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
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. Commagerand
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 Graaffa 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 belongedthe house belongedin a Victorian time.
Photo: Frank Ward