Last night the Amherst College English Department celebrated eight of its faculty who have collectively been teaching since the 1600s, if laid end-to-end, which is fact how they have been organized in Johnson Chapel for the past 60 years or so. While billed as a retirement party, most of those honored are scarcely reducing their activity or Amherst teaching load, but still the Department and College chose this moment to honor their generations-spanning commitment to teaching and scholarship.
My undergraduate advisor, Bill Pritchard, was tied with Jack Cameron for maximum service with 55+ years each. The formalities of the event began with Amherst President Biddy Martin. Martin framed her talk around the skepticism that former Wellesley president and Amherst trustee, Diana Chapman Walsh, once expressed about “Amherst exceptionalism.” The idea is that everyone outside Amherst scorns the idea that there is something uniquely wonderful about The College, but that with true intimacy comes the dawning realization that, in fact, AMHERST IS THE BEST. Martin suggested that if Amherst is exceptional for various reasons (intellectual curiosity, spirit of place) that it is in part these long-serving faculty who made it so. And, she and other speakers hastened to add, it will be the equally awesome younger faculty who take up this legacy. There was an amiable tension throughout the proceedings between the honors due the (Un)Retired 8, and the sense that their defining presence must now yield to whatever comes next, leonine or not.
After all this overdetermined praise, Bill Pritchard stood up to represent the Senior Colleagues and said, “It occurred to me last night to ask, is there anything that could be said against this? ‘On the other hand?’” And what he produced was something that absolutely fit himself and the moment in all its meanings. He quoted the “genial, gentle, even genteel” (only Pritchard can say that!) William Dean Howells, a literary lion of the late 19th century known as the “Dean of American Letters,” who in his old age wrote a polite screed against those who would politely praise him. “Let us alone, I say, so we can bear our burden.” We know how bad we look–don’t make us smirk and pretend it’s otherwise!
This really could not have been more perfect. The rather shy Pritchard found in the words of the “Dean of American Letters”–a title and concept alien to the present English department–exactly the elegant, defiant rejection of “nice job, grandpa” that he could not voice himself. It was the mirror image of Biddy Martin’s use of another woman president’s words, posing for scorn the idea of Amherst English Exceptionalism and then not-quite accepting it, to frame this honored and yet welcome (by some) departure from the scene. Pritchard read the quote, said “Howell said that, not me,” dropped the mic and walked off stage for good.
Seeing this succession take place brought me back to the excitement and fulfillment that I felt as an English student at Amherst, propelling myself all naively towards the PhD. It was quite a moment, which I was very happy to share with friends and fellow pilgrims Carrie and Gail. I also shared (barely…actually I pretty much ate it all myself) the delicious fruits of Atkins Farms, run by the estranged twin brother of the Atkins Diet guy who pursued instead a life devoted to scrumptious carbohydrates. Long may the doughnuts roll out the praises of the Amherst English Department.