L to R: Jacqueline Woodson, Chris Bachelder, Zadie Smith, and Doris Kearns Goodwin
From left: Jacqueline Woodson, Chris Bachelder, Zadie Smith and Doris Kearns Goodwin speaking at LitFest 2017

More than 1,400 bibliophiles gathered on campus March 2-4 for LitFest 2017, the College’s second annual literary festival. Aimed at celebrating Amherst’s literary history as well as exceptional writing and writers, the festival included conversations and book signings with 2016 National Book Award fiction finalists Chris Bachelder and Jacqueline Woodson, internationally renowned author Zadie Smith and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Additional activities included master classes, a poetry slam, panel conversations and tours of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

“With this literary festival, we hope to generate an intellectual and aesthetic energy that reminds us all of the invaluable place the humanities and arts have—and must continue to have—in a world we all want to inhabit,” said Professor Martha Umphrey in remarks prior to Zadie Smith’s talk and reading on March 3. “Funding for the humanities, the arts, and more generally for the best of civil public engagement is currently under direct threat,” Umphrey continued, “and so now more than ever we need the voices of artists, in fiction and nonfiction, poetry on the page and in spoken word, and other expressive forms to depict and complicate, reflect and prophesy, revealing and refracting the beauty and ugliness and compromises of our fraught world.”

Here are three snapshots from LitFest 2017.

A Conversation with Chris Bachelder and Jacqueline Woodson

L to R: Jacqueline Woodson and Chris Bachelder

Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn and Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special have more in common than one might think, said Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, who moderated a conversation with the two authors on March 2. Both novels, she said, explore friendship and memory.

The Throwback Special is about 22 men who meet annually to reenact a famous 1985 football play. At first, Bachelder said, he thought he was writing a novel about the play itself. “The men come each year thinking that it’s about the play, too,” Bachelder said. “But it’s not. They come seeking something else.” The book, he said, is really about nostalgia, ritual and friendship.

Another Brooklyn, about four girls growing up in the 1970s, came about because Woodson had only seen Bushwick, the Brooklyn neighborhood of her childhood, written about from the “tragic gaze” of outsiders. “I wanted to write a biography of Bushwick,” Woodson said. The resulting novel explores the intense bonds of childhood and how they dissolve in adulthood.

An Evening with Zadie Smith

  Zadie Smith

I have a fantasy of a book I can’t seem to write,” Zadie Smith told students, faculty, staff and local residents in Johnson Chapel on March 3. In writing that imaginary book, Smith said, she would be unconcerned with how it might be perceived by readers who don’t see themselves reflected in it. In reality, she said, “I’m always thinking about and second guessing readers’ assumptions … understanding that they might not relate to a character’s background, identity or politics.”

Smith’s talk was the headline event of LitFest 2017 and was hosted by Jennifer Acker, editor-in-chief of The Common literary magazine at Amherst. Their discussion began with Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, which centers around two young girls and their shared love of dance.

Smith also talked about creating intentionally unreliable narrators—characters “who distort the story because of envy,” she said, or similar emotions—and challenges she faces when writing. “I’m often trying to find a voice that can contain lots of different people,” Smith said, “and finding a different form for each character.” Great writing, she said, can unify even the most disparate characters.

A Conversation with Doris Kearns Goodwin

Cullen Murphy and Doris Kearns Goodwin

What’s the purpose of writing history? “It allows you to spend a lifetime looking back at the past, and it’s how your family and public figures can live on,” said presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin on March 4 in a conversation hosted by Cullen Murphy ’74, Vanity Fair’s editor at large and chair of the College’s board of trustees.

During the wide-ranging talk, Goodwin shared anecdotes about figures including Lyndon B. Johnson, who told her she reminded him of his mother, and Barack Obama, who called her in 2007 to talk about her book Team of Rivals. “He was fascinated by Lincoln’s emotional intelligence,” she said.

Goodwin also offered insights into presidential leadership—the subject of her current work. She said she chooses subjects whom she “feels enlarged by”—public figures whose qualities and life stories offer lessons on how to live. “I've chosen to write about people I respect,” she said, “and I hope people who read about them will feel inspired by their leadership.” The best leaders, she said, become larger as a result of adversity.

LitFest story

See more photos from LitFest 2017.


Amherst’s annual literary festival is sponsored by The Common, the Center for Humanistic Inquiry and the Emily Dickinson Museum. It is made possible by the generous support of the Croxton Lecture Fund, established in 1988 by William M. Croxton ’36 in memory of his parents, Ruth L. and Hugh W. Croxton.