An illustration of a woman falling around a number of faces
Let’s call this a confession.

Not long ago I was asked how I ended up attending Amherst College. In rummaging through my memory, I was abashed to realize that—and I mean this literally—I came to Amherst because of a copy of The Official Preppy Handbook in a mall bookstore. This satirical guide to the WASP elite of the Northeast was a bestseller in 1980, the year I entered high school. As a middle-class white girl from the rural exurb of Clackamas County, Ore., I had never heard of Amherst or pretty much anything else in the book. Nonetheless, something about the way the College was depicted captivated my imagination.

This seemed to make sense in retrospect. Though I had never been to New England, I had a vague but vigorous belief that it was my natural habitat, where I could mingle with the tweedy, the bookish, the freethinkers and the eccentrics. At the tender age of 14, I was already brimming with intellectual pretensions, a self-styled bohemian bluestocking who was certain that I’d been born into the aristocracy of the mind but left to languish among the philistines. When I saw Amherst topping a list of selective colleges (the college guidebook was still a new concept then), it cemented my ambition to apply. I somehow became convinced that Amherst would be the sort of cultural utopia I longed for.

So when asked to write something in honor of the Bicentennial of the Fairest College, I dug out a copy of The Preppy Handbook to see what had so captivated me. To my surprise, this is the entry I found on page 85:

Amherst College. Amherst, Mass., 01002: The “h” is silent. 1,115 men, 408 women, all competing with Smith and Holyoke for attention. 43% from Prep schools. 18% go to law school. The Fair Isle capital of the northeast. Every student excels in winter sports. Heavy frat action. SATs: V650, M670.

Now, this makes absolutely no sense. Not one item on this list bore any relationship to me, then or now. I knew no one who attended prep school and wasn’t even sure Oregon had prep schools. I’d never seen a Fair Isle sweater before, I wasn’t clear on what counted as a winter sport, I looked down my nose at fraternities and my SAT math score hovered somewhere south of 400. I was inexplicably unfazed by the stark gender imbalance and the snide comment about Smith and Mount Holyoke.

How this cynical little portrait catapulted me to Amherst I cannot explain, except to conclude that my imaginative desires outstripped my powers of observation. But so it did. Oddly, the process of applying, finagling financial aid and convincing my frugal father to let me go did almost nothing to abate my ignorance of the College. Accustomed to the large state universities of the West, when I arrived on campus in the fall of 1985 I was shocked to find the College so small (that, at least, I should’ve gleaned from the handbook). It was a thrilling surprise to discover there was no core curriculum, bringing a welcome end to my dismal math career. And I had no idea what this “Williams” was that everyone kept mentioning (apparently, I had not bothered to read to the end of the alphabet on the selective colleges list).

Yet, here’s the kicker: Once I got the lay of the land, life at Amherst was almost exactly as I’d envisioned it. For the first time, I was surrounded on all sides by unashamed book readers, midnight debaters, highbrow wisecrackers, eccentric creators and ambitious minds. It wasn’t just my friends or our cohort. However people arrived—as jocks, preps, grinds, flakes, rebels and all the other teenage stereotypes of those years—it seemed to me that the College created a community, however imperfect, out of our most thoughtful, curious and eager impulses. When I took a work-study job in Frost Library’s Archives and Special Collections, and later when I wrote about Amherst as a professional historian, I found the annals of the College teeming with these sorts of characters. Even now, decades later, I delight in finding these traits among fellow alumni, faculty and staff.

“At 14, I was certain that I’d been born into the aristocracy of the mind but left to languish 
among the philistines.”

Of course, I know that many students did not feel such ease and enthusiasm, and I do not discount their experiences or interpretations. I am well aware that this story of stumbling cluelessly through an Amherst education will strike a younger generation—keenly attuned to the inequities of American life and battle-scarred by the 21st-century college industrial complex—as comically improbable or deeply infuriating. Such cluelessness as mine was surely the epitome of privilege. And anyone even passingly familiar with College history can recognize that, for all the individual opportunities it offers, Amherst has also been both an embodiment and an engine of the structural inequality that plagues American society. Even at its noblest, the very phrase “the aristocracy of the mind” perpetuates needless hierarchies.

Yet, even now—older, perhaps wiser, certainly more realistic—I am not inclined to give up that utopian vision that first drew me to Amherst, and that I shared with so many of my classmates. From its establishment in 1821, “The College on the Hill” has been driven by utopian impulses. Its original mission was to save the soul of America, in Noah Webster’s words, by “educating for the gospel ministry young men in indigent circumstances, but of hopeful piety and promising talents.” Amherst College was “an infant Hercules,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in admiration, after visiting the campus not long after it opened: “They write, speak & study in a sort of fury, which, I think, promises a harvest of attainments.”

By the time of the College’s Centennial, the original mission was fast falling out of currency. College president Alexander Meiklejohn, who was to preside over the celebrations, had been chosen by the trustees for his reputation as one of the country’s most innovative educational thinkers. But the new president jolted many faculty and alumni with his dramatic reinterpretation of the ideal college experience. “If you don’t believe it pays to think, go away, stay away; you’re not loyal to Amherst College,” he told the students. “You must be loyal, but don’t give us blind loyalty. Open your eyes, try to know and understand, venture. Stand on your own feet, think your own thoughts and then you’re an Amherst man.” Meiklejohn’s tenure in office came to an abrupt, ignoble end in 1923, but his ideas took firm root in campus culture.

Now, 200 years on, the community is once again radically reinterpreting itself, and that is precisely as it should be. For good or ill, the College’s self-conception has changed drastically over the centuries, and its harvest of attainments is not infrequently overshadowed by its failures and contradictions. But that does not undermine the power and value of a place dedicated to the continual, Sisyphean quest to make the ideal manifest, however it is conceived.

After all—if I might conclude with a fitting flick of cut-rate erudition—the very word utopia was invented as a pun upon the nearly identical Greek words for “a good place” and “no place.” Vividly conceived, virtuously pursued, but always just out of reach. I remain profoundly grateful for the unearned privilege and extraordinary good luck of being part of this good place, that will never be quite as good as we want it to be.

Applegate began working on what would become her first book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, as an undergraduate in Frost Library; it won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography. Her second book, Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age, will be published in November. Applegate’s essay on Calvin Coolidge, class of 1895, appears in the Bicentennial book Amherst in the World.

Photograph by Beth Perkins

Illustration by John S. Dykes