An Unbroken Series of Successful Gestures

In that fusty, carmine-carpeted chapel of the building that bears the name JOHNSON hangs portraits of our former prominenti, those persons who at one point were associated with the College and for now endure in oils and frames. In company with such celebrated figures as Calvin Coolidge (the 30th President of the United States), Harlan F. Stone (the 12th Chief Justice of the United States), Rose R. Olver (the College’s first female tenured professor), and Anthony W. Marx (his reputation precedes him) is none other than the Reverend Professor Edward Hitchcock, Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Laws. Not unlike most of the pictured individuals surrounding him, the third president of Amherst sits close-mouthed, pale and dyspeptic; he holds a compass, which as a suggestion of a clear vision if not an adventurous spirit would belie the staid countenance he wears were his eyes to glint less proudly. From beholding the noted geologist’s likeness for but a minute, the richness of the man’s personality emerges—the collection of deeds, desires, and morals that made him who he was arises where color and canvas agglutinate. [It takes, of course, both a virtuosic painter and an interesting subject to produce a work worthy of contemplation. Alas, this is but a blog post and not a discourse on the merits and faults (the “pure applesauce”, as one could call them) of realism in portrait painting. Suffice it to say that the work to which I refer is good enough to warrant extended consideration here.] It is personality that compels me to keep looking at the artwork, what piques and stokes my interest. Indeed, what would it be like to, say, get a beer with the aforementioned Hitchcock? (Presumably not well, considering he was an avid apologist of the temperance movement.) The question I am getting at, really, is, Who was he? We know of his accomplishments and of his gastrointestinal ailments. But what of the man behind the letters and trivialities? To know Edward Hitchcock, to understand his motivations by reading into the things he left behind guides the vector of this internship’s enquiry. It was at the Beneski our man of the summer literally took shape.

Busted preconceptions
Never mind the profusion of millions-year-old fossils at the College’s museum of natural history, which left me with awe-induced goosebumps; forget about the Exodusian tale of Hitchcock at Mount Holyoke watching the Ox-bow materialize (Darya has already covered it). What I will take note of here is the marble bust of Hitchcock that lords over his eponymous ichnology collection in the depths of the aforementioned museum. Early on this internship, I happened on a few pictures of a statue of Hitchcock—a statue whose current hidey-hole the Archives knew naught of, the statue now parented by Collections Curator and diorama enthusiast Kate Wellspring. Upon encountering the head’s thoughtful, stern and paternal dead eyes, I knew Hitchcock was once a force of the College, if not the varied communities (viz. local, religious, and scientific) he occupied. Discounting tyrants, some members of the leisure class, and others often undeserving of commemoration, men and women with statues are those who contribute positively, significantly to the public, who leave a legacy in the wake of their deaths—at least, such is the ideology of memorialization. (This is not the forum to discuss the politics of idolatry, however.) What I have been girding is the impression the Beneski visit left on me: newfound appreciation for Hitchcock’s accomplishments. It was the statue that underscored the man’s general devise.

My fair seed-field
What’s more, the statue itself (along with what I will call the Ox-bow incident) effectuated thoughts of the importance of time to Hithcock. Already my interns in arm and I have broached the subject of time, the meaning and experience of it, when we discussed how we could use the methodology of mapping to make sense of and present the collection. Our provisory proposal for a mapping project stated that we would seek to recreate living in the early to mid 1800s. Such a focus on time in part derives from text analysis performed on some of Hitchcock’s published writings, which make frequent use of temporal-related words like era, new, and explicitly, time. Perhaps it was a mixture of Hitchcock’s geological and religious exposure, respectively, that primed him for an obsession with sempiternity, in addition to his brush with death as a youth when a case of mumps sickened him severely, permanently (hence, his impaired vision). Whatever the source of Hitchcock’s existential preoccupations, what seems clear is that the man had been “led…to inquire on what foundation I was building for eternity” (from his Reminiscences of Amherst College). Such a profound aim elicited from a visit to the Beneski and research in toto is worthy of extended focus as our project evolves.

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