Passages of Time: Narratives in the History of Amherst College

Edited and with several selections by Douglas C. Wilson ’62. Amherst, Mass.: Amherst College Press, 2007. 298 pp. $25 hardcover.

Review by Cullen Murphy '74

I remember indelibly the first class I stepped into as an Amherst freshman: G. Armour Craig’s redoubtable English 11 seminar, held in a corner room of Johnson Chapel. I also remember the
first paper I got back from Professor Craig, liberally glossed in crimson ink. How to convey the flavor of his comments? Withering, yes, and yet not without hints of therapeutic empathy. Magisterial in its censure, certainly, but with perceptible flecks of deadpan twinkle. In the margin next to one of my sentences stood an exclamation point, alone and upright, prompting a night of inconclusive speculation. Was it meant to highlight a single blip of adequacy? Or, more likely, a lapse into imbecility worse than all the rest? One thing is for sure: everyone in that seminar finished the year understanding the high value that Amherst puts on self-expression through the written word.

Douglas Wilson '62
Doug Wilson '62, editor of an essay collection
on Amherst history, understands what no
mere hagiographer ever would. 

That message didn’t—and doesn’t—just come from the professors. One man who has embodied good writing and playful urbanity in the course of a long career at Amherst is Douglas C. Wilson ’62, who, for almost three decades, held the title of college editor. Wilson’s handiwork can be seen not only in the college’s official reports and publications but also in smaller embellishments, like the deft citations that accompany honorary degrees. At major college events, Wilson could always be found patrolling the perimeter in his role as impresario and critic: serene and dignified, but always ready with a dry observation.

Such have been Doug Wilson’s gifts to the ongoing life of the college. Now, with his book Passages of Time, a collection of writings about Amherst, he has produced a durable monument. This is not some musty assemblage of period pieces. Wilson is, at heart, a journalist, and he has made his choices, which cover the college since its origins, with journalistic imperatives in mind. The two dozen or so selections are stylish, sharp, urgent and alive.

Some distant historical ground has to be covered, of course. In one essay, Susan Dickinson, Emily’s sister-in-law, describes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s celebrated 1857 visit to the college. There is a touching moment when, after his lecture, she walks him home to The Evergreens (still there on Main Street): “He turned his gentle philosophic face toward me, waiting upon my commonplaces with such expectant, quiet gravity, I became painfully conscious that I was I, and he was he, the great Emerson, and I shut up like a spent flower.” Wilson himself supplies an article (one of several) on the contributions of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, to the Amherst campus. It was Olm­sted who recommended in 1870 that the college—at the time little more than Johnson Chapel and its flanks—reorient itself “around a common center,” which he referred to as the “quadrangle.” Thank you, Mr. Olmsted.

Superb as they are, contributions like these don’t fully capture the aggressive vitality of Passages of Time. Some of the very best selections preserve episodes when the college and its citizens are wrestling (imperfectly, honestly, eloquently,
angrily) with periods of momentous transformation. Two of them are emblematic.

The first—“Sabrina Doesn’t Live Here Any More”—began its life as a lecture delivered by Professor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The year was 1984. Coeducation was not a decade old. A multitude of issues stemming from that decision had yet to be squarely faced by the college. In this charged atmosphere, Sedgwick spun a parable of the first woman at Amherst—a nude bronze statue installed on the campus shortly before the Civil War and soon the butt of pranks:

The history of abuses to Sabrina has been told in many articles. What I’d like you to imagine is Sabrina’s point of view on what was happening to her during these years. What I think she mostly felt was confused. To begin with: she is told she’s a goddess, but she’s compulsively degraded, humiliated and treated like property. People pretend to feel awe for her, but they treat her as the most familiar of familiar objects.

Sedgwick goes on to observe: “Women students today have some of the same problems that Sabrina has and some different ones. But that basic structure of conflicting expectations—of a double bind—I think remains very much the same.”

The second essay, “Reflections of a Black Son,” is a memoir by Horace Porter ’72, one of nine children from a poor family in Georgia. Porter arrived at Amherst, one of relatively few African-American students at the time, and took his roommate by surprise when he knelt to say his evening prayers. Porter writes:

The students all appeared wealthy, articulate and atheistic. Clad in faded bell-bottom jeans and wire-framed glasses, they discussed the war and the coming election with what seemed to me expertise. Everyone, or so it appeared, discussed books I had not read. No one discussed books I had read. I had spent nights, dawns and hot summer days reading the Bible, Shakespeare, Austen, Melville and Twain.

Porter evokes an Amherst where few professors were much interested in the works of a Baldwin, Wright or Ellison, and “no one on the faculty was primarily committed to the study of the Afro-American experience.” There are moments of deep satisfaction—a dinner with Ralph Ellison during the novelist’s daylong visit—and many moments of ambivalence and dismay. “The behavior of my peers was at times disheartening. They will do nothing to change America, I often thought and said. Yet I remained because I saw that in its own groping way Amherst was about changing our collective mind and heart.”

In the wisdom of his selections, Wilson demonstrates why the title college editor should come with a laurel wreath. He understands what no mere hagiographer ever would: that the greatest tribute we can pay to Amherst is to give it the same scrutiny that it gave to us.

Murphy is editor at large of Vanity Fair and a member of the Amherst Board of Trustees.

Photo by Kevin Gutting / Amherst Bulletin