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A Sideways Glance with Richard Bogartz: How’s this for Amherst’s new name? Emily

  • Emily Dickinson: Poet’s name much more fitting than Lord Jeffrey’s.



Friday, January 06, 2023

Happy New Year! For years I’ve quietly favored changing our town’s name. Recently I encountered and signed a petition (https://www.change.org/p/rename-the-town-of-amherst-massachusetts) titled “Rename the town of Amherst Massachusetts” started by Brendan MacWade and addressed to outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker and Amherst Town Council President Lynn Griesemer.

The goal was 1,500 signatures and just before I submitted this column there were 1,485 signatures.

Brendan indicates the town is named after “a genocidal British-born businessman and baron” who was not a war hero but did advocate mass killing of local Indigenous tribes. As Brendan puts it, “Amherst does not have to be called Amherst. It was not founded by Lord Jeff. The name was forced upon the town by a British official less than 20 years before the British were driven out of Massachusetts.”

As possible alternative names, Brendan suggests “Norwottuck, which was the indigenous name the locals wanted in 1759, until the colonial governor intervened and chose Amherst. We could name it after a town in England (we have Sunderland and Northampton nearby, both similarly named). Or we could name it Dickinson, after the artist who was born and who died there, and really made Amherst the great town that it is. That would be a rare opportunity to name a Massachusetts town after a great woman.”

Brendan is explicit that he is not proposing a name because in his view we first need the consensus that a name change is needed. I am not so patient.

As soon as I encountered the name change idea, one name seized me and I’ve been unable to warm to any other. Yes, we should name the town after Emily Dickinson. But I shudder when I hear the alternative Dickinson proposed. It is only the name Emily that grabs me. Yes, we should name the town after a woman, and we should use the name Emily to make it unmistakable that it is indeed named after a woman. Emily does that. Dickinson does not.

With Emily we can be on a first name basis with our wonderful town. A surname, perhaps particularly because of the surname we have now, simply doesn’t do it for me.

I happen to believe that Emily Dickinson is America’s greatest poet. Even despite my favorite poem, “Unseen buds,” being by Walt Whitman. Emily’s poems dazzle. She plumbs the depths of being. As in her poem 1695,

“There is a solitude of space

A solitude of sea

A solitude of death, but these

Society will be

Compared with that profounder site

That polar privacy

A soul admitted to itself — Finite infinity.”

If you read my December column on Eckhart Tolle, you may recall my saying Tolle believes “This real self, this awareness, is here, now ... . All that is needed to bring it to awareness is a quieting, a stillness. Peace.” I submit Emily knew this. She spoke of solitude, polar privacy, a soul admitted to itself. Finite infinity. The infinity of pure awareness, free of all boundaries.

I imagine that many of us, at one time or another, have made our way to Emily’s gravestone in West Cemetery. On my first visit there I had not been told about the self-written epitaph. I found the grave surrounded by a small fence and on the gravestone was her name, her birthdate, her epitaph, and the date she died. The epitaph read: “Called back.” It was shockingly delightful. I think this was the moment I fell in love with Emily.

Reading her poems over the years and using some of them in my Consciousness seminar helped the love to mature. During the two multiyear terms I served as presiding officer of the UMass Faculty Senate I introduced the practice of beginning each meeting with my reading a poem. It was only my steel will that enabled me to refrain from reading only Emily’s work.

It is time to change the town’s name. It is the season for dumping memorials to the undeserving and to those symbolizing what we detest. Lord Jeffrey Amherst advocated genocide and we should dump his name.

Emily Dickinson symbolizes life, love, beauty, depth of inquiry, truth, search, discovery. Strunk and White, in their “The Elements of Style,” declared that in good writing brevity is second only to clarity. Emily could well be the goddess of brevity.

We are fortunate to live in a town made famous by a great woman poet. We should pay tribute to her and dump the other guy, whatever his name was.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.