Interviewed by Rand R. Cooper
August 15, 2002
Please note: This oral history contains offensive language.
[0:00] Rand R. Cooper: It's August 15, 2002. I'm Rand Cooper of the class of ‘81 and I'm here talking with William H. Pritchard about his life and times at Amherst College. Bill is the author of many books of criticism and he's a noted teacher here at Amherst College. I took numerous classes with him in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. And I'm looking forward to talking with Bill about his many experiences here at Amherst.
[0:32] William H. Pritchard: I, too.
[0:34] Pritchard: I, too. Where should we begin?
[0:36] Cooper: Well, I thought I would proceed the way your own literary biographies for the most part do and that is chronologically, but with some stops for thematic amplification, and I thought I'd make one such stop right away, and perhaps offer, a way for you to tie in some talk about your, your childhood, the pre-Amherst years. It would seem hard to overestimate the importance of sound, of what you call “playing it by ear,” to your approach, if that's the right word, to literature. You've written an essay on ear training, and throughout your career, you've returned to this theme, citing a lifelong preference for the primary sensuous claims made by words and music rather than their secondary significations of meaning. Frost's notions of the vital sentence, the sound of sense, there's the influence on you early on of B. H. Haggin, who was a music critic. There's the admiration you've expressed of various teachers who took the words off the page and brought them to life through the speaking voice. Um, in an essay you wrote, a dismissive one on Stephen Spender, you remarked, “forget the content of the poem’s second stanza, and just listen to how it sounds.” I wonder if you might shed some light on the abiding importance of the ear of music in your literary values and procedures. And if, if you would, you might bring in what you will of your early years in Johnson City, New York, where your musical mother's influence would seem to loom large as an early ear trainer, and an era whose popular melodies still, it seems, visit you on the occasion of sleepless night all these decades later on. I'm, I’m thinking about, an obscure lyric that you mentioned in, in English Papers
[2:37] Pritchard: “East Side of Heaven.”
[2:38] Cooper: –”I know an angel on the east side of heaven.”
[2:41] Pritchard: First lyric I ever remember was “Swanee River,” which, uh, my mother, to whom you refer, she just passed away last year at age 100, sang to me one morning or one, one evening, I don’t know what it was.
[2:54] But, yeah, she was pretty, pretty central to my life as a listener to music and certainly as a pianist. She began, she began my lessons, she never taught me officially but suggested very strongly that I would want to study the piano when I was age 4 and 10 months, I guess. Found the teacher for me, in Binghamton, came along to the lessons and unfailingly paid attention, listened to what I was playing. She'd be in the kitchen, making dinner, I'd be in the living room practicing and she’d call out–I've told the story before–she’d say, “Oh, stop, play that once more, hands alone, play that once more hands alone.” So, that was part, I guess, of, of where the, where the ear training began. And as a, as a pianist, it seems odd to me now, and I feel sorry about it, I had teachers who tried to get me interested in theoretical and structural issues in music and harmony and in matters of ear training, counter point, and theory and I actively resisted these, somehow didn't think that was to the point. The point was just to keep in touch with the pieces and, uh, and to listen to and to play those so that I somehow think, maybe half jokingly, that part of my anti-theoretical biases that sometimes revealed itself in later years had some kind of early start in my childhood.
[4:36] Um, but yeah, there was that and there was one formative summer when I finally got sent away from home to camp. My parents didn't believe, especially my father, that children needed to go anyplace in the summer; he wanted them around, close to him. So I stayed home most summers but, uh, I did go as a, as a ninth grader, I guess it was, 1945, to a kind of broken-down music camp in the Catskills called the Ernest Williams Music Camp. And it was there that I discovered classical music. And it was there that I heard, on the first night feeling homesick, Mother had left and I was– I was there for six weeks, heard the orchestra rehearsing the prelude to Die Meistersinger, and it was, it was a great, it was a great moment. So those are a couple of, of moments, I guess, of early ear bias and I think it's it's true that even– that still, my teaching must be such, and the kind of tasks that I set for students the kind of questions I asked, must somehow just a little bit cater to those who do have a good ear for music because I've been aware, recently and before, of the number of good students–good readers of poetry in my class who in fact, also play the bassoon or sing in the choir, you know, it's, it's certainly not necessary. And I don't think you were a musician yourself particularly?
[6:11] Cooper: No, no, not.
[6:12] Pritchard: And you were fine. Better than fine.
[6:16] Cooper: Well, yeah, I was not a musician. In fact, I had been a notable failure as one in many years of piano lessons. But, but, I do recognize, as a writer, a certain way of being interested in words for their own sake, in their color, their shape, their sound, in properties other than their content. And that seems to have been a fundamental orientation for you. I wonder, I know that your tastes in music have been eclectic. You have played classical piano and still continue to do so, still perform. Is that right? You used to give– [[Crosstalk]] You gave recitals–
[7:01] Pritchard: Five years ago was the last– five years ago– It gets harder the older you get, the more nervous you get. But I also did a little little jazz playing at, at reunion, the Delta Five, which was a Dixie New Orleans organization of 50 years ago, and which I played not regularly with but at times, had a remeeting and gave a little concert in Buckley recital hall to the excitement of many returning alumni and I sat in for two numbers terribly nervous, but did not disgrace myself even though I almost did not quite get the chords to Sweet Georgia Brown, but it was alright, I saw it and heard it afterwards. So yeah, I've done that.
[7:47] Cooper: I wonder what you might say about what a musical orientation and ear training constitute or dictate when it comes to literary study. So in, in a less literal sense than valuing students who are–who are also musicians themselves, what, what is this orientation that values the claims made by words and music rather than their secondary significations of meaning. I mean, that seems on the face of it a little bit–a little bit odd to say that the secondary signification of language is its meaning.
[8:31] Pritchard: This, this could–this bias could issue in mere preciousness, that is, you know, you talk about Milton, you say, “well, doesn't matter what Milton is saying and Paradise Lost, but the magnificent organ tones of the, of the verse are what we care about” and, and that–that's perverse and silly. We care very much about what Milton is saying. Not just what Milton is saying, but what Frost is saying or Rand Cooper is saying and his story. But that saying always, as you will know, always comes across as voiced, as somehow– even when there isn't much of a voice as in a poem of Wallace Stevens where you can't find many interesting dramatic notable shifts in tone and inflection, where everything is more or less set in the same intoning apocryphal voice, but that's, that's another part of, of how the work, how the poetry comes across. So I use the word “performance,” I've used it to death, but I'm interested, and I care about, and I want my students to care about what I call the “literary performance,” and that performance always involves significantly how it’s said, how it sounds, what sort of, what sort of auditory demands and claims it makes on us.
[10:09] I mean, I suppose that there are writers– When does it, when does it not matter so much? Maybe it doesn't matter so much in, in a novel in translation by Dostoevsky where you're really you know, you're really paying attention there to themes and ideas, rather than, rather than inflection and or maybe the– to stay in the same language: Dreiser. Theodore Dreiser would seem to be a novelist, in Sister Carrie, where you read him and you pay attention to what the inside of a hotel in Chicago is like, or, or what Hurstwood’s flat on– Coldwater flat on Third Avenue is like, rather than paying attention to the sounds and shapes of words, but those are I think those are extreme. Those are examples over at the end of one side or one end of the spectrum.
[11:03] Cooper: Conrad in, in the preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” where he puts forth his, his statement of purpose, as it were, as an artist, refers to his aim above all to make you see, above all to make you see. And it's interesting to me that it's not by and large, the visual, the visual sense, and the visual properties of literature and our imaginative engagement of it that have provided the coherence for you, in a life devoted to literature. Actually, far from it. And so to go perhaps a bit away from the more musical writers and something like Dreiser, well, alright, we can look around there, but when we get to we get to the more elaborately compressed kinds of literature whether it's short fiction or lyric poetry, it seems to become correspondingly more musical.
[11:53] Pritchard: Yeah, well, it's interesting you quote, you quote Conrad, the function of above all to make you see. And but in fact, in fact, Conrad is, as you know, and everybody knows, is a master of weaving rhetorical patterns and vocal exhibitions of great sonic power and half the time in Conrad, you can't see anything at all, you know, try to look into the Heart of Darkness, and all you're hearing is this voice going on and on.
[12:24] Cooper: Yes. All right. Taking you, bringing you now to, to Amherst. The college you arrived at as a presumably precocious 16-year-old in the fall of 1949, now seems quaintly historical, with its 1,000 dollar tuition, six days a week classes, its 850 students and a handbook that noted “conduct befitting a gentleman is expected at all times.” In English Papers, your memoir, you title the Amherst chapter “Earthly Paradise.” And you say you were enchanted here. “For me,” you write,”there had been nothing like it before, and truth to tell, there has been nothing quite like it since.” I'll get to some of the personalities next. But first, can you give us the view of this mid-century collegiate world, this paradise that you as a 16-year-old showed up in. And what was it like to be an Amherst freshman, an Amherst man in that now-distant fall of 1949?
[13:31] Pritchard: Well, it was pretty intimidating. And I was thinking last night, I thought about this interview a little bit, about, about what did we do during orientation week now? Orientation week, freshman orien– first year student orientation week in Amherst 2002 is a fearsome display of one event after another and endless, I think, instructive symposia and colloquia on such matters as diversity and every– and health, and sex, and sexuality–a word we didn't know–and everything else under the sun. Our orientation week consisted mainly of being instructed by a sophomore in the intricacies of the freshman-sophomore rivalry, and the water fight that would ensue some night in September. Already, I was scared. I didn't want to have a water fight, or the rope pull that would take place in October and so on. There was very, very little attempt to–except in the most general kind of inspiring way, “you are now college men,” college boys, I don't think we were even called men–to do much, to do much for us. And the result was, I remember we sat around for the three or four days, it wasn't too long, mainly playing cards, playing bridge and poker and ping pong in the basement of James Hall. And very rarely did you see a student–certainly I wasn't one of them–who was sitting there reading, reading a book. So we were a kind of feckless lot, didn't know what was coming, except–speaking for myself–that this was going to be serious. And my father told me it would be the best years of my life, that's what college was supposed to be. And I suppose I kind of believed it in advance. But then classes began, and this was something extraordinary. For the first time in my life, I didn't understand what people on the other side of the desk sometimes were saying to me, and not just because, not just in a phys–and of course in physics, where I really hadn't a clue–but in humanities and English composition, where supposedly I'd been trained to understand and to make intelligent answers to what the teacher was, was going on about. So it was that shock of dislocation and confusion and excitement that was, was the great thing about freshman year. And the endless conversations and arguments that both sessions– as they were called–that resulted from the fact that we were all taking the same courses, writing, answering similar or the same questions, assignments, so that we lived in everybody, everybody lived in everybody else's pocket. Not always with the best of motives, you know, you'd find out that someone down the hall had the scoop on the English 1 course. So go down to Marshall Terry's room and ask him what was going on in assignment eight. So that was the ignoble part of it, but, but there were better, there were better parts of it. And we, we worked very hard. We, we trekked over to Converse Hall, Converse Library as it then was, we trekked over to Converse Hall, not- not a particularly inspiring feeling, Sunday night after dinner, to read the history or to work on our English compositions or to get through the pages and in the Iliad that had been assigned for Humanities the next day. And, and it was very much a matter of, I think of doing the assignment, reading the books, there wasn't time with so many courses to do much more than your required work, if you could do that. So that browsing in the library, which was something that I learned to do later on, took quite a while before it even occurred to me that that's what, partly what libraries were for.
[18:01] Cooper: It's interesting to me that you identify enchantment, to use your word, with the shock of dislocation and the excitement of not understanding. And, and I don't mean in the Physics classes, but I mean particularly and this is where I'd like to direct us now, particularly in the English classes. You've referred to Amherst English as you encountered it then as “a bold and inventive approach to the teaching of writing, probably the most inventive one ever tried at an American college or university.” Now, the centerpiece of this bold and inventive approach to the teaching of writing was, of course, English 1. The composition course in which you were taught by Armour Craig, but I understand that that the course itself was the creation of Theodore Baird. You called this “the most radically upsetting course” in the new curriculum. Perhaps you might talk a bit about the shock of dislocation that that course in particular brought you, why it was radical and bold, and how it in some way defines Amherst for you, that period.
[19:20] Pritchard: Well, it was a course without any books, there were no reading assignments. The work of the course consisted of nothing more or less than writing a one-and-a-half to two page composition three times a week handed in, in class Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 o'clock for me.
[19:39] Cooper: Three papers a week, every student?
[19:40] Pritchard: Three papers a week, three papers a week and, and the substance of one class, say of the Wednesday's class, would be the papers that we had handed in on Monday. And examples from these, a paragraph or less, some sentences would be made up thanks to the trusty mimeograph machine and hand it out in the following class and then we would be invited to talk about these. Armour Craig would ask us questions about them. And sometimes the samples that were shown in class that were made up–always anonymously–were very, very good ones. More often than not they were, they were not so good, or they were ways of not getting it right, not–not to have a, of flatulence, I guess is the word, and, and certainly I came to Amherst as a high school valedictorian full of flatulence. My, my valedictory oration in high school was titled “Health.” I didn't give a–you know, I didn't care about health at all. I had health; I didn't need to think about health! I wasn't sick. But that was an important issue, you know, socialized medicine in 1949, some teachers said “you will speak, won't you, upon health.” Other, other honors people in the class spoke about equally exciting topics. Safety for example, safety. I forget what the third was. At any rate, we could, I could write on anything. You know, the Bill of Rights, or what America means to me, or the flag or health or maybe even safety, and churn out a page or so of bullshit and, and get rewarded for it, I'm afraid. And suddenly this was all over. I didn't get rewarded for it. Even when I was doing my, doing my hardest and there was one moment on one of the assignments–I can't remember what the question was–but where, at the end of the paper, Armour Craig had written in his beautifully legible hand: “Well, there you are, up in heaven, looking down and pronouncing on–” x or y. “But all I want you to do is tell me what you did, where you were, what you saw, when you–” and so on. So that there was always this bring down from the flatulent from the, from the Jesus Christ-ly other-world perspective to, to the present, or to the past, to somebody saying, “Well what happened now, let's, let's be a little more thoughtful about that, let's see if you can find some words to describe that moment when you suddenly understood the meaning of life” or whatever it was. And so that when I came back to teach the course, there was, there was a recurrent English 1 paper, a bad paper in which the student would have been faced with some questions, some problem, and he wouldn't know what to do. And finally he’d take a walk over to Memorial Hill, maybe at midnight, and suddenly he looked up in the sky or over the Holyoke range and a revelation would come to him and then he would see what the meaning of life or of Amherst or of God was and, and of course, then we teachers would say, “tell me a little more about this. Can you find, do you have any language to describe this?” so that that was the kind of daily challenge that went on. Along with the fact that that Armour Craig regularly referred to philosophers and literary figures that I'd never heard. Bertrand Russell, for example, who was Bertrand Russell? Alfred North Whitehead, Craig had a lot of interest in philosophy and, and a similar thing went on in my other–in the Humanities course where John Moore, the classicist, consistently made us look beyond and think beyond our, our boundaries and does that–that's an attempt to say what the dislocation felt like in–
[24:03] Cooper: The course English 1 in particular, has gathered over the years and in the recollection of many Amherst graduates, a kind of notoriety. It seems to be, perhaps more than any other class, certainly in the Humanities, a class by which people assess retrospectively their sense of what Amherst was, and they come down one way or another, with that particular course in mind. So that you read, now many decades later, alumni writing into the alumni magazine saying, well, “This course defined Amherst for me, and it was wonderful!” Or sometimes still angry!
[24:39] Pritchard: That’s right, that’s right.
[24:40] Cooper: Still palpably angry. “This course defined everything that was wrong with Amherst to me.”
[24:45] Pritchard: My best friend tells me–Bill Youngren, who hated the course and had a terrible experience–
[24:51] Cooper: That’s right, you conducted a running argument in your Festschrift with him–
[24:54] Pritchard: –And I called him up the other night, we talked about things and we're having, we're preparing a 50th reunion book, and he told me “Well, I've written something on English 1,” and I said, “Oh, Youngren, can't you leave that?” No, no, he still wants to show why this was not at all a good course, why this was philosophically and morally unsound. But it was that kind of–so that, so that it had an impact on you that a French– a course in French, or in mathematics, or even economics, I think, which I never took, or chemistry just couldn't have. I mean, you couldn't get into those kinds of provocative arguments and confusions in a course, where the technical vocabulary, as in chemistry, or economics or mathematics, was something that you had to learn to master and, you know, study the periodic table.
[25:46] Cooper: The course made its way into an Alison Lurie novel. Isn’t that right?
[25:52] Pritchard: Yes, it did. Her first. Yes.
[25:55] Cooper: Um, and as I, I recall it, vaguely, but, um what's the book? What book is it?
[26:02] Pritchard: Love and Friendship.
[26:03] Cooper: Love and Friendship–
[26:03] Pritchard: Her first novel and her husband, Jonathan Bishop taught English 1 for three years. And she was well, in those days used to be called a faculty wife. That is she, I guess, had a child. She was already on the road to becoming a writer– to becoming the very successful novelist that she would become but back then she was, she was just as far as the community received her, a faculty wife and maybe sort of a difficult faculty wife, so she stored up these memories of her husband coming home with these assignments, and she makes fun– she makes fun of the course in the novel.
[26:41] Cooper: And she also depicts somewhat satirically, the guiding genius behind this course, I forget what she calls him, but I'd like to turn now to Theodore Baird. It seems to me when I read through your memoir and from and from the many conversations I've had with you over the years about Amherst, that perhaps two figures loom larger than any others in or over your formative Amherst experiences and one would be Frost and we'll come back to him, but the other is Theodore Baird. I'm wondering if you would if you can evoke him as a presence, as a personality for us and perhaps say something about his importance to you, personally and, and to Amherst.
[27:25] Pritchard: I never knew him until– I never had him as a teacher until senior year and then only for a semester, a course in Shakespeare, I think I was– I know I was afraid of him. His famously fierce scowl and deflationary comments that he would make in class to eager students trying to say something profound. I knew he was the architect, the head, the boss, of the English 1 course. I knew that each year–in fact, it doesn’t seem very fair– but he had a dean who was a good friend of his, Scott Porter, would pick a special section for Baird. In other words, he'd throw together 15 or 20 boys that he'd say, “I think you'll be interested in these” so that Baird always had, it seemed, students who were notable in one way or another and, and, and one of them who was one of the three veterans in the class, lived next to me in James: Chuck Reynolds. And he would give daily reports on the goings on in Baird’s classroom, which were much more extreme and violent and loud than in Craig's more decorous and polite, I think, classroom. When I finally did get around to dare to take a semester of Shakespeare with Baird, I found it again quite surprising. It was not like the other English courses I'd had at Amherst where we learned to do a close reading and to write complicated essays on the imaginative organization of poems or plays or novels. The approach that Reuben Brower and his colleague, Caesar Barber, are mainly, were mainly responsible for. Baird in Shakespeare did something entirely different. He didn't give readings of the plays, he didn't interpret them. He went in a kind of old-fashioned way that he picked up at Harvard, studying with the great Shakespearean George Lyman Kittridge. He went through two plays a semester, Romeo and Hamlet in the first term. And scene by scene, not every line, not every word, but but many of them and he talked about anything he felt like talking about from, from a philological fact or a point about a particular word or expression to, oh, disquisitions on Elizabethan burial customs and, and the difference between– I think I write about this in English Papers– the difference between between how the dead were treated in 1594 and how they were treated today. The difference between for example, a Hallmark greeting card sent to a grieving person, “sorry for your loss” and so on, and whatever language Elizabethan characters as animated by Shakespeare had to say about death. Or he, he’d bring in something he heard on the radio. “Lady of Spain” one morning. He didn't sing but “Lady of Spain I adore you / Right from the moment I– what's the rhyme?” he say. “Sawr you, sawr you.” And so there'd be a lot of sheer frivolousness, a lot of play for the sake of itself. He, he always wanted to keep himself amused and if he could do that, he was happy and he depended on his students to amuse him and also his colleagues, and I'm afraid sometimes we fell down on the job. He, he had us memorize a number of selected soliloquies, passages from Shakespeare. And, and the final exam consisted of our writing those out, and then our identifying, placing particular lines in the context of the play, so a very old-fashioned kind of thing, which had– as far as the grading of the course goes– which had nothing at all to do though, with the the excitement and the oddity and the fireworks that went on day by day as he’d go through the play. And, and the cliche used to be–I remember hearing it from a sophomore–”it's not a course in Shakespeare, it's a course in Baird” and so on. And I'm sure people still say that about some teachers. But it was– it was a course, it was a course in both and it was something you didn't easily forget. The last memory I had of him as an undergraduate, was at commencement, when my father and I were walking toward the war memorial and suddenly– Baird had this way of showing up out of nowhere, just materializing. Often with this silly-looking hat kind of pulled down over his forehead and cap and, and the glasses and so on. And he came up and I started to nervously introduce Dad to him. “Professor Baird, this is my father,” and he goes “Very conscientious boy, very conscientious.” and then he disappeared! My father was pleased. He said, “Thank you very much.” He just– [[laughter]] he dematerialized. So, he was that kind of–and he lived until, until he was almost uh, 96. And I'm grateful for all those years of friendship after being a student and a colleague and the last 20 years in which he was retired, and I went out to his house on Shays Street and visited them regularly. And we talked relentlessly and always about literature and other kinds of writing.
[33:28] Cooper: Frost is very much another matter. A person you spent much, much less time actually with, but he would seem to have posed an influence and exerted an influence on you well out of proportion to the amount of time you actually spent with him. And I’m wondering what you might say about him both personally, but in terms of his influence on you?
[33:54] Pritchard: It was very much a local thing there and I think even today, some students still feel– well, the Frost library where we're sitting here–feel an association between their experience of Amherst College and their reading of some Frost poems. For me, we read, we read some of his poems in English, sophomore English, in the first semester. Read some Wordsworth and read some Frost and out of [Louiana Meyer’s] little selection, which has, illustrated with bits of New England nature, you know, snow, woods, some birds and so on. So, in that kind of soapy sentimental way you felt– I felt: here I am in New England for the first time– or the second time I'd been there, actually, but here I am experiencing a New England fall and a New England winter and I'm reading this poem, October, by this New England poet who has this Amherst connection, Robert Frost, and so there was a little little magic in the offering I think, but but I also like to think that I was a good enough hearer, a good enough reader by that time at least to see, to hear that something rather extraordinary was going on in the lines of the poems, and Frost came to the campus for two weeks in the fall, and usually a week in the spring.
[35:22] Cooper: This had– this arrangement had been going on for some time already.
[35:27] Pritchard: Yeah, well, it had been renewed fairly recently, after the war when Charlie Cole, Charles Cole became president and got Frost to come back. He'd been at Dartmouth and he’d kind of had a little misunderstanding with the previous president, but he became something called Simpson Lecturer and he would go around in the fall, Armour Craig usually would take him around to fraternities, and he would– the boys would get dressed up, put on their white bucks and khakis and tie and they’d come down to the living room and sit down. And the poet would talk and read poems and then they'd ask him questions. And, uh, “what kind of questions should we ask? Ask him about baseball. He likes baseball.” Always boring questions about “Mr. Frost, do you like baseball?” and so on, but he usually made something interesting out of, out of questions. And I once, daringly I thought, asked him in fireside living room, a question about a poem “Bereft,” which ends– it's about– a poem about loneliness and being bereft and, and it ends: “Word I was in the house alone / Somehow must have gotten abroad, / Word I was in my life alone, / Word I had no one left but God.”
And, and I said to him, and I'd been put up to this by another teacher on the faculty, Bill Gibson, whom I was told said in his class, asked this class, “how much is that anyway?” And so I thought, I'll ask Frost this. “Well, how much is that, Frost? How much is God? What is that?” And he said, “Now we poets. We write our poem and we draw a little line and we don't step over that line.” And he wasn't going to step over that line and tell me how much God was exactly. And I remember after the– so I've put down a little bit, I suppose, gently. After the, after the session, a tall classmate of mine, fraternity brother said to me, “You shouldn't have asked him about his poems. Should have asked him about baseball probably.”
[37:43] Cooper: Well, I suppose to be gently warned away from something could, could actually be seen as a good thing as– you, you got near something.
[37:52] Pritchard: I think so. I think so.
[37:52] Cooper: Now to jump ahead, I know– because I do want to get back to a couple of more– I want to get back actually to Harvard where you want to after Amherst, but when you came back years later to teach at Amherst, you had further– you spent more time with Frost.
[38:07] Pritchard: I did.
[38:07] Cooper: And I know that you, during one of his visits, you served as his, his social secretary. And was that the time you– was that the time you had a memorable drive with him across the state? Or [[Crosstalk]] was that another time?
[38:21] Pritchard: [[Crosstalk]] Yeah, that was it. Yeah, he decided– When I, when I was an undergraduate, he was– he made himself available. You could, you could go and visit him at the Lord Jeff Inn on certain– during certain hours. And if you had a poem, if you'd written a poem, you might bring it along. I would–I didn't have any poems and I would never dare, never dared to do such a thing. So when I was thrown into the situation as an instructor of being his, as you say, social secretary, for that one semester when Armour Craig was out of the country, it was challenging. And it was a matter of, of checking in in the morning and seeing that– telling, talking about his day, the day to come and seeing that he was all right. And then seeing that he got to bed at night, not too late. That was hard to do, because he didn't want to go to bed.
[39:12] Cooper: He didn't want to go to bed?
[39:14] Pritchard: He never wanted to go to bed as far as I could see. And I had to go to bed because I had to get up and deal with these English Composition papers that I'd graded– er, that I hadn't finished grading yet by then. And so he'd walk into the inn, and everybody [[Crosstalk]] has a version of this story.
[39:30] Cooper: [[Crosstalk]] Where was he staying, at the Jeff?
[39:31] Pritchard: He was staying at the inn, yeah. He’d walk into the inn. And he’d say, he said, “Good night,” and he’d say, “Oh, wait a minute, I'll walk you down to the Beta corner,” and he'd walk you down to the Beta or Chi Phi. And he’d say, “now you walk me back a little bit.” So that would prolong things for 20 minutes to half an hour or more. That, that time he was here in the fall, he suddenly became rather disenchanted. He didn't want to stay any longer. He wanted to get back to Cambridge and how would he get back to Cambridge and I offered to drive him and, and I guess after my class or maybe I even canceled a class, did I dare do that. But we had an old Dodge at the time which ate oil fiercely and I carried an oil can in the car, learned how to open the hood and put the oil in. But I didn't want to do this with the poet, you know with the poet, the good– the great, great poet sitting in the front seat so I filled up the [[Laughter]] I poured in the oil beforehand. We got to Cambridge, all right without any– but it was, it was white-knuckled driving. I didn't want anything to happen to this man. And so that was memorable and he took me to lunch at the Commander Hotel and I remember he had a daiquiri, he didn't drink much but he had a daiquiri before– we must– maybe we both had daiquiris around the Kennedy, Kennedy age when daiquiris came in there, daiquiris came in. That's not very profound about Frost, but I by that time I was writing my dissertation on him and and he expressed polite interest in that. And then when I said that I hope to publish this–it was rather prematurely, I didn't realize that at the time–he said, keep it around, deepen it. Well, I did keep it around for 20 years. And when I did finally–25 years, when I did finally write a book about Frost, it was, it was rather different. Deeper, maybe.
[41:33] Cooper: You had, somewhat surprisingly, given what you've said so far about the sources of your enchantment at Amherst, you were not an English major. You were a Philosophy major. And although you've written that you had “a mind easily derailed by C.S. Pierce, or Bertrand Russell,” you did major in the subject and you wrote your senior honors thesis on William James. Curious, it seems to me, perhaps given your later antipathy to literary criticism of big ideas, that you would have been a philosophy major. Now, after you left Amherst, you did spend a year at Columbia as a graduate student in Philosophy. But it didn't, it didn't take. By the second semester, you were bailing out, filling your notebook with copied out poems of Marvell and Dunn instead of class notes from the philosophy graduate courses you were supposed to be taking. I wonder whether you might evoke some of that year at Columbia in New York for us and, and what it brought you and perhaps place yourself in the process of making a shift as it were from William James to Henry James.
[42:50] Pritchard: Yeah, it was Morningside Heights after Amherst College was a, was an experience and I’d been a number of times to New York City. Visits and little vacations, and I thought I knew things pretty well, but being thrown into Colombia and into the big city atmosphere after the comfortable security of the fairest college of them all and so on, was was an experience and especially, I was kind of flailing about in the courses. I was swimming more– uh, sinking more than I was swimming and not, not getting the–I won't go into this but not not getting the long take-home papers written that I should have gotten written if I were to get credit for the courses, but instead of hopping about and auditing various English professors. Foremost among whom was Lionel Trilling, who had a great influence on my attitudes toward fiction, toward literature generally. But I found what I– I found verification of what I sort of knew already. One of the few C's I got at Amherst was in Logic. And, and my ability to deal with the philosophy of science was negligible. And that these two disciplines, you couldn't get very far as a philosopher if you were feeble in logic and the philosophy of science and so that I was a kind of soft–I was interested in history because of the great historian of philosophy who taught here, Sterling P. Lamprecht, who had fill me with visions and wonderful notebooks, class notebooks, his lectures on the Great Western philosophers from Plato to Kant. But that wasn't enough to to keep me going for more than a year and barely even that in graduate school so, so I managed as a very late applicant to get into Harvard and went there the next year, courtesy of my father who didn't want me to go in the army, the Korean War was just concluding itself and, and so I managed. I managed the transition to William James– from William James to Henry James. Although as you know, William James is the most literary of philosophers and [[Crosstalk]] he was certainly –
[45:30] Cooper: [[Crosstalk]] Right. You were halfway there already.
[45:31] Pritchard: I was halfway there already.
[45:32] Cooper: What was Trilling like?
[45:36] Pritchard: Again, formidable he, he was known as someone who didn't like to teach graduate students and it was very dull in his graduate courses, so graduate students said, but who loved to teach undergraduates and his undergraduate course in Hamilton Hall, 25 students or so, was full of contention, contentiousness and a lot of some of the smartest undergraduates, Columbia kids, that I had seen and ever have seen again, some of them became novelists and, and critics in their own right later on. Trilling was provocative and walked up back and forth in front of the class with this cigarillo, cigarette holder and–
[46:24] Cooper: With a cigarette holder?
[46:25] Pritchard: Yeah, yeah, he– I think it was a cigarette holder. And you smoked back in class then, or you were allowed to smoke in class.
[46:33] Cooper: Hmm. You know, it's funny. Yes, I remember, even I must have gone to Amherst at the very very last moment [[Crosstalk]]
[46:39] Pritchard: [[Crosstalk]] That would certainly be the end of that–
[46:40] Cooper: –that smoking would have been allowed because I remember Robert Stone in a fiction-writing class filling the room up with smoke, you know, he was a very dramatic smoker. And, and by the end of the class, he he'd become positively oracular, surrounded by smoke. Huh. Yeah.
[46:59] Pritchard: Yeah. No more. At any rate, Trillings’ essays were coming out then, The Liberal Imagination, and he helped direct my, my sense of literature as something that that did involve a social world and a history of literary ideas, one of the– one of those essays called “The Meaning of a Literary Idea.” And that, that wasn't mainly– that wasn't the way English got taught at Amherst. So it was good. It was good for me.
[47:40] Cooper: Is he someone you still read, now? I know there have been reissues of his writings recently. Yeah.
[47:51] Pritchard: Yeah, yeah. And he had the whole– he had French and Russian literature there to allude to and to make you feel ignorant for not having read Diderot or Chekov.
[48:07] Cooper: Now on to Harvard. I found your description of literary studies at Harvard at the time–this would be the mid to late 50s–striking and rather amusing actually. It seems that literary studies at Harvard, were conducted, you said “by professors without the ghost of an interest in making something called a class come to life.” It seems almost as if Harvard through its very lifelessness helped you define what makes for a lively engagement with books. And when you were there, you were there among– and you've written about an Amherst contingent, and you've evoked a certain confident style that this group had: the sense that we were up to something different, confident enough so that one or another of the group having failed his oral exams was taken as a reflection on Harvard. Because presumably, the exams were so trivial, banal, mindless. Tell me about those days at Harvard, and in particular about that Amherst crowd that was up to something different there.
[49:23] Pritchard: I think what they thought– what we thought we were up to was, was continuing the kind of literary discourse and study that we'd been encouraged to participate in in Amherst. Since, since– whatever went on in Harvard undergraduate classrooms, and sometimes it's true often graduate and undergraduates met together. But there wasn't on most of the professors’ part, any interest, as you say, or as you say quoting me, in making a class, making something happen. They were there to cover the material: English literature 1700 to 1740. Well, there was Dryden, and there was Defoe, and there was Pope, and there was Swift. And there's some minor poets and some prose writers and, and I have them all down in my notebook and very neat, neat, but the sort of thing that you could mostly have gotten just as well out of a book, you could have stayed home and read the book, or read the secondary source from which the professor–maybe one of the professors had written the book. There were exceptions to this and the main exception, the two of them really Jack Bate, Walter Jackson Bate, the great biographer of Keats and Johnson, and Douglas Bush, who was a humane and interested reader of not just poetry but modern poetry and who, who would, on occasion, in classrooms, suddenly something in Tennyson would make him think of TS Eliot, and he’d quote lines from Four Quartets. But that was very much the exception. And mostly classes there were cut and dry. I didn't mind because I was so ignorant. I had so many gaps to fill. So many things I haven't read that I was mainly satisfied to, you know, fill in some of the blanks. But it did make for the sense of apartness on our– Amherst graduates’ part that we'd had a, we'd had a more interesting literary education than was getting, was getting embodied here in classes day by day.
[51:44] Cooper: Who were some of these people in your cohort?
[51:49] Pritchard: Well, some of them were older than– there were a few older ones. Just older enough to make for mentorship, which is a word I don't think I knew then, maybe I should never have learned it. But David Ferry who graduated from here, I think 1946, ‘48, who has since become– was a poet then and is now a very distinguished translator of Horace and Virgil and of Gilgamesh and his poetry has gotten national attention, wrote a great book on Wordsworth. Richard Poirier, Dick Poirier, just retired, just edited after editing the Raritan quarterly for many years, one of the best critics of American literature and the, the head, pretty much of the Library of America, the publishing of American writers. Tom Edwards, who was a sidekick at Rutgers. All these people graduated from Amherst a few years, just before, I graduated. Then there was my classmate, Bill Youngren and whom I mentioned and, and Neil Hertz who came to Harvard in Philosophy and ended up in English. And there was as a focus for this, there was the presence of Reuben Brower, Professor Brower, who had left Amherst at the end of my senior year, who gave a talk called An Earthly Paradise from which I got the– I got the name and, and Brower, as you know, ran a course called Humanities: Six Interpretations of Literature, and many of us taught in this course. And this was an attempt to bring into undergraduate education at Harvard, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years, the kinds of teaching of close-reading and discussion of texts that he'd already– that Brower had already worked on at Amherst.
[54:07] Cooper: Right, there was a book of readings that derived from, from Brower and his fellow colleagues–
[54:12] Pritchard: Yeah, In Defense of Reading it was called– [[Crosstalk]]
[54:14] Cooper: [[Crosstalk]] In Defense of Reading
[54:14] Pritchard: Brower and Poirier edited, it sunk without trace, but was was pleasant to have it back in 1960 when it appeared and, and
[54:23] Cooper: You were a contributor?
[54:24] Pritchard: I was a contributor. Yeah, we usually– parts of our dissertations or I had a chapter from my dissertation on Frost in there, but Poirier wrote about about Huckleberry Finn and an Armour Craig wrote about Emma and, and there were, there were essays on historians, William Taylor, all these people taught at Amherst at one time or another, wrote about Parkman and Le Salle and it was a lively connection. Some of the best– people who turned out to be the best 17th century Shakespearean, Elizabethan scholars. Stephen Orgel, now a famous editor, and Paul Alpers, who just retired from Berkeley. So that all those people came in under Browers’ net and, and were distinct from what we thought of as a more– the less interesting English graduate student and the less interesting graduate student was he or she who would simply decide to edit a text and would be given an obscure Elizabethan Jacobin drama to work on. So we were kind of snotty towards those people, condescending.
[55:41] Cooper: I remember you described an evening in which I think– I believe was in Kirkland House, Poirier and John Hollander– [[Crosstalk]]
[55:49] Pritchard: [[Crosstalk]] That’s right. Memorable.
[55:51] Cooper: argued about the relative merits of Frost and and Auden and, and, you said you wished you had an applause meter to register the response of the partisan crowds behind, behind both opinions. And it struck me that this, that there was, in the excitement that you evoke of that time, an almost evangelical sense of literature and–at least as important literary conversation–being first, very personal and second, very partisan, that, that the business of teachers should not merely be the, the detached, dry historicism that Harvard was serving up, but, but that people should care and they should argue!
[56:49] Pritchard: And that all came, that all came out of Baird, I mean, Baird, Baird came here in the late ‘20s and found the department and found this– in the 30s too, found a department which everybody was very polite to one another. And they went their own ways, they, they talked to each other at departmental cocktail parties. But they didn't argue and Baird said, “I don't care. I don't want to go to departmental cocktail parties. I don't, I don't want to be polite. I want to, I want to argue, I want to find out what you–” and in some ways he–pretty much so–he managed to create an Amherst English department in which contention and argument and, and hurt feelings and headaches were really possible. And it's interesting. Now we've gone we've gone to the other end of that now, the English department, of which I'm still a member, we don't argue with each other. Or if we argue, we argue only about administrative matters, and we go our own ways, and we're polite to each other. The level of politeness is certainly much better than it was 30 years ago, and also less interesting.
[57:47] Cooper: Well, your evocation of such nights– of nights spent doing such things as applauding Poirier versus Hollander evokes a, well, it's really a terrific romance of a certain literary life.
[58:06] Pritchard: Yeah, kind of boyish too,
[58:07] Cooper: It's boyish and, and I suppose it's, it's possible to see implicit in that idea of literary partisanship a capacity for something that could be construed, construed as badgering, as overbearingness, and so on. But on its own terms and within its own spirit, it is, it is a very energetic evocation of literary commitment.
[58:33] Pritchard: Ted Williams, or Joe DiMaggio, what do you think? [[Laughter]] That kind of thing.
[58:37] Cooper: In the fall of ‘58, you returned to Amherst as a lowly instructor. A rank, you point out, that no longer exists. Back then an instructor, according to your reckoning, would read something like 1300 papers a semester.
[58:54] Pritchard: In English.
[58:54] Cooper: In English, yeah. I mean, instructor, if you were teaching two sections of composition. Classes were held six days a week, Friday nights were spent men-only at the Faculty club–
[59:05] Pritchard: Saturday nights.
[59:06] Cooper: Saturday nights were spent at the Faculty club. Perhaps nothing better suggests to me at any rate, the sea change in academic culture that's occurred since then, than your grade list for English 1 that year, which I perused. Three students with a final grade for the course in the 60s, what we would call a D. Eight in the 70s, seven in the 80s, and one lone student with a final grade of 90. One lone A-minus. Nowadays, it sometimes seems that faculty compete to dish out the highest grades. Back then it was something like the opposite it seems, but “enduring low grades,” you write with tongue at least half in-cheek, “was all part of becoming a man.” Now I suppose I'm inviting you to reminisce about that time in your life. And that time in Amherst’s life and the seeming uniformity of student and teacher and outlook that prevailed. We talked a moment ago about, about argumentativeness, in literary studies. You've written about lively arguments about books and writers in the English department of those days. While of today, as you just alluded to moments ago, you've said “the much-prized diversity of my English department today means that most of the time we're ships that pass in the night, politely keeping our distance.” The staff courses that were taught back then, involve plenty of what you called communal argument. I think that's an interesting idea. It's almost a paradoxical one, communal argument. So this, this is not really a question but it's a guided invitation to reminisce.
[1:01:11] Pritchard: It had partly to do with the fact that when I came here, I was a member of–or I was one of a number of instructors, young–that is in their 20s, late 20s.
[1:01:25] Cooper: That’s young.
[1:01:26] Pritchard: Hm?
[1:01:26] Cooper: That’s young.
[1:01:29] Pritchard: That’s young. Young untenured male instructors competing with one another, and very much looking to impress their superiors, to write what was called–what we call, inelegantly, poop. That is if we were going to teach Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, or Thoreau's Walden in the literature course, one of the members of the staff was responsible for providing poop on Thoreau, or Henry Adams and he would pass out these pages of– three, three to four pages of suggestions for classes, a kind of game plan, a written assignment. Then, in the staff meeting those, that poop became the subject of argument and fierce contention about everything from the whole notion of Tennyson that was behind this guy's suggestion to the particular wording of the, of the assignment. And they were long. As I say, long, they lasted a long time, and they issued often for me and for others, and in something like headache, you’d say, oh, come home at night, and that sort of thing. And that went on in both staff courses, both in the freshman course and in the, in the sophomore course. So that, that contention was partly fueled by the fact that a number of us were looking hard at each other and trying to be better than each other. Smarter, a better writer. All that kind of aggressive, aggressively male– I don't know what a– what it would have been like if, if there were both sexes in– on the faculty or in the student body at that time. There weren't. The first woman in the English department did not, was not hired until I think 1970, 1971 so that uh, I'm kind of losing the thread here but the communal–
[1:03:45] Cooper: Argumentativeness.
[1:03:46] Pritchard: Argumentativeness could, could get– it could be demeaned by calling it a “boy” thing or or a “male” thing. And it certainly was that in part, you know, we played, we played tennis with each other, and we were sarcastic towards each other, and we teased each other. There's a lot of teasing, a lot of teasing. And I found that very– I liked that a lot, although it issued, and from time to time, and headaches, as I say, that was in, and regularly, my first few years here, members of the English department would have to go consult a doctor for various, you know, stomach, stomach complaints, because you tended to drink and you tended to smoke, everybody smoked. And that was, that was all part of the fuel, I think, so.
[1:04:38] Cooper: Well, obviously that there's competitiveness, there's going to be competitiveness among young people who, who desperately want tenure and not all of whom are going to get it; if you live in an era that that that honors competitiveness openly, it's going to be on the surface. If you don't, it's going to go somewhere else. But, but I suppose I take it that a certain quality of competitiveness is a given in all, in all academic eras but I wonder whether the salutary aspect of this contentiousness which you clearly identify in, in that time here with, with high quality argument about what constitutes good literature, and and the proper or best way to teach it, whether whether that's leaked away or whether it's still there but has a different sound?
[1:05:37] Pritchard: Well, it's gonna leak away if there isn't any staff course where you, where you're put up against your colleagues and where you're forced to talk to them. If you're teaching your own course in Elizabethan drama, nobody's going to say hey, and and, and you sink or swim with the students on your own.
[1:05:56] Cooper: There's no staff course in the English department.
[1:05:57] Pritchard: There still is, what you might call the vestige of a staff course. Four or five of us sometimes, three or four, all of us over 65, which says something, I think, do teach a course very much like the old Introduction to Literature in which we, we have units on lyric poetry and on Shakespeare and on a big, classic novel and, and some contemporary books. Courses, a course that doesn't have, as other courses in the English department do, now do have, a course that doesn't have a theme. So that this is not representing illness or sexual, human sexuality or whatever, but something as nebulous as reading, reading, writing criticism. But I do think this the staff course format which, which was very much, even then too, I think something that went on at Amherst in a way it didn't go on–certainly to that degree–at other colleges, was responsible for making Amherst, at least in the English department but in other departments too, a rather distinct place, a rather distinct small college educationally. For better or for worse, I think for a better, and that's, that's pretty much lost now we're–everybody knows we're a very good college after all, US News and World Report knows that every year, and all these figures that you can cite, but I don't see that there's very much distinct now about Amherst compared to other very good small colleges. We're going to have just as good dorms now as Princeton or whoever, I don't know.
[1:07:54] Cooper: There’s a great, great weight room.
[1:07:56] Pritchard: Great weight room. I've heard.
[1:07:57] Cooper: Yeah, the the facilities–
[1:07:59] Pritchard: [[Crosstalk]] –facilities. Facilities.
[1:08:00] Cooper: Even, even, even in the, in the, well, two decades now since I graduated, there's been a revolution in the facilities. Well, we didn't have that weight room but–
[1:08:12] Pritchard: Sure. Sure and and, and the great– the ways in which Amherst College has changed, obviously for the better, I think are shown most clearly in what's happened to the programs and Fine Arts, in music, Dramatic Arts, where, where what goes on here is just lightyears ahead of what what could go on back in 1953. But that has partly to do to do with the fact that with the end of the new curriculum at the end of the ‘60s, you didn't have to– you didn't get the– you didn't have to be an all rounded student who was both pretty good at, very good at English and pretty good at physics. You could, you could come in here as a, as a gifted playwright or oboist, you know, and not being able to– not be able to do science for for beans,
[1:09:03] Cooper: But it's funny I seem to recall from somewhere you offering yourself as an example of a student who as an undergraduate hadn't been that well rounded student.
[1:09:12] Pritchard: No.
[1:09:12] Cooper: All of your courses were Philosophy, English, and what did you know about chemistry–
[1:09:18] Pritchard: Right. Or economics, or psychology.
[1:09:22] Cooper: The late ‘60s and early ‘70s saw big changes in the life of the College, of Amherst College. So much was dispensed with: compulsory chapels, Saturday classes, parietal rules, a structured curriculum, coeducation came in the mid ‘70s. There was the turmoil of Vietnam and a series of challenges–that you've written about–to traditional arrangements in the classroom. Now, in your memoir, English Papers, you seem to look back with some perplexity on this time, on the changes that it brought to Amherst and to colleges generally. And perhaps with some perplexity on yourself in this time. “What happened in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s,” you wrote, “at Amherst, now seems as momentous as anything academic can be. The college was being dismantled,” you write, “and reconstituted in another style.” How so?
[1:10:22] Pritchard: Well, you've, you've sort of suggested yourself, I think part of the ways in which that dismantling took place, we won't have this anymore. “Nobody wants to come to, nobody wants, nobody likes Saturday classes,” I remember somebody saying in a faculty meeting, “the students don't want to be there, the faculty doesn't want to teach them, therefore,” Baird would have said at that point,
[1:10:42] Cooper: [[Crosstalk]] Great improvement, progress!
[1:10:43] Pritchard: what a great educational idea, no Saturday classes. But there was there was some of the dismantling which I think you can't, you can't look back on now. We don't, we don't miss the fact that freshman had to wear beanies, you know, or sit together at the football games, those are those–that kind of trivia, nobody cares about. Compulsory chapel, how do we feel about that? Well that wasn't a good thing. It couldn't take place now, after all they sung the doxology, although it was a pretty much a secular, secular service, still, college chapel, the idea of the college coming together once or twice a week and being addressed on various, sometimes momentous issues. I remember hearing for example, Sterling Lamprecht talk about the death of Santayana, the philosopher. I didn’t know Santayana, and, and who knows who cared about that, but it was, it was good to have that happen. I remember when TS Eliot died, asking the president if I could speak a few words about Eliot. This is 1965, and he said “yes, you may,” so I went in and talked about Eliot, and to use a corny word, that sort of civilizing, humane activity is not likely to take place now in a college– in a department at a college that goes in just so many, many, many different directions. You know, which has Asian Studies and European Studies and, and countless Dance and, and Theatre and an elaborate very good program and Film Studies. We have everything now that a university has except more, more bodies and more– more we have, we have the facilities to to undertake really a kind of replication of what goes on in American education at its most prestigious maybe at its best, I don't know.
[1:13:04] Cooper: But?
[1:13:07] Pritchard: But. How to fill in the–how to fill in that blank. What, what hasn't– what, what this atomization, this pluralism, this politeness if you will, this respect for, as we used to call it in sixth grade on the report card: “respect for the rights of others,” that has to carry with it, I think a certain, a certain cost and the cost maybe is in a kind of edge, a kind of individuality, a kind of oddity, a kind of provincialism, which is a word that used to be used by some members of the faculty with with a prideful sense that it was. It wasn't bad, it was maybe good to be provincial. To be different from Columbia or, or even from, from Smith College, University of Massachusetts.
[1:14:09] Cooper: Do you see this cost in terms of by and large the students who are in your classroom now, compared to the students of 30 years ago?
[1:14:18] Pritchard: No, I guess I can't say that I do. That, the major problem for me–aside from the usual one of how to have a good class–is, is the willingness or the, the lack of willingness on too many students’ parts to contribute, I mean, the tendency to be silent and to be, to be the opposite of aggressive, to be complac–complacent, and, and complacent, and to take notes and be very serious about about grades, but not to put– not to get out on a limb, not to put yourself on the line. And so that so that the students who are still willing to do this, who are willing to speak up and, and speak out, often, often they're freshmen. That's why I teach freshmen every fall. They haven't learned yet that it's good to be cool, or it's good to be–. And yet, I look back on 30 years ago, and I see that that was that was the case then, too. There were there were lots of people who who liked to hide out in large courses and sit in the back row and some people who for perfectly principled reasons, just didn't think it was to the point to talk in class. They were there to hear the professor and they didn't, they didn't want to hear their fellow students. That makes teaching, sometimes, tough, I think.
[1:15:53] Cooper: Well, that leads nicely to my next question, which is about teaching. You've said that as you grow older, you grow less interested in classes where there's no laughter. And I might add, I think in writers as well. You've quoted D.H. Lawrence saying, “if it isn't any fun, don't do it.” I want to put this idea of fun and laughter which coming out of other people's mouths might sound like lightweight terms, but, but, but play and joking and humor, to you, have gradations of seriousness that are of note, but I want to put this together with a lifelong allegiance on your part to a certain kind of teaching style. In general, you have valued teachers–I was struck as I thought about it–in inverse proportion to one's ability–to a student's ability to take notes in their classes. It's a theme that comes up again and again, when you recall the teachers you had. Brower was hard to take notes on.
[1:17:03] Pritchard: Yeah.
[1:17:03] Cooper: But Baird and Craig were impossible to take notes on. English 1 was a “most puzzling, un-note-takeable-on activity.”
[1:17:12] Pritchard: I have no notes–
[1:17:14] Cooper: And this is praise from you. Now, I'm interested that you, when you remem–, when you recall Sterling Lamprecht’s classes in, in philosophy, you took lovely notes, you have notebooks full of notes. You went to Harvard to graduate school; you could take notes in their classes. In a way it seems you've, your lifelong struggle has been to escape notes and note-taking. To find the absolutely un-notetakeable [[Pritchard laughs]] on venue, teacher, writer, and I know from my own experiences that your classes, the ones I attended in the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s were first, fun, and second, nearly impossible to take notes on. I– I don't, I don't have the notes. They don't have notes. They weren't there. So my, my question is, what, what is it that makes for fun in the classroom? Generally, in your view, and I mean, the kind of fun that you're taking very seriously, the kind of fun that you do not want to do without. And in that in general and in particular, what is the use, or the function or indeed, the fun of a certain style of classroom procedure that keeps things “off-balance and confusing”? I'm using your words again, in reference to another teacher, and makes taking notes all but impossible.
[1:18:39] Pritchard: That's, that's hard to answer and it's hard to know where my predilection comes from and how deep that is in my psyche and genes. I don't know. I know that certainly the– a disinclination toward note-taking and a contempt for notes and an attempt to make one's class un-takeable, un-notetakeable, could lead really to, to real perversity and real obfuscation and nobody, nobody wants to do that. I don't, I don't think I try to be mysterious and obfuscatory in the presence of my students, but I also don't want to be understood too quickly. And I think the most wounding comment I've ever had in recent years was a Scrutiny report. You know, when they report on the course at the end of the–, I'd given this modern British literature, I think it was Shaw to Orwell, and one student was quoted as saying, “This is high school stuff.” And I thought, “How could it–, how could it be high school stuff? Could I, you know, is that, is that–?” So that one, one wants to not say the obvious, at the same time as one one doesn't want to be obfuscatory or, or enigmatic and hard, hard to figure out in some preen–, self-preening way. So you want, you want to have something surprising happen. You want to be able to say something in your own discourse that you didn't say when you taught the course three years ago at the same time as you want to say some of the things you said three years ago because they're still true and and useful and maybe helpful for a student to take some notes, even, on a particular writer. I feel that's not a–, that's not a very straight answer but teaching is a kind of crooked business, I think. Teaching English is a crooked business. I don’t, I don't, again, I don't think this has to do with, with proced– good procedure in the, in the course in physical chemistry or, or in Harmon–, Harmony and Counterpoint or in Economics of the Third World
[1:20:55] Cooper: A crooked business how? Teaching English. What do you–?
[1:20:58] Pritchard: Well since, since the production, since the writing of imaginative literature is such a, such a strange thing, such odd things happen in these in, in, in Proust and in, in the poems of Wallace Stevens, since, you know, “by–” what does Hamlet say? “By assays of bias,/ By indirections find directions out.” And the indirection is so massive and so calculated and so, head-shaking, confusing in so much of, you know, the literature that counts. What is, what is direct about Joyce's Ulysses? This is all indirection and game playing and so on, so as to make certain moments of directness terribly, terribly powerful, and uh–, as in Hamlet, so that somehow the teacher has to, I think, enact some of that indirectness and some of that–. Wallace Stevens, the poet, “give me an int–,” or is it Thoreau? I guess it's Thoreau. “Give a– Give me a sentence that the intelligence can't understand too quickly.” And, and you can't teach Walden in a straightforward manner; you have to– and that's why it's lost on so many students. They don't, they can't enter– they can't quite enter into this, into this complicated play, into this verbal performance. So I guess that's– it's hard to take notes on Thoreau. You know, if you're taking notes on Walden, you can't, you can't do a very good job. At least I've never managed to. Or an Em–, or one of Emerson's essay, try to outline an Emerson essay. Well, I don't mean to put classes on the level of essays by Thoreau or Emerson, but I do think that the teaching, pedagogical imagination tries to rise a little bit to the material, to the imagination that's being dealt with in class, and that some, you know, there's some parity, some similarity at least, between critical and creative behavior there.
[1:23:13] Cooper: What happens in a class when it works and the class creates or, or includes or contains that kind of off-balance, slightly confusing, but, but ultimately productive fun? What's going on in a class like that?
[1:23:35] Pritchard: I have a tendency to say–suddenly, you know, this student will be saying this, and she'll be saying that, and suddenly somebody will cut through with something. And I'll say, I'll find myself just saying, “Absolutely, you’re–, that's right. That's, that's it.” And then I want to go home at that point–
[1:23:50] Cooper: Right. [[Laughter]]
[1:23:50] Pritchard: –at least stop for a while, but there are a lot of other kids in the class who are saying, “What? What's what, what the hell's going on? And why doesn't he explain himself a little bit more?” And, uh, yeah.
[1:24:02] Cooper: It's much harder to teach sensibility.
[1:24:05] Pritchard: Yeah.
[1:24:07] Cooper: And you might not agree with that as an expression, but there was nothing derogatory in what you said about Sterling Laprecht’s lectures and the notes you took in them. They were lovely.
[1:24:17] Pritchard: They were wonderful lectures.
[1:24:19] Cooper: But it's very different from what you do in a class. And it has struck me–there's no question in this, I'm just making a comment now–especially in later years, when I went into writing fiction, that it is certainly the case that someone else said to me, you are one of the most writer-friendly professors imaginable. And they don't mean personally, although, you know, you're friendly enough. But in your procedures in class, because you want to stay as close as you can to the performance, to the life of the words in the scene, on the page, as you possibly can, and you're very reticent about submitting them to any sort of larger–
[1:25:07] Pritchard: Yeah.
[1:25:08] Cooper: Idea.
[1:25:08] Pritchard: A kind of good, good example of this happened last spring when I was teaching a course called Reading Fiction, mostly for freshmen and sophomores, and most of the books we read were ones that the kids have never read before, designedly so. But I also decided to do one that they all had read more or less, The Catcher in the Rye, which I had never taught in my life. But I thought I should do this. So what happened was interesting in terms of what you're saying about, about the focus of attention. People were full of words about Holden Caulfield. They understood him, or they sympathized with him, or they shook their heads over him, and they went on and on talking about what Holden felt and why he was the way he was–fully competent to wield psychological, familial, sociological vocabularies or to talk about the ‘50s or ‘40s and ‘50s and repression and that kind of thing. But all that existing as a kind of short-circuiting of Salinger's memorable sentences. What about Salinger? So I say, “What about Salinger? What is he doing here? How does he–? How does he make you feel that Holden is a remark– Holden is an X or a Y?” And it proved to be a much more difficult challenge for them to rise to than, say, to write about sentences in Jane Austen, because you know, Jane Austen: here's all this literary art and complicated syntax and tone and that sort of thing. And with Salinger: here's this guy who keeps saying– just a guy, he's saying– what does he keep saying all the time? “It's depressing.” “I don't like it one–”
[1:27:01] Cooper: Yeah, “it kills me.”
[1:27:02] Pritchard: “It kills me,” yeah.
[1:27:06] Cooper: To your life now not as a teacher but as a writer: you mentioned somewhere that you made a decision, acting on the advice of others when you started out here, that you would develop something that would be separate from Amherst. Reuben Brower, his advice, if I recall correctly, was to take up gardening.
[1:27:25] Pritchard: That's what he did. [[Laughter]]
[1:27:26] Cooper: DeMott advised, always go off to New York or Boston; get away. Maybe you could talk about the relation of your writing and your teaching over the years, its separateness and its connectedness. You took it on, writing about literature, in a way, as a way of getting away, [[Affirmation from Pritchard]] but does it also bring you back to the classroom or or affect what you do in class? How does it connect with your teaching?
[1:28:01] Pritchard: Yes, yes. I may have begun to do it as a way of saying, “I have a life.” [[Laughter]] “I have a wider life than the classroom. I have maybe a professional life; I can get paid for writing a review for a magazine in New York,” and that sort of thing. “Might make $100, who knows?” And– probably not back then. But then you find pretty quickly that there is this marvelous interplay between what you do in class, what you try out on class and what you're able to do in your writing.
[1:28:41] I just had this happen to me rather vividly. This summer, when I was faced with the challenge of writing a book about–a recent book, Charles Rosen's book on the Beethoven piano sonatas, Companion to the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and this is a formidable book. And the whole question of writing about– writing about writing about music was one that I was nervous about. And how am I going to get into this? Well, I managed to get into this by grabbing hold of a couple of examples of writing about music that I remember from 35 years ago, when–at the beginning of the course in problems of inquiry in the humanities, which replaced the new curriculum–we had a unit on, in effect, writing about music, and I used, as a way of easing into this, the chapter at the beginning of– chapter five of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, where the characters go to hear a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Forster very artfully describes their different kinds of responses to the music from the literal to the fantastic to the romantic to the technical. And also a scornful comment by Bernard Shaw in one of his musical journalistic pieces about how– what he called the Mesopotamian mode in criticism, and how boring and unreadable much music criticism is because of its domination by technical– and dry as dust. Anyway, here was something that I'd used 30 years ago in classes to try to get me, get us going, and now suddenly, I bring them back, and I say to myself, “Now have I ever used these in print before? I don't think so. I don't think so.” Maybe I have, but that managed to get me into the whole question of saying something, of writing something about how Rosen's writing about music was not Mesopotamian but not sentimental or romantic, either.
[1:30:59] That's a long way around. But that's an example of what I found to be the case frequently, that you read a novel, you teach it in class, and then you may be writing about that novelist or some other novelist and it comes– they really feed into each other.
[1:31:17] Cooper: You've taught entire course classes on writers you've been writing about as well, haven't you? With the Updike, you did–?
[1:31:25] Pritchard: Yeah, I haven't done that very often. I taught a seminar a few years ago on Updike and Roth where we read Updike for half and Roth for the course of the term. And I did something last– What did I do just recently? Oh, Eliot and Frost as poet critics. So that–, but I haven't, no, I haven't– I've tried to avoid mainly the old university procedure of saying, alright, “I want a book about– I want to write a book about the romantic critic–”
[1:32:00] Cooper: “So let’s crank up the class.”
[1:32:00] Pritchard: “–William Hazlitt, so maybe I'll give a seminar on Hazlitt.” [[Laughter]] And that's okay in graduate schools, what can they do? But you probably wouldn't think that the main thing a junior Amherst English major needed was a seminar on William Hazlitt even though you were going to write a book on William Hazlitt.
[1:32:17] Cooper: Right, yeah.
[1:32:20] Pritchard: When I, my first book was about Wyndham Lewis, who was a novelist, read by very few then and now, and to my credit, I think, I never gave a course on, you know, the fiction of Wyndham Lewis and so on.
[1:32:37] Cooper: I'm interested in the kind of literary biography, and you've written a number of them, that you write. Some approaches to a writer's life and work clearly strike you as, well, perhaps wrongheaded. And it seems that just as you set out in A Literary Life Reconsidered to rescue Frost from a certain kind of evaluation that you thought was misguided, your biographies taken together are an attempt to rescue the form itself. And I'm– my question is “From what?”
[1:33:17] I noted some remarks of yours about Frederick Karl's mammoth book on Faulkner, which weighed in at over 1000 pages, you know, at least three times as long as your books tend to, if not more. You quote Frederick Karl, in his introduction setting out, as he says, “to understand and interpret Faulkner's life psychologically, emotionally and literarily,” and you remarked it already warning lights are going off for you. My question is, why is that? What is the relationship between the work and the life that many biographers construe a certain way that you don't like? What other kind of understanding have you aimed at in your books on Frost, Jarrell, Updike, and so on?
[1:34:03] Pritchard: You know, of course, to be candid, I've been called, I must tell you that I've been called by a bonafide biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, who writes big, big biographies of 700 pages–not as long as Karl's, but big. He calls what I did with Jarrell pseudo-biography, and a pseudo-biography in Meyers’ terms is a book that shirks a lot of things, that doesn't try to give a month-by-month, year-by-year account of the life, and that doesn't try hard enough to interpret and to explain and to find satisfactory, understanding terms for everything that happens in the life of–. So maybe it's partly because I'm lazy, partly because I'm just a pseudo-biographer, that I don't want to write, that I couldn't write a 1200 page book, that my biographies are [[air quotes]] “biographies,” or, as they're sometimes called, “critical biographies;” that is, where as much or more attention is paid to the work, to the poems of Frost, to the criticism and poetry of Jarrell, to the novels and stories of Updike, as to the life. And publishers don't like this very much. They don't–, they want to sell a book, and especially if you have a commercial publisher, as I did for Frost, the first one I had, after seeing four chapters, he said, “We've got to think– rethink this.” In other words, “This won't do, sorry. I want a story, and you've given me a study.” And so I'm not– I think I'm not good at telling a big story, and certainly I'm not very good because of laziness or constitutional incapacity at sleuthing; I'm not very good at making phone calls and pushing people to find out what happened here and there.
[1:36:13] Cooper: It's more than this; it’s more than–
[1:36:14] Pritchard: It's more than that, yeah. But you're saying, why would my lights go–? Why would I get upset if I–?
[1:36:22] Cooper: Yeah, I mean, certainly I understand that you might not want to do the amount–or the kind–of work that's involved in unearthing all this stuff, but there seems to me to be another kind of objection or difference-taking or difference-making that you're expressing with the kind of treatment of a literary life that goes on in a book like Karl's or, to take another example, Lawrance Thompson's three volume biography of Frost, which you gently, politely, but firmly reject, I would say, while expressing your specific indebtedness to it as a source of material for your book. You say, “Thompson seemed over-eager to fix Frost in explanatory categories that imposed upon the life a rigid scheme.”
[1:37:18] Now, the way that scheme works out is that Frost suffered certain psychic injuries in early childhood having to do with it with his parents, various slights and failures and that he enacts through the rest of his life a kind of, a series of retaliations. Updike, writing about this book, said that Thompson “argues a kind of psycho-history of early wounds.” So what I'm interested in knowing about–and in lots of biographies, I mean, Kenneth Lynn writes about Hemingway, says, “Oh, his problem was, his parents wanted a girl. They dressed him up in girls’ clothes until he was five” and things follow from there; you seem to assert a steadfast reluctance. And I would say that this draws all– you can also draw this through the way you teach and appreciate poetry, fiction, and so on. A reluctance to pin a writer down, to explain him in this manner under the organizing rubric of some kind of idea, especially if it's psychological.
[1:38:21] Pritchard: I'm sure that's true. On the other hand, I think of the most distinguished, the best biography I've read in recent years, which is absolutely Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, a book which is full of psychological acuity and penetration but is also full of the impulse of the– doesn't want to commit itself to the kind of lockstep programmatic explanation that Thompson committed himself to–disastrously–with Frost and that Frederick Karl did in a rather more–I don't know; I can't remember that book–but in a somewhat similar way with Faulkner. I don't mean to– it would be stupid, though, to say that because I write the kinds of biographical studies that I've written, critical biographies, that, that I don't believe in, that I'm against big– if, if a– Hermione Lee's book is a big one, but it's big with literary critical appreciation of Virginia Woolf as a writer, as well as sympathy with her and attempts to find adequate language for her sufferings and her madness and her breakdowns and so on. That can be done, and it was done– I haven't read Ellmann’s biography of Joyce for a long time, but I remember that that's an example of a big book that– a big biography that does things well.
But, but yeah, I guess on the whole, I do shrink for good reasons, and maybe for bad, too, from buying into any particular critical or psychological, theoretical explanatory vocabulary that would, in effect, give the biographer the upper hand and say, “Now you see, that's what you did.” And I want to pretend, at least, that– I know that the imagination I'm dealing with is too large for that or too– or I'm too– I'm not enough of a strong critic, a ruthless, strong critic, to say what was wrong with Randall Jarrell and why he had this breakdown at the end of his life. Was that–? I just can't do that. Now maybe somebody will come along and be able to do it, but you work with what you have, and I think you– maybe, again, as with a classroom, you try to keep things in play and not foreclose and not explain. And just as a– anybody, your own life, would you want to be explained? Would you want to have yourself explained at the end of it? “He was the kind of person who, because– did this and that and that.” And I want to try to avoid–nobody's going to write my biography–but I want to try to avoid being the kind of person who can be filed away that way and understood. I don't– Give me a personality no intelligence can understand.
[1:41:55] Cooper: I suppose this has to do with those strong critics that you mentioned. In your books and articles, you've been drawn to admire and to write about extravagant figures, be it Wyndham Lewis or Frost or Mailer or Jarrell. And you've been drawn to critics like Hagan, whose manner could be imperious and–
[1:42:16] Pritchard: Leavis.
[1:42:17] Cooper: –and Leavis, dismissive, and certainly not afflicted with much doubt about their own judgments. Certainly not the kind of doubt that, for instance, you've just [[affirmation from Pritchard]] expressed about your own judgments. Many of us do express doubt about our own judgments. You, by yourself, by temperament, you're generous and not necessarily extravagant. So, okay, you have always valued a certain esprit de combat. You wrote that piece about the genre of witty literary insults, and yet you, while you admire a barb tossed where it needs to be, you tend not to toss in too often yourself, your piece on Spender notwithstanding. I guess I'm wondering what draws you to the kinds of writers that you're drawn to. One kind of writer and not another, particularly the subject for writing about, and about what might seem on the face of it a disjunction of temperaments between you and your subjects.
[1:43:13] Pritchard: Yeah. Well, that's, that kind of goes deep–not to call oneself deep–but I, I've always thought of myself more or less in my dealings in life and with literature and with other people as relatively [[air quotes]] “sane,” S-A-N-E, not given to excesses and simplifications. And I'm sure this can be refuted by anybody; check with my wife. [[Cooper laughs]] But that from the beginning, I think I have been drawn to lives and to imaginative expressivenesses that have the kind of genius in them that my sanity excludes or that my critical posture does not– whatever, whatever Leavis was or Hagan was–I'm thinking of these strong, excessive critics–you could say, “Well, there's genius there.” Emerson, genius. I don't have genius. I have something else, but I’ve– and I've found that I can best be propelled into interesting activity, lively criticism, lively response by imaginations that have the kind of excessiveness. Now maybe any literary imagination is, by definition, excessive, but it does seem to me that yes, I've been drawn toward writers who are predisposed towards satiric, comic extremities or stylistic, as with Updike and Frost, stylistic excesses, and this, this helps keep me sane. That may be an evasive answer.
[1:45:27] Cooper: Who's, who's next for you? Do you know?
[1:45:29] Pritchard: I don't know. I’ve thought about Eliot. I'd like to write about Eliot as a critic, and I think I will, but maybe, maybe not. Maybe not a book. I seem to be content now to do essays and reviews and short-term things and maybe gather them up together and do a compendium if somebody’s willing to publish them.
[1:45:52] Cooper: Two last questions.
[1:45:53] Pritchard: Yeah.
[1:45:53] Cooper: First is one about where you stand as a contemporary critic. You wrote of John Ashbery, the poet, once that “his high reputation is one of the most curious examples of contemporary critical fashion.” I also recall your spirit and engagement with literary theory in an essay about the Yale English department, which I believe was called “The Hermeneutical Mafia”–
[1:46:14] Pritchard: Absolutely right.
[1:46:16] Cooper: –and other pieces in which you seem to position yourself to some extent against some main current of literary studies today and what you've called “the devaluation of traditional literature.” Can you give us a view of the landscape and where you are in it?
[1:46:32] Pritchard: I don't know that I am in it in very significant ways, but that as a younger writer, especially, I think I was looking out for sacred cows, overpraised writers or movements, academic fashions, and this was especially a lively issue, I think, in the ‘70s. I just looked back at a piece that I hadn't looked at in years called “Those Who Can't.” And this was about various prescriptions for teaching and how the classroom should be conducted. This was after the upheavals of ‘68, ‘70, ‘72. And I found myself taking a very satiric and harsh tone toward these proposals. I've always been– I think I'm constitutionally against reformers, against converts, against people who suddenly see the light and who now know that–
[1:47:39] Even with co-education, which has been a great thing, and I've enjoyed every moment of it, but there was– the kind of rhetoric that went on here before co-education was voted in by the trustees seemed to me excessive and sentimental and romantic. “Excluding half the human race” and “what a remarkable difference it would make in the classrooms once women became part of them.” It hasn't made a remarkable difference in the classrooms. [[Laughter]] They're still sometimes quite good and sometimes quite, quite boring. And anyway, that's a digression there.
[1:48:17] But I think maybe that impulse, as you get older, becomes a little less. You say– Well, now they're saying, “There goes Prichard again. He's seen through some new trend, and he's going to expose it.” So you don't want to be too self-righteous in that way. And as a reviewer, too, you tend to get– as you get older, you tend more and more to get the books you want to review, so that usually, the imaginations that I deal with now are really impressive ones and don't need to be deflated or scolded, that sort of thing.
[1:49:01] But as far as where I see myself in the contemporary critical scene, I think–and some people assure me–that I'm a critic who can be read with some profit about both poetry and fiction and about criticism and that I can more or less be trusted not to impose too heavily and too strongly the latest hobbyhorse that I may or may not have been afflicted with. So that's the, that’s the little nice picture you make of yourself. Humble.
[1:49:43] Cooper: Yeah, we are–
[1:49:44] Pritchard: Doing the work in the vineyard.
[1:49:45] Cooper: Yes, I make a nice, you know– of course I do about a 10th of the reviewing that you do, at most, but–
[1:49:51] Pritchard: It's very good, what you do.
[1:49:52] Cooper: –you do make a nice picture of yourself. And then someone I spoke with the other day said–well, a friend of mine who reads all your reviews–he says, “Cooper's really a shredder, isn't he?” [[Laughter from Pritchard]] I’m not a shredder. That's ridiculous.
[1:50:03] Pritchard: Not at all.
[1:50:04] Cooper: You've written, “I'm a believer in the romance of texts,” or rather books, correcting the, uh–
[1:50:11] Pritchard: Right, I remember that.
[1:50:12] Cooper: –“the belief that they can speak for themselves in such a way as to lift us into a new absorbing world. And it's that new world that is of supreme importance as a promise of happiness.” I think behind your partisanship, your argumentativeness, your curmudgeonliness, there is always, really quite near the surface, an immense optimism about literature and what it can do for us. That belief that books can lift us into a new, absorbing world. Looking back, which books– and look back now over decades of a reading life, which books and writers have done the most heavy lifting for you in your life? What remain as the high points of this literary romance in your literary life?
[1:51:16] Pritchard: Well, that's– you really render me speechless there. I sort of stole that “promise of happiness” from the title of an essay by Ben DeMott called “Literature on the Promise of Happiness.” And I think this promise is something that is always held in front of us in a classroom or in our– on the back porch, reading, and when we come across something that that delights and in Frost’s terms, who was for me the great– one of the great elevators, elevates you above contention, above agreement and disagreement and into a realm where where nothing but art counts. For just a little while, that “momentary stay against confusion” that Frost speaks of. But, well, you know where I find my favorite writers, my favorite novelists of this century, I think. Let's not talk about the great ones, the Joyce, the Conrad, the Woolf, but for me the English comic writers–
[1:52:26] Cooper: Powell.
[1:52:28] Pritchard: Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis, Waugh, of course, the progenitor. And in America, these seem to be all male writers, though what–, what one person labeled unfriendly “the phallic narcissists”
[1:52:47] Cooper: Right. [[Laughter]]
[1:52:48] Pritchard: –the fiction of of John Updike and and Philip Roth. So those– but also all sorts of writers whom you read and then you want to introduce the students, as I've introduced the fiction of Rand Cooper to students or the woman who's coming to teach here next spring, Sue Miller, the novelist. And that I see my function in the educational world, the world of Amherst College now, as, you know, giving, putting people in touch with somebody they might–
[1:53:34] Cooper: Well, I think about the many writers I’ve I got the know through you.
[1:53:37] Pritchard: Well, I make up little lists.
[1:53:38] Cooper: I don’t mean personally, but I can see them on my bookshelf. [[Affirmation from Pritchard]] “Ah, that was– Bill taught it. [Wiesner], oh, that was Bill.”
[1:53:45] Pritchard: And I make up lists, alphabetical lists, of some recent novels, and I pass them out at the end of the course. And sometimes, you know, two years later or six years later, somebody will write back and say, “Glad you put me on to so-and-so.” So that's fun to do.
[1:54:01] Cooper: I'm going to wrap up with an evocation and a little challenge to you. The summer after your Amherst graduation you spent playing in a hotel jazz band in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. For some reason, the idea of that summer in your life stays in my memory; your son Will has referred to it as well in the essay he contributed to your Festschrift a number of years ago. There was, I was particularly taken by the notion of you– every day you would play in the band at night. And then in the days, you report not going to the lake, to the beach, but sitting in your tiny dormitory-like room–and this was the summer before you were about to head off to graduate school in philosophy.
[1:54:41] Pritchard: Yeah. [[Laughter]]
[1:54:42] Cooper: You sat there reading the Viking Portable Library Poets of the English Language from the Readers’ Subscription Book Club and memorizing certain poems, and you've alluded to a poem that you memorized–
[1:54:56] Pritchard: Thomas Carew’s “The Spring.”
[1:54:57] Cooper: Correct. Do you still–?
[1:55:00] Pritchard: “Now that the winter’s gone, the earth hath lost/ Her snow-white robes, and now no more the frost/ Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream/ Upon the crystal lake” – “silver lake or crystal stream.” Now I won't go on. But I brought that poem into a freshman class last fall. And, “well let's see what we can make of this.” And I made a little exercise about it. So that's the answer.
[1:55:27] Cooper: You know it. Bill, thank you very much.
[1:55:30] Pritchard: Thank you, Rand.
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, emeritus. He graduated from Amherst with a degree in philosophy in 1953. After earning his Ph.D. in English from Harvard, he returned to Amherst as an instructor in 1958. Pritchard's academic interests lie in American and British 20th-century fiction, poetry, and criticism. Richly intertwined with these is his attention to Amherst's own history; in 2006 he edited English at Amherst: A History by the late Theodore Baird. His own books include biographies of Robert Frost, John Updike, and Randall Jarrell, collections of critical essays, and an autobiography, English Papers. (Amherst Magazine, Summer 2006)
Rand R. Cooper, class of 1980, is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, a film critic for Commonweal, and the author of two works of fiction.
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