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.”
The best garden in Brooklyn is like Fred Astaire
Charming but inaccessible.
A private creation for public viewing.
I look down into it from my living room,
Its spilling vines and spruce hedge-tops lend cachet to my garden.
Yet a high fence keeps us
As does the rusty chain link gate on the street side,
which is only opened for
Tree-trimming and the like.
In Ivy Pochoda’s latest novel, Wonder Valley, we find ourselves amidst a scruffy, largely invisible subset of Los Angelenos: drifters, con artists, criminals, quack healers, the homeless. The few in their orbit who have money or a measure of success are in danger of losing their souls. Everyone is close to the edge, all the time. Yearning. Longing. Trying to get someplace. Anywhere but here.
Outside Is the Ocean, Matthew Lansburgh’s debut short story collection, is a particularly complete and satisfying example of the linked genre. The stories reveal a long, novelistic arc, while the broken chronology captures the fragmented personality of the central character, Heike, and the chaos she sows.
A gentile, post-war German immigrant to California, Heike speaks and thinks in a German-inflected English that’s full of mangled idioms—as in the opening line of the book: “Al gives me zero.” Or: “She thinks the world will give her French toast on a silver platter.” Heike disappoints and infuriates everyone, but is perversely optimistic, which gives many of the stories a certain hilarity, even the saddest ones. Humor enables Heike’s gay son, Stewart, a literature professor, and her adopted, one-armed Russian daughter, Galina, to survive her boundless narcissism and neediness.
I think we can agree that Donald Trump has been bad for literary fiction. Many people, myself included, have turned to non-fiction (not to mention gorging on news) to understand how the U.S. elected an authoritarian who orders bombings while eating chocolate cake, calls the army “my military,” lies compulsively, and spends half his time golfing. I, for one, am reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. And it doesn’t make me feel a bit better.
Reading Gabriel García Márquez in the Age of Trump: The Autumn of the Patriarch
I was riding the F train home the other day reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The local went express at Jay Street in Brooklyn, and I exchanged an exasperated smile with a woman on the platform. “Is that good?” she asked, pointing to the book. “I’ve been meaning to read it.” I called Whitehead’s disturbing way of mixing history and invention in his novel about slavery, “steampunk abolitionist” and she liked that. Manners obliging, I asked what she was reading. “Something with Ove in the title.” It was funny in surprising ways, but she couldn’t remember the name. We agreed nothing induces amnesia like being asked what you’re reading. The name and author came to her on the local. A Man Called Ove by Frederik Bachman. I promised to look it up. I got off at the next stop feeling rich for our impromptu book club, and grateful for a moment of literary communion that’s all but disappeared.
On a recent trip to Côte d’Ivoire, I walked into the Librairie de France, the crowded, chaotic bookstore on the Plateau, the downtown business district of Abidjan, and asked for books by Fatou KeÏta. They directed me upstairs, where I found most of a bookcase filled by the popular Ivoirian writer’s works. Fatou Keita has written 25 books for children and two novels, including Rebelle (Rebel), about a young West African woman who escapes genital excision, which remains common, despite efforts to eradicate the practice. According to a 2013 World Bank report, “To Be a Woman in Côte d’Ivoire,” 14% percentage of Ivoirian girls under 14 have experienced infibulation, the most traumatizing form of genital excision.
An Ivoirian Writer Takes on Genital Excision: An Interview with Fatou Keïta
In Abidjan, the principal city of Côte d’Ivoire, Africa’s fastest-growing economy, the air is black and nauseating on the Boulevard des Martyrs in the upscale Deux-Plateaux neighborhood at morning rush hour. My mouth tastes of diesel already. The light changes. Orange taxis, yellow taxis, trucks, busses, vans belch exhaust in unison. Traffic surges; two lanes fracture into four as drivers maneuver anarchically to break through, and the jam gets worse. When the cab I’m in reaches the chokepoint, I see a man lying on his back on the pavement, head to one side, the wheels of a stopped car inches away. His overturned motorcycle blocks a lane. When I pass a half an hour later, he’s still there, and traffic is backed up to the Boulevard François Mitterrand.
This is a falling-out-of-love story and an old boyfriend story, though I was never in love with him, but that’s another story. I was in love with a place and an idea of where I could live that was incompatible with who I was becoming, though it took a long time for me to accept it.
The place was Maine, and the love wasn’t a mad passion but an achy, nostalgic, security-blanket attachment. I’d spent my early childhood summers on one of Maine’s most remote islands in the Penobscot Bay, and had idyllic memories of kerosene-lit cottages, beach-combing, berry-picking, and unsupervised roaming with other children for hours. The sight of granite cliffs, shingled houses, lobster boats, and pine trees brought forth a powerful rush of dopamine and nostalgia. When my family moved to Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, we put island rocks in our sea freight. I reconnected with Maine after we returned to Washington, D.C. Once I started college, my parents moved overseas, and Maine became a touchstone, a place I returned to as often as possible, an imaginary home.
The fifteen stories in Odie Lindsey’s moving first collection, We Come to Our Senses,are war stories—but they feature little combat and no front-line heroics; nor are they of the war-is-hilarious-except-the-killing genre, such as Catch-22 or Fobbit. They’re stories of the PTSD generation, the all-volunteer, gender-integrated, post-don’t-ask-don’t-tell veterans of endless, metastasizing conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Written in a wry, poetic voice, Lindsey’s stories braid past and present into multiple narrative lines and often surprise us with which comes out on top at the end.
Like Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War classic, The Things They Carried, Lindsey’s book plumbs the psychic impact of war, but he takes his exploration farther from the battlefield. Many of Lindsey’s characters have no direct military experience, but are wounded by war nonetheless, sometimes fatally.