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.”
“All my life I’ve been waiting,” says my father-in-law, through the stall door. We have stopped at a rest area along the interstate, halfway between our homes. I would meet him back in the car, if only he would stop waxing poetic.
“Frank?” I face the mirror, smoothing the hair over my thinning spot. “I’ll be—”
“First for school to end,” he interrupts. “Then for my twenties, then for success. Marriage, children, et cetera. For them to leave. For their children. Then the waiting became less conspicuous. Waiting for the cry of boiled water. For the paper. For spring. It took a mighty long time to understand that what I’d been waiting for wasn’t each thing, actually, but the chance to wait for whatever came next.”
Daniel Fights a Hurricane, Shane Jones’ third novel, takes place in two worlds. One is an unnamed American town made concrete by its familiar landmarks—Target, McDonald’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods. The other is the phantasmal world of the protagonist, Daniel Suppleton—a thirty-two-year- old employee at a Stuart Services LLC, a pipeline construction site—who develops a crippling paranoia: that a Hurricane will descend and “erase everything.” The book chronicles Daniel’s retreat from the familiar world into his imagined one, and the struggle of his ex-wife Karen to coax him back to sanity.
1. You are a self-described fabulist. In your opinion, what can a fable do that other literary forms cannot?
The fable can be said to be a metaphor or figure so ambitious that it has annexed unto itself the entire fictional space. Like all symbolic language, it possesses extraordinary power to render a particular notion of reality – an idea – with absolute simplicity and efficiency. By simplicity and efficiency, I mean the reduction of complex thought into a unifying field of imagery in order to understand and convey unseen connections between objects or phenomena. The abstraction needn’t be stark. On the contrary, it can be as highly colored and intricately wrought as a Persian miniature or a poem by Wallace Stevens. But however rich in complications and implications, the metaphoric reality (can I call it a “truth”?) is vastly less vexed than what surrounds and oppresses us – by day and by night: our conscious and unconscious, public and private lives.
By fabling, I can explore ideas – treat them playfully – while satisfying my need to make things and to produce beautiful surfaces created entirely of sentences and their syntactical relationship. And I will confess this much: that for a writer like me, no other literature is possible than that whose source is his own imagination and his art. As Stevens wrote, “Poetry is the subject of the poem.”