently in Northampton, taking walks and sometimes going out for spaghetti at Joe’s Café on Mechanic Street. One night they walked past Sessions and turned onto Round Hill Road in search of a quiet place to stop and talk. They chose a dark house (the third on the left) that looked deserted or at least asleep, climbed its steep steps and sat. Dick said he had been thinking and told Charlee he loved her. “I’ve been thinking the same thing. I love you too,” was her answer, as both indelibly recall. Caught up in the drama of what was, in those days, called “the Declaration,” Charlee missed Smith’s 10:30 p.m. curfew. Two of her housemates called out the upstairs window as she and Dick lingered in an embrace at Sessions’ back door: “Charlee, you’re late!” A Smithie who broke curfew had to ring the housemother’s private doorbell, often rousing her from sleep. But Charlee came in radiant, telling housemates that she didn’t care about the damn curfew: She and Dick were in love. A few weeks later, in the grassy hollow between the Delta Upsilon house and the Lord Jeffery Inn, Charlee accepted Dick’s Chi Psi pin. Soon a delegation of Chi Psi brothers called and serenaded her at Sessions.
Dances and other festivities in the late spring and autumn of 1941 assumed an ominous exuberance. It seemed inevitable that the United States would enter the European war sooner rather than later. President Roosevelt agreed with his advisers, who saw Hitler as a global menace to be defeated at any cost. But before joining the fight he needed to convince the American public. Americans polled evenly divided on whether or not to fight. Many adults remembered the last war’s toll, and youth of military age imagined the next. Wilbur was among those whom FDR had yet to convince; the Amherst senior remained steadfastly opposed to American involvement, believing that neutrality would spare the world horror and death on a scale hitherto unimagined.
Wilbur’s “toboggan ride” editorial had warned that FDR’s newly passed lend-lease legislation, which allowed the supplying of arms and warships to Britain, would provoke Germany to torpedo American shipping and plunge the United States into a cataclysmic world war. But no one except a few Navy codebreakers foresaw Pearl Harbor.
Driving back from Connecticut with another Smith-Amherst couple, Dick and Charlee heard, on the car radio, news of Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. When their friends dropped them off in Northampton, they headed for Joe’s. After the waitress brought spaghetti they sat numb without eating, barely talking. Giving up on their cold dinners, Dick walked Charlee to Sessions, then thumbed back to Amherst. Once in the Chi Psi Lodge, he wrote the editorial that would appear in the Dec. 8, 1941, issue of The Student—on the front page, in its own box, in large type and under the all-caps headline “NOW THAT WE ARE IN IT.”
These resolute but dispassionate words abandoned the antiwar stance Wilbur had advocated since his freshman year at Amherst. He believed he spoke for his generation, the first in history to be, as he had earlier written, “inoculated from birth with a dislike and mistrust of war.” This editorial addressed the crisis and the college in a chastened tone and faced, with ironic exactitude, the enormity of what lay ahead:
We all knew that we’d be in it soon enough, and it’s just as well that it started this week, as next. We are now relieved of the scholar’s obligation to hunt a few plain issues in the war, and can commence to act, which is simpler. ... We needn’t rhapsodize over our intervention like the editor of the Williams Record, but we should suppress our obstructing doubts ... confining our thoughts to the job before us, and to the post-war world, which it will be our great pleasure to put together. Now that we are fighting, what is needed is unanimity and determined action. … If we feel any allegiance to the race in general, we will strive to make the post-war world more hopeful and less combustive than the world of the past twenty years, to which we are now bidding a noisy farewell.
Stanley King addressed the college that same morning, in a Johnson Chapel, as the Student reported, “packed to capacity and almost electrically charged by the excitement of the Pacific situation.” King predicted a long war against “wily adversaries” but had no doubt that the “United States will mobilize at once the whole force of the nation––military, naval, air, industrial, financial.” He also warned: “The country will have no use for slackers, slackers in the service, slackers on the industrial front, slackers in the routine of daily living.” He charged the sea of faces before him to “do your work here until you are called up for service, and do it well.”
Life on campus militarized overnight. Wilbur continued to publish critiques, both of national policy and of King. And yet, on several occasions during the spring semester of his senior year, Wilbur also visited King’s office, hoping that the president, with his prior Washington experience, might help him choose his branch of service and specialty. To be able to choose, he would need to enlist before his draft notice came. Wilbur recalls how these exchanges with King usually went:
“Do you think me well qualified to join Army intelligence, sir?”
“You may have problems there.”
“How about the Infantry, sir?”
“Too much grit needed for that, lad.”
“Perhaps the Navy?”
“The gentleman’s service? That might not be a comfortable fit.”
It seemed to Wilbur that King thought him unqualified for any military employment whatever. But King’s skepticism stung less than one of his more pointed rebukes, as Wilbur remembers: “Mr. Wilbur, there are, in wartime, men willing to follow orders even when they know that doing so might cause them to be killed. I don’t believe you’re that kind of person.”
As graduation approached, Dick and Charlee weighed two options: she could finish her degree at Smith or marry Dick before he went to war. She could not easily do both, because Smith discouraged its students from marrying and in fact expelled women, even those of age, who married without their parents’ consent. Charlee chose not to complete her senior year. “When my mother came up to get me for Christmas vacation,” she recalled in 2005, “I said to her in the car, ‘You’re going to be shocked, but Dick and I have decided that we must be married.’ And, much to my astonishment, she didn’t launch any protest whatsoever. In the light of what had happened in the world, she understood it.”
Dick and Charlee Wilbur on their wedding day
Dick and Charlee married on June 20, 1942, at her mother’s summer home in Maine. The wedding party drank champagne and danced in the barn to records played on a Victrola. It was the last festive moment before their group dispersed, the men returning to their units or home to await their draft notices.
The newlyweds honeymooned in Boothbay, Maine, for only a few days before word came by telephone that the envelope from Wilbur’s draft board had arrived in North Caldwell. They immediately boarded a Pullman for Manhattan, where Wilbur enlisted in the Signal Corps Reserve, allowing the couple to live in Greenwich Village while he studied radio transmission and repair uptown and his new wife worked as a management trainee at Macy’s.
In January 1943 Dick was called to active duty, beginning a melodramatic military career that, in some ways, echoed his contrarian tendencies at Amherst. His aptitude for operating the top-secret SIGABA code machine impressed his superiors, but his outspoken radical politics caused him to be designated “Suspected Disloyal” and dismissed from the Signal Corps. Busted to buck private, sent to a replacement depot for misfits, he was suddenly reinstated in the Naples, Italy, hippodrome, to fill a battlefield vacancy as a code clerk for the 36th Texas Division. He served in Italy, France and Germany with distinction and ended the war as a staff sergeant. The 20-odd postwar columns he published in the T-Patch, the division’s newspaper, won him celebrity as a “Prose Mauldin.” Honorably discharged in late November 1945, he reunited with Charlee in Manhattan, carrying a duffel bag that contained 10 of the finest and most enduring war poems written by an American in World War II.
Wilbur’s four years at Amherst—like those of his classmates—had begun with the ravages of nature and ended in the hardship and dislocations of World War II. For the cover of the Class of ’42’s 50th reunion book, he wrote a poem (using the poetic form of his own devising called “Opposites”) whose first eight lines recall the turbulence his class encountered and overcame:
The opposite of ’42
Would be some class that never blew
With gusts and gusto into town,
And brought the trees of Amherst down;
Some class that did not celebrate
Its happy graduation date
By getting into planes and tanks
And battleships and marching ranks,
And making havoc and commotion
In many lands and either ocean.
Robert Bagg ’57 is a poet, essayist and translator of Greek drama. This article is adapted from his current work on a critical biography of Wilbur.
Top photo: © 2012 Tsar Fedorsky ’82; Second photo: Amherst College; Cartoon: Amherst Touchstone; Bottom photo courtesy of the Wilbur family