Entering college in 1954, Amherst “men” were a “mid-summer” generation. We were suspended between the values of the 19th and the 21st century.
Having grown up in the concrete canyons of Manhattan, I felt the presence of the 19th century on the Amherst campus through its architecture, landscaping and view of the Holyoke Range.
There were first the edifices of the Emersonian period: South College (1820-21), Johnson Chapel (1827), College Hall (1829), President’s House (1834-35), The Octagon (1847-48). And then there were the structures of the Victorian period: Morgan Library (1853), Williston Hall (1857-58), Barrett Gymnasium (1860), Stearns Church (1873).
I recall the exhilaration of walking down the hill behind Johnson Chapel and crossing the street to attend a welcoming reception at President’s House. It was as if I were entering the time of a Currier and Ives print.
I remember taking professor Sterling P. Lamprecht’s post-Cartesian Modern Philosophy course my sophomore year. I treasured visiting his light-filled office in Walker Hall, where he dispensed wisdom. The turns of the staircases seemed to be an emblem of consciousness itself, and his rounded forehead called to mind a Platonic form of humanism. I felt connected to a past far removed from New York City and the threats of the postwar Atomic Age.
I have a vivid memory of Francis Howard Fobes, a professor of classics and Rhodes Scholar, although I chatted with him only on a few spring evenings in 1957 when he was taking a stroll. He told me with some pride that he was the last bachelor professor to live in a dormitory. For some reason, knowing little about the lives of Oxford-educated professors, I asked him if he had interests outside of ancient Greek and Latin.
“Well,” he said, “I used to fly large box kites on long wires, but one evening the police came and told me I had knocked out the telephones in Hadley when one crossed a power line. They said they would have to confiscate them. Too much development.” It was hard not to think of Mr. Chips.
But the post-idyllic present made its presence known. Stearns Church was razed in 1948 to make room for Mead; and in 1958, professor H. Bentley Glass gave a lecture in Johnson Chapel on the Genetic Danger of Nuclear Weapons Testing. The times were a-changin’. Phi Gamma Delta was suspended from the national fraternity for pledging a “Negro member” of the Class of 1960; counterinsurgency in Vietnam soon became a nightmarish war; and women were sighted on campus in 1972.
Still, I left Amherst with the sense that a significant time of the past was in place. I was shocked when Walker Hall, “the Temple of Science,” was demolished in 1963. I knew I needed to prepare myself for a version of American reality in which the written word would be less important.
It has arrived. Planet of the Apps soon may replace English and American literature just as the classical tradition was displaced after World War I by modernism. Robotic post-humanism slouches toward us with promises of an electronic Utopia.
Welcome, Mr. Micro-Chips!
An architectural time line can help the Amherst College community make choices about the future. To edit the past is one thing; to delete it, another.