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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2002 > Reacquainted With the Night
Room with light coming through doorway.
Commager House, 2001

Reacquainted With the Night

By Douglas C. Wilson '62

Nor must you dream of opening any door until you have foreseen what lies beyond it. Regardless of its seeming size, or what may first impress you as its style or function, the abrupt structure which involves you now will improvise like vapor.
       —Richard Wilbur '42, "walking to sleep"

A shade half drawn; pale sunlight on an unswept floor; no stirring in the trees outside. The 140-year-old Commager house has stood vacant at 405 South Pleasant Street since 1995, the year Prof. Henry Steele Commager, frail and sweet-tempered, moved out of faculty housing and into a condominium.

Without asking questions, Pete Joy, the campus police officer, took me to the abandoned house, unlocked a back door and let me in.

What would be in the dusky space? Vapors of memory? Specters? I wasn't sure.

No feelings awoke at first when I looked at my innocent student journal entry for the night of October 14, 1959, then went to to the house to look at the pale, empty room, and tried to quicken the past. Not only had all the partygoers dispersed long ago: every one that I remembered had died. Robert Frost. Commager—and his wife, Evan, the hostess, long before him. Steele Commager, the son. Harriet Whicher. Rolfe Humphries. John Moore. Merrill Van De Graaff, too. Leaving me to recompose the lustrous evening alone.

Mrs. Whicher, who in her widowed 60s attended the party, once quoted Frost, the guest of honor, as having said that composition ends up "saying as you go more than you hoped you were going to be able to say, and coming with surprise to an end that you fore-knew only with some sort of emotion."

Would I meet with surprise? Ultimately the exercise of reading the journal and revisiting the room, of looking back, back again to a magical evening, "improvised" like vapor indeed. Things turned out to be not what they seemed.

Other Amherst people remember similar evenings, have stories of spellbinding hours with Robert Frost, of Commager hospitality, or of both together. It was only one evening of many, in a faraway time. But how could I forget it.

No doubt Mrs. Commager reached me on the pay telephone in South dormitory with the invitation. Frost was in Amherst on his annual fall visit and they were having him over Wednesday night with some other people; come to the house at 8:30, and bring a friend if you'd like.

The Commagers knew my family in Indiana and were good about entertaining homesick students with faculty. I decided to bring a fellow sophomore and Phi Psi fraternity brother, Merrill Van De Graaff—a quiet, talented friend from Utah who wrote poetry for the campus literary magazine. Merrill had a big toothy smile and a perpetual air of credulity. He was thrilled.

The evening came and we walked half a mile to the boxy, white clapboard house and knocked at the door. The windows were aglow; cars were parked in the drive. Evan Commager welcomed us cheerily and put us at ease with her soft southern voice. She wore a long gown and was tall and maternal. Her hair was drawn up in a pompadour; she belonged—the house belonged—in a Victorian time.

Continued >>

Photo: Frank Ward


Online Extra


Amherst Common's guide to Robert Frost on the Web

Robert Frost at the American Academy of Poets'

The Friends of Robert Frost

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