By Nick Grabbe
Many famous writers have called Amherst home, and the Amherst Writers Walk is a self-directed tour of 12 houses they lived in. This post is about five of these writers, who lived in four houses that can be seen in a 30-minute walk. A later post will be about other writers whose houses are on the tour.
118 Sunset Avenue
When Ray Stannard Baker moved to Amherst in 1910, he was 40 and already a famous writer, with a reputation for exposing corruption and inspiring reform through his magazine articles. He had also published a book that was the first examination of America’s racial divide written by a prominent White journalist.
Baker came to Amherst with a secret identity. Starting in 1906, he published a series of articles and books, using the pseudonym “David Grayson,” that became very popular and were translated into many languages. The narrator of these books is an educated man who lives on a farm and likes to walk around preaching a gospel of kindness and hospitality. There was intense speculation about who wrote the “David Grayson” books, and in 1916 Baker admitted that it he was the author. At the time, these books were much more widely read than the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost.
Baker was close to Woodrow Wilson and traveled in Europe during World War I as an unofficial envoy of the President. In 1919, he headed the American press bureau at the Versailles peace conference, and later wrote a multi-volume biography of Wilson that won the Pulitzer Prize. He wrote most of it in the Jones Library.
Baker was a library trustee from 1929 until his death in 1946. The library has 300 books and 9,000 manuscripts in its Baker collection. At UMass, there is both a Baker Hall and a Grayson Hall. The house at 118 Sunset Avenue is now Alpha Tau Gamma fraternity.
Here’s Baker, writing as David Grayson:
“The great point of advantage in the life of the country is that if a man is in reality simple, if he love true contentment, it is the place of all places where he can live his life most freely and fully, where he can grow. The city affords no such opportunity; indeed, it often destroys, by the seductiveness with which it flaunts its carnal graces.”
43 Sunset Avenue
In 1916, the same year Baker revealed that he had written the David Grayson books, Robert Frost (1874-1963) came to Amherst College to give a reading of his poems. He joined the faculty in 1917 and lived in Amherst off and on until 1938. He lived in this house on Sunset Avenue from 1931 to 1938. Earlier, he lived in a house on Main Street that was moved to make way for construction of the police station.
The cantankerous Frost quit his teaching job at the college in 1920 after a dispute with the president, but returned in 1923. From 1926 to 1938 and from 1949 to 1963 he had a more informal relationship with Amherst College. Frost regarded teaching as a distraction from writing his poetry, which gained world renown for portraying the New England landscape and people in ways that evoked universal themes.
Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes, and in 1961 read a poem at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
The Amherst College library is named for Frost, and there is a statue of him on the campus. The Jones Library has 12,000 letters, manuscripts, photos and audio recordings in its Frost collection. You can listen to a reading Frost gave at UMass in 1961 here. The 47-mile Robert Frost Trail runs between South Hadley and Wendell.
The house where Frost lived at 43 Sunset Avenue is now privately owned. Here is the final stanza of Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:
“But yield who will to their separation,/My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one in sight./Only where love and need are one,/And the work is play for mortal stakes,/Is the deed ever really done/For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”
219 Amity Street
A childhood spent in the intellectual ferment of Amherst can inspire future writers. Eugene Field (1850-1895) and Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966) were journalists who spent parts of their young years in this 24-room house on the corner of Lincoln Avenue. The house is now divided into apartments.
Field wrote for newspapers in Kansas City, Denver, St. Louis and Chicago. He was known for his light, humorous articles, which were reprinted in papers all around the country.
But he is best known for writing poetry for children, including “Wynken, Blinken and Nod,” a lullaby-like poem that has inspired marble statues, paintings and a Disney short film. He was so beloved in the Midwest that there are more than 30 elementary schools named after him. There’s a statue of him in Denver. Called the “Poet of Childhood,” Field also wrote (anonymously) a book about a 12-year-old boy who was seduced by a woman in her thirties.
The Jones Library houses articles, correspondence and manuscripts written by Field.
“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night/Sailed off in a wooden shoe,/Sailed on a river of crystal light/Into a sea of dew./’Where are you going, and what do you wish?’/The old moon asked the three./
‘We have come to fish for the herring-fish/That live in this beautiful sea;/Nets of silver and gold have we,’/Said Wynken, Blynken and Nod.”
Mary Heaton Vorse, who spent part of her youth in the same house (at a different time), was a child of wealth who traveled extensively with her family. As an adult, she became a journalist who advocated for women’s suffrage, civil rights and pacifism.
She covered numerous strikes, including by textile workers in Lawrence, Mass., Passaic, N.J. and Gastonia, N.C., auto workers in Flint, Mich. and coal miners in Kentucky. She also participated in labor protests and was put under surveillance by the FBI. She was a war correspondent in Europe in 1918-19.
In 1962, she was the first recipient of the United Auto Workers’ Social Justice Award. She was widowed twice and lived her later years in Provincetown, where she continued her advocacy of progressive causes.
Vorse described herself as “a woman who in early life got angry because many children lived miserably and died needlessly.” Here’s something she wrote in her 80s:
“When I was young, Life said to me, ‘Here are two ways – a world running to mighty cities full of the spectacle of bloody adventure, and here is home and children. Which will you take, the adventurous life or a quiet life?’ ‘I will take both,’ I said.”
259 Lincoln Avenue
Norton Juster (1929-2021) was fighting boredom while serving in the Navy in 1954, so he started writing stories for children. In 1961, he wrote “The Phantom Tollbooth,” with illustrations by Jules Feiffer, about a boy named Milo who is bored with the world and drives his car through an imaginary tollbooth and experiences a series of adventures. Feiffer, who later became a famous cartoonist, described his friend as “mischievous.”
Juster said he was inspired by a conversation he had with a boy about infinity while waiting in line at a restaurant. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has sold over five million copies and been adapted into a stage musical.
Juster was also an architect, like his immigrant father, and was a professor of architecture and environmental design at Hampshire College from 1970 to 1992.
Unlike these other writers, many current Amherst residents have had personal interactions with Juster. When he signed my son’s copy, he didn’t just write his name but also wrote “To Alex.” Juster also wrote “The Dot and the Line,” which is commonly used in schools and, like “Tollbooth,” has been adapted into a film.
Juster lived in the house on Lincoln Avenue from 1982 to 2007. He describes the inside of it in detail in “The Hello Goodbye Window.” The house is now privately owned.
The Amherst Writers Walk grew out of a UMass course on public history, was created by the Historical Commission, and funded through the Community Preservation Act. Here is a link to the commission’s website on the Amherst Writers Walk.