The Halls of the Past

By Howard R. Wolf ’58

[1954–1963] We “men” who entered Amherst in 1954 were, to quote Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” a “mid-summer” generation, suspended between the values of the 19th and 21st centuries.

I felt the presence of the 19th century through Amherst’s architecture, landscaping and view of the Holyoke Range. There were, first, the edifices of the Emersonian period: South College, Johnson Chapel, College Hall, the president’s house, the Octagon. Then there were the structures of the Victorian period: Morgan Library, Williston Hall, Barrett Gymnasium. I recall the exhilaration of walking down the hill behind Johnson Chapel and crossing South Pleasant Street to attend a welcoming reception at the president’s house. It was as if I were entering a Currier and Ives print.

Sophomore year, I took Professor Sterling P. Lamprecht’s post-Cartesian course in modern philosophy. I treasured visiting his office in Walker Hall, where the turns of the staircases seemed an emblem of consciousness itself. In his light-filled office, I felt connected to a past far removed from the postwar Atomic Age.

I have a vivid memory of Professor of Classics Francis Howard Fobes, although I chatted with him only on a few spring evenings in 1957 when he was out strolling. He told me, with some pride, that he was the last bachelor professor to live in a dormitory (Pratt). Knowing little about the lives of Oxford-educated professors, I asked if he had interests outside of Ancient Greek and Latin.

 “Well,” he said, “I used to fly large box kites on long wires, but one evening the police came and told me I had knocked out the telephones in Hadley when one crossed a power line. They said they would have to confiscate them. Too much development, they said.” It was hard not to think of Mr. Chips.

The post-idyllic present also made itself known on campus. Stearns Church had been razed in 1949 to make room for the Mead Art Museum. Its steeple remained, but other spires of the 19th century—for better and worse—were being dismantled. Missionary zeal had faded, and the classics were being called into question by the Beats.

Still, I left Amherst with the sense that a seemingly coherent past was in place, so I was shocked when Walker Hall, “the Temple of Science,” was demolished in 1963, leaving only a statue of Noah Webster at its entrance.

Amherst positioned me to live in more than one century, and I take comfort in the fact that enough of its 19th-century architecture and ambience remains. So long as Webster stays where he is, I know that Amherst will stand for—among other evolving commitments—literacy, literature, humanistic inquiry and a model of a humane society.

Wolf, a professor emeritus of English at the University at Buffalo, is the author of, most recently, Far-Away Places: Lessons in Exile.