For Amherst College’s fourth annual LitFest, The Common put together a Literary Landmarks tour of Amherst College, highlighting locations on campus with special connections to literary figures affiliated with the college, from Robert Frost to Lauren Groff. Building on that effort, we’ve compiled these highlights from The Common that were written either by or about Amherst professors, alums, and even current students.
Richard Wilbur graduated from Amherst College in 1942, and returned to Amherst to teach towards the end of his life, from 2008 to 2014.
“Richard Wilbur first visited Rome with the American Fifth Army that liberated the city, just behind the fleeing Germans, on 5 June 1944. By 10:00 p.m., his division, the 36th Texans, in trucks, in jeeps, and on mobile artillery, followed the tanks of the First Armored Division into the southern outskirts of Rome, where it paused, expecting to camp and rest within Cinecittà—then, as now, the sprawling center of Italy’s movie industry. Ever the explorer, Wilbur wandered into an abandoned viewing room and found, already loaded into an editing machine, a costume drama set in the Roman Empire. He turned the hand crank and watched a Fascist version of ancient history until his disgust overcame his curiosity.”
“Miss Val! Miss Val!” A swarm of five-year-olds buzzes around me in the kindergarten playroom. Marni is standing in the middle, feet planted, lower lip sucked in, staring down her blood-coated finger from under her scrunched-up eyebrows as though the finger should have known better. This is leftover hubbub from bigger and scarier trouble in the courtyard, which involved a stuffed monkey, the edge of the sandbox, and a superficial but profusely bleeding head wound, but the ambulance has already left, whisking away the lollipop-loaded victim, and the droplets of blood are being cleaned up outside the courtyard doors.
The streets are named for German poets in my huge provincial Midwestern city. Dust whirls up from the tires of passing cars, lifting a veil over me, like Romantic longing. On Goethe, I want nothing more than to reach down and feel a lover’s big skull in my hands. On Schiller, lust subsides, among the wrought iron doors and grand steps, lined with hundreds of dollars of candles. Inside, patricians mingle in the high-minded friendships I desire for myself. About this, as so much else, the flowers in the window-boxes on Schiller are philosophical. Their arguments are convoluted, but concern the beauty of simplicity, freedom from need, and, even more often, the depredations of time. One fat peony speaks as if she were the Sybil: “Live with your century but do not be its creature.”
Urbino, a Renaissance jewel in central Italy. My first visit there in many years. I knew no one there, nor was I in touch with anyone from my grandmother Antonia’s family—assuming any were left.
One evening, as I was ascending a cobblestone street towards the city’s outer walls, I noticed a group of people gathered around an uncovered manhole. Intrigued, I moved closer. A group of amateur speleologists was about to begin a nocturnal exploration of underground Urbino; to my surprise they asked me if I wanted to join them. Squeezing down the manhole’s narrow, vertical, metal stairs, I found myself in a long tunnel. The guides began talking, but I wasn’t listening, mesmerized by the scattering flashes of their helmets’ lights. I felt I was physically penetrating the past—an imagined past. My father’s city’s past, unknown to him and to me.
Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.
—Elizabeth BennettPride and Prejudice
Nobody wants to hear about your trip.
—Amherst College Professor of English Theodore Baird
We don’t travel as a couple anymore, Bill and I, except for the shortest jaunts to Boston maybe once a year, in the summer to the Adirondacks to visit Bill’s brother and family, and to the Berkshires, where friends sometimes take us to indoor concerts at Tanglewood (Bill doesn’t listen to music outdoors). So I travel on my own, but more and more rarely: day trips with a friend, twice-yearly visits to Oregon to keep in touch with son Will and family, once a year or so to the Washington, D.C., area to see my sister, rare overnights to New York. I also dig in more closely here at home—not as closely as Bill does with his piles of books and constant reviewing and teaching at Amherst College, but still, closely.
I’m thinking of a classic geography text that explains how humans use rivers and mountains to mark their borders. The difference is that rivers help humans come and go from each other while mountains keep them apart. But from the textbook of my own travels, I know this isn’t true. The only real borders are those humans make themselves, in their own minds.
—Suddan Wisudthilak, Thai scholar
Two years ago, I stood aghast at the sight of a little island in the Moei River, the border between Thailand’s northwestern Mae Sot district and Burma, on which refugees from the latter had made their home.
“This is it—this is what they call a no-man’s-land,” said my friend, a local provincial administrator, who’d taken me there. “It’s not only that they lack a military force. For me, it also means there’s no humanity. Just look.”
I was settling down for a quiet afternoon at my usual café when the waitress asked me if I’d like to try their new marmalade. “It’s made from special wild oranges from Ehime,ˮ she explained. They were planning on officially introducing it onto the menu next month, but wanted to have some regulars test it out first.
“I’d love to try some,ˮ I said. In a few minutes she brought over a pot with my tea, as well as the plate, loaded with carefully sliced squares of milk bread and two small ceramic tubs, one with a creamy whipped butter, the other holding a delicate orange jam.
There can be nothing humble about a modern supplicant
if circumstance leaves him begging for a five-pound block
of cheese. Someone makes sandwiches of broken glass
and light mayo for the children of the divorced, who are us.
My father plods around our small apartment, the rooms arranged in a square, the center of which is the staircase up from the garage below. He’s 72 and has taken to wearing only boxer briefs anytime he is at home, stripping his other clothes off moments after he gets through the door. He still works 40 hours a week on graveyard shifts. Seven years have passed since he started fighting cancer. He’s singing the words Life’s a bitch, and then you die at a high volume because he’s going deaf and he wants to hear his own reaffirmations. He told me and my brother he’s done living once we move out. He wasn’t threatening us. He wants us to flourish and move out, stepping into our own lives. He wants us to love him enough to let him shoot himself.
Whitney BrunoAfter Watching the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery