Name dropping at Amherst College

  • Henry Ward Beecher, Amherst College class of 1834, became a prominent preacher and abolitionist — and the subject of a Pultizer Prize-winning biography by Debby Applegate, a 1989 Amherst grad. AMHERST COLLEGE ARCHIVES

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 09, 2021

Amherst College has produced only one U.S. president — Calvin Coolidge, class of 1895 — and many historians have given his 1923-1929 stint in the White House mixed marks at best, claiming Silent Cal’s laissez-faire economic policies helped lay the groundwork for the Great Depression.

But the list of notable Amherst graduates is a long one, particularly in the writing world. There was a real bumper crop in the early to mid-1980s, when nonfiction writer/journalist Ted Conover and novelists Chris Bohjalian, Dan Brown, Harlan Coben and David Foster Wallace all graduated within a few years of each other.

The late Wallace went on to become a MacArthur Fellow and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and his 1996 novel, “Infinite Jest,” has been cited as one of the most inventive of modern times. Brown, meanwhile, has sold over 200 million copies of his thrillers, including titles such as “The Da Vinci Code.”

Other successful writers include the late poet Richard Wilbur, class of 1942, a U.S. poet laureate and a two-time Pulitzer winner, and screenwriter/film director David O. Russell, class of 1981. More recently there’s novelist Lauren Groff, class of 2001, a National Book Award nominee. You could also include William “Bill” Amend, class of 1984, the creator of the nationally syndicated “FoxTrot” cartoon.

Five Amherst graduates have won Nobel Prizes, including the economist Joseph Stiglitz, class of 1964, and 14 (including Richard Wilbur) were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. And Harlan Fiske Stone, class of 1894, was a U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1925 to 1946; many other graduates have served in the U.S. government in different capacities, including speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

There are also some cases of different generations of Amherst graduates crossing paths, so to speak. Nancy Pick, author of “Eye Mind Heart,” a new book on the college’s 200-year history, notes that Henry Ward Beecher, class of 1834, became a prominent abolitionist, social reformer, preacher and public speaker in the pre-Civil War years. (His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” one of the nation’s most famous 19th-century novels.)

Fast-forward to 2007, and Henry Ward Beecher becomes the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “The Most Famous Man in America,” by Debby Applegate, class of 1989, who develops her book after first studying Beecher’s life during her time at Amherst.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.