ne afternoon about three months after I moved to the town of Cummington, I happened upon a ream of literature about the Cummington Press, a literature venture founded by one Harry Alvin Duncan in 1939. At the time I was working as assistant director for the now-defunct Cummington Community of the Arts, and the papers I found piled in an old storage closet noted that Robert Lowell's first book of poems, Land of Unlikeness, had been hand-printed in the same building, known as Vaughan House, where I was busy poring over applications for the artist-in-residence program, managing affairs for the current residents, and trying hard not to let anyone know the place was on its way to bankruptcy. In hindsight, it appears that I arrived at the Community of the Arts just as its swan song was beginning. But for me it was still new and somewhat wondrous, and my discovery of the Cummington Press gave the place an almost mythical appeal.
The list of first-edition books Duncan had published was truly staggering. It included several by Wallace Stevens and Williams Carlos Williams. There was a book entitled Five Prose Pieces by Rainer Maria Rilke, and one of the single short story "Blackberry Winter" by Robert Penn Warren. Marianne Moore, Allen Tate, and Tennessee Williams were just a few more of the many hallowed names on the press's list of publications.
When Duncan died last year, I wound up writing his obituary for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the small western Massachusetts newspaper I have worked for since 1993. One of the many facts I uncovered was that a 1982 Newsweek article named Duncan "father of the post-World-War II private-press movement." I also spoke to Cummington native Gloria Gowdy, who as a teenage girl in the summer of 1944 was asked to cook lunch for Duncan and his Cummington Press partner, Paul Wightman Williams, so they could keep working on Allen Tate's The Winter Sea and Williams Carlos Williams's The Wedge. According to Gowdy, the press itself was then set up in the Vaughan House kitchen. This was the same wide, well-lit kitchen where I regularly came to bake bread after midnight, a therapeutic measure I had developed to counteract insomnia while working at the Community of the Arts. It was also the place where several residents claimed to have seen the ghost of Katharine Frazier, who in 1923 founded what was then known as the Playhouse in the Hills, but became incorporated as the Cummington School of the Arts in 1930. Originally an art and music school with formal underpinnings and faculty, it passed through many incarnations before its back debt, lack of endowment, and ailing buildings sealed its fate five years ago.
Gowdy, who is the godmother of Duncan's daughter, Lucy, first met Duncan when she was seventeen and working in her father's Main Street store, called Goldy's. That was in fall of 1943. When I visited her at her Stage Road home last summer, she brought out a cache of Cummington Press books, which she claims to have carried with her everywhere during her life. Among the fifteen or so books, she owns one of only 250 first-edition copies of Lowell's Land of Unlikeness--valued at $3,000. A tiny orange book I opened turned out to be The Wedge. Gowdy recalled when Williams Carlos Williams came up to Cummington to discuss the book with Duncan in June of 1944. "He took a train to Northampton and then a taxi all the way out here," she said. "That very much impressed us." A writer herself at work on "a few novels in various stages," Gowdy credits Duncan with inspiring the love of literature she developed as a teen-ager. "I was this rather gauche Cummington girl," she said. "I was just learning about poetry and he was very generous to me."
According to Gowdy, no one in Cummington really knew or treated Duncan very well. "If people hadn't treated Harry the way they did, he would have given his books to the library," she said. "Instead he gave them to me." She described Duncan as "an elfinish person, always ready to pounce and never really relaxed." She recalled a certain mocking quality to his lilting, sing-song voice. "There was an edge to him, which was baffling for a teen-ager," Gowdy explained. "I remember one April day when Harry, Paul, and I went out for a walk in the woods. Paul was sweet, depressed saint of a man. Harry was almost like Pan and would sort of leap along the path while Paul and I walked sedately. I always expected to look up and see Harry in a tree."
Duncan left Cummington in 1951, at which time he and Williams moved the press twenty miles north to Rowe, Massachusetts. Following Williams's untimely death in an auto accident in 1956, Duncan then moved the press to his home state of Iowa, where he was hired to direct the typographic laboratory at University of Iowa's School of Journalism. There he also married his wife Nancy in 1960. In 1972 he accepted an offer to found a press for University of Nebraska, which he called Abattoir Press. But all through his years in Iowa and Nebraska, he continued to publish books and pamphlets under the Cummington Press imprint.
Gowdy noted that Duncan did not expect to live in Cummington and become a printer, but that, in part through the influence of Cummington School of the Arts founder Katharine Frazier, "he virtually fell into what would become his life's work." Frazier's stated mission for her school was "To integrate life and art under the influence of nature." As Adelaide Sproul wrote in Cummington School of the Arts: A School of the Imagination (Windflower Press), her 1991 memoir about her years as the school's director from 1954-1968, "Katharine Frazier liked to command, and people were expected to cooperate with her ideas." Frazier, who taught piano at Smith College from 1920-1930, bought the rolling 110-acre hillside property in 1920 as a place to live. By 1922, the headstrong woman had turned the 19th-century colonial farmhouse and accompanying outbuildings, woods, and fields into the Playhouse in the Hills. As Sproul notes in her memoir, Frazier was obsessed with her school and the program she was designing based on the era's Progressive Education Movement. Her will was such that during the Depression she somehow managed to acquire more land for the school and build Vaughan House in 1932. Then in 1939 she wooed Duncan, her former student, who at the time was pursuing a Master's Degree in English at Duke University. Frazier's idea was to expand the school's horizons by establishing a press that would be self-supporting for those chosen to start it up. Duncan was planning to go on to a career of teaching English. But, as Gowdy noted, "Katharine Frazier kind of turned his life around."
Sometime after the press was launched with Wallace Stevens's Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, Frazier arranged for the 22-year-old Duncan to be apprenticed to a hand-printer named Ned Thompson at a nearby place called Hawthorne House. In Duncan's 1991 essay entitled "Cross Purposes," he describes this time and how the "ponderous presence" of an 80-year-old Taylor iron hand press that the town had voted to purchase for $35 plus shipping through poll taxes became "an uncanny attraction that at once drew me with ineffable premonition."
When the war effort began, Frazier also persuaded her most munificent trustees to subsidize the press. Two years before her death in 1944, when Frazier could no longer play her beloved concert harp, she sold it to help finance a more advanced Golding Pearl treadle press, which, along with the Taylor press, she had transferred to the furnace-heated Vaughan House kitchen.
When Frazier lay on her deathbed in late winter of 1944, the pull of Cummington was so strong that in spring she insisted on being brought back to the place that had been the center of her life. She died in Cummington on the day of her return. But even now she is said to keep an eternal watch over the grounds, and during the year I spent running the Community of the Arts program, more than one artist-in-residence claimed to have seen her ghost. One summer night when a sultry wind was howling over the hillside, two young painters even claimed they could hear harp music in the Vaughan kitchen while they made tea. At any rate, that kitchen always seemed magical, as did the whole the landscape of Cummington. Being a lover of both literature and nature, the place appealed to me from the first day I set foot here. But it would take a year or two before I realized the full spectrum of this little town's uncannily rich literary history.
The sole existence of the Cummington Press is enough to endow Cummington with substantial literary significance. But add to this the fact that America's first poet of note, William Cullen Bryant, was born in a house that, by my count, sat 140 paces from the back door of Vaughan kitchen. There is now a stone monument on the site Bryant's birthplace. Up the road there is also the Trustees of the Reservation Bryant Homestead, a house that once belonged to Bryant's grandfather, Ebenezer Snell, and the place Bryant's family moved to when he was five years old. This was also the place where at age seventeen Bryant is known to have written the central portion of his famous meditation on death, "Thanatopsis," which he finished ten years later. A boy of delicate health who found much of the work on his family's farm too strenuous, Bryant began writing poems at the age of nine. It was his habit to slip the poems into the desk of his father, Dr. Peter Bryant, who would offer guidance and criticism. At the age of seventy-two, William Cullen Bryant repurchased the Cummington homestead, which had been sold in 1835. He used it as a summer home until his death at eighty-four.
When I moved to Cummington in 1992, I'd never heard of "Thanatopsis." In truth, I'd never heard of Bryant, and like most I was unaware of this remarkable man's manifold accomplishments. After his childhood in Cummington, Bryant studied law and settled in the Berkshire County town of Great Barrington. After becoming disillusioned with the legal profession, he migrated to New York City, where he ultimately became owner and editor of the New York Evening Post. He was known for his opposition to slavery, and his media influence is thought to have played a major role in Abraham Lincoln's election as president. Bryant also helped found New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. He's even credited with convincing the city's founding fathers in 1844 to block off a strip of parkland before all of the city became developed. He then worked closely with the architect who designed what would eventually become Central Park. As one intern who spent last summer working at the homestead noted, "This guy was way too good. It kind of gets on my nerves."
On top of all this, Bryant occupies a place in literary history as America's first well-regarded poet. Around the turn of the century, poems such as "Thanatopsis" and "To a Waterfowl" were receiving international recognition. Meanwhile Walt Whitman, an acquaintance of Bryant's in New York City and editor of The Brooklyn Eagle, was writing verse that most readers found puzzling and disregarded. And Bryant's fellow western Massachusetts native, Emily Dickinson, was busy toiling away in obscurity.
As 1987 U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Wilbur, also a Cummington resident, wrote in an essay about Bryant, "He is our great man, and one or more of his poems are likely to be read aloud on any of our ceremonial occasions." However, Wilbur does go on to speak rather critically of Bryant's work in that same 1986 essay, entitled "A Word From Cummington." Wilbur describes Bryant's poems as generally lacking "the spontaneous figure, the surprisingly accurate word." And although Wilbur notes that Bryant did write some truly superior poems, he is not a fan of Bryant's most renowned work. As Wilbur puts it, "'Thanatopsis,' which my father took pleasure in declaiming over the shaving bowl, is another poem in which elevation of style masks from the reader and from the poet the insufficiency of its argument." It is perhaps for this reason that Bryant's poetry has not withstood the test of time as well as some of his contemporaries. But, at least in Cummington, he is a man whose life is worthy of celebration.
Late last summer I took a tour led by Judy Paddock, of Middlefield, who serves as the house administrator for the Bryant Homestead. A Kentucky native, Paddock had heard of Bryant in high school, though she claims "Thanatopsis" didn't do a thing for her. But Paddock blames this on her English teacher, and as of late she has taken a keen interest in "getting to know the man and his thoughts." Some afternoons she and other volunteers drink tea on the veranda and read Bryant's work aloud. "I can understand why this land stimulated his poetry, because I do have the same love of the land," Paddock said.
She noted that Bryant was not a large man, only five-feet six-inches tall. He also tended to get sea-sick, and a porthole installed in one room of the homestead was one measure he took in attempting to counteract this problem. Bryant also seemed to have been something of a health nut, a reaction to his frail childhood health and a family tendency toward heart disease, which carried his father off at fifty-three and sister Sarah at only twenty-two. As Paddock is fond of noting, Bryant "was ahead his time in that he gave up red meat, caffeine, ate a lot of fruit, and exercised regularly." He is known to have walked twelve to fifteen miles a day.
Wooden dumbbells sit in Bryant's second-floor bedroom, which looks out over the Westfield River valley. He also installed a chin-up bar in the door-frame of one closet. Bryant spent summers at the Cummington homestead from the age of seventy-two until his death at eighty-four in 1878. During that time, in addition to the weightlifting and chin-ups, he is known to have made a practice of pole-vaulting back and forth over his bed.
As was the case with Harry Duncan, I became aware of Bryant accidentally. I had been told about The Rivulet Trail, a mile-long loop through some old-growth beech and hemlock forest located up the road from the Community of the Arts. I recall that it was early in November when I found the trail. I walked it just as the first late-fall snow began to dust the ground, and spent an hour or more watching snowflakes disappear into a narrow, trickling stream. My connection to those woods and the little rill was instantaneous, and I suspect that this walk gave me my first inkling of how attached I would soon become to the Hilltown landscape.
When I mentioned the walk later that day, someone asked if it had moved me to wrote a poem. As I was subsequently informed, the trail was named after another famous Bryant poem, "The Rivulet," inspired by his own boyhood walks beside the stream. Since that time, I have visited the trail regularly with my woods-loving hound dog, Boz. By now I've hiked the path in every season, even with two feet of snow covering the ground. On one fall afternoon when there were workers in my house, I found a colorful bed of leaves and took a nap there.
In all my walks I have never encountered another person on the path, and I suspect it is this sense of untouched beauty that gives Cummington its profoundly inspirational quality. Because clearly there is something a bit magical going on here. It was enough to bring Bryant back in his 70s. It somehow lured Harry Duncan to his vocation as a printer, despite his stated plans to become on English professor. It's kept Richard Wilbur here each April through November since 1965. In 1966, Wilbur in turn convinced fellow poet William Jay Smith, to buy the house that had once been a wing of the Bryant Homestead.
And for a writer like myself--a writer who originally planned to spend a few months in Cummington and then leave--the place has literally been a gift. My first novel, The Odd Sea, started with my response to the Hilltown landscape. While the story is pure fiction, it is contained within a setting that is as real and deeply felt as anyplace I've known. Without Cummington, I am sure this novel never would have been written.
Since the Cummington Community of the Arts' end in fall of 1993, I have lived in a hilltop farmhouse, surrounded by sloping pastures and sheep. My landlord and friend, Stephen Philbrick, purchased this house in 1979. He has lived in Windsor with his second wife, Constance Talbot, since the summer of 1992. Among the many hats he wears--minister for the West Cummington Church, store clerk at Cummington's Old Creamery Grocery, former pro baseball player turned local pitching coach, and part-time sheep farmer--Philbrick is also an accomplished poet. He has one book under his belt, and publications ranging from The Berkshire Review to The New Yorker.
I know Philbrick well after five years. As landlord and tenant, we've dealt together with many a frozen pipe or malfunctioning appliance. We've taken care of each other's dogs. He has taught me how to clean the corrosion off my car battery, and on one January morning two-and-a-half years ago, he even taught me how to be a midwife to a ewe.
As writers, Philbrick and I are part of a group that gathers each month at his Windsor house for an hour or two of reading work aloud. Over the years I have watched Philbrick's work evolve from a somewhat private sphere to something more universal, where God and death and love somehow become synonymous, and where the visible world is interlaced with what cannot be seen. In Philbrick's poetry, one finds his love of the woods and rivers side by side with a deep love for his fellow human beings. That is to say, he writes with the same compassion that fuels his role as the local minister--a role he happened upon by accident, as is so often the case out here.
Three years ago, the church was preacherless. Philbrick was asked to fill in for the interim. He agreed on the condition that he could do things his own way. No one foresaw the impact he would have on his congregation, despite his somewhat unorthodox approach. For instance, one of his first sermons was a reading of a poem called "Goldenrod." Another sermon began "Easter did not happen."
Before Philbrick decided to sell off most of his Hampshire sheep flock two years ago, he commuted to the farm regularly, and in winter he was often here five times a day to check on pregnant ewes. One of his poems, entitled "Sleeping With Sheep," recounts a night in which an ice storm hit the Hilltowns, and in which Philbrick elected to sleep on a bed of hay inside the sheep barn. I have heard him read this poem on a number of occasions, and I am always struck by the same line, which is: "Of all places, this is the most here."
It is this line that I am thinking of as we sit out by the Westfield River. It is a late August afternoon and in a few spots leaves are already changing to brazen scarlet and pale orange. The river is low and now we're talking about winter--how the appeal of this landscape rests as much in its lushness as its harshness, and how beauty that can found in the most unexpected places. Philbrick talks of the voluptuousness we sometimes witness after a winter storm, when the absent wind is visible in the strange shapes taken by the snow.
I ask Steve what keeps him "here." As is his nature, his answer is twofold and complex. He says that first there is the landscape, which he describes as "serving the function of a visible poem." But he is quick to discern the difference between the landscape and a poem. "For all that I love Cummington, poetry is portable," he says. "Place for us is what isn't portable. It's where we can see, until we leave what we see behind. The question becomes what is it that you need to see? What is it that you can no longer carry in yourself but need around you? Then what we're talking about is creation, and what it is about a place that moves you to want to imitate and create."
But as Philbrick points out, it is not just the landscape that has kept him here for eighteen years. It is also the pull of people and the small town life that he and all of us Hilltowners, new or old, inevitably become part of. Each Sunday, Philbrick goes almost directly from leading his morning church service in West Cummington to an afternoon shift manning the register at the Old Creamery Grocery. There his role is not all that different, except that the topic of conversation may switch from God to the Boston Red Sox. Sometimes it takes me awhile to pay for coffee and a newspaper on Sunday, because everyone in line spends a few minutes telling Steve the latest joke or Hilltown anecdote.
As one friend of mine and I are fond of stating, there are really only fifty people in the Hilltowns, and on any given day you'll see them all if you try hard enough. To put this another way, it is somewhat difficult to be anonymous in a place like Cummington. It is a place where, like it or not, your business tends to become everyone else's.
On any morning coffee stop at the Creamery, I'll hear stories--that my neighbor, Laura Sheppard, found a black bear in the school bus she drives; or that my other neighbor, Martha Emerson, saw a mountain lion down on Fairgrounds Road. In this landscape, encounters with the natural world abound. But there are also the human sagas: the two brothers who can't see eye to eye, so-and-so's ongoing depression. As Philbrick puts it, "In a small town you wind up knowing people's stories. They think they know your story, too, and that's a very humbling thing--to be known."
In my case, the small-town network has led to friendships that would be highly unlikely in, say, the New Jersey suburb where I grew up. For instance, I used to pay daily visits to another neighbor, Olive Thayer, who passed away three years ago at the age of ninety-seven. By then she couldn't hear well, so she requested that I just open her unlocked door and come inside. Sometimes Thayer would be up and about, baking cookies or a pie on her antique wood-burning oven. Other times I'd find her sitting in a chair reading National Geographic. I'd come with Boz, who she liked. Boz would lie down on the braided rug in her TV room and I'd listen as Olive told me about her life.
She would recall Katharine Frazier in the '30s, and how the School of the Arts students often sought refuge in the Thayer household, since Frazier purportedly never gave them enough sweets to eat. Thayer was known then for her baking and motherly ways in general, and through the end of her life former School of the Arts students came to visit her unannounced. She would remember them all as children. During one visit in 1993, Thayer described a scene I liked so much I got a pencil and took my first set of notes. She said, "Back then it was very much a music school. You'd have all those kids out playing in the fields. Playing music. You could hear cellos and flutes coming right out from that tall grass."
She told me tales about a horse named Stub, and of how far away West Cummington seemed before the automobile was invented. She showed me her late husband Leon's collection of antique glass electric powerline insulators, the biggest one of which she once used as a bowl to serve dip. She also gave me a signed copy of Remembering Cummington, a book of her own collected poems and sketches, published in 1993 by the Cummington Historical Society. As Thayer put it, "They're not poems, except for one maybe. They're mostly just a bunch of corny rhymes."
Corny or not, the poems can be read almost as chronicle of Cummington's history. One poem describes how the settlers of "Plantation No. 5" founded Cummington in 1779, then unsuccessfully tried to get its name changed. Another poem, entitled "June, 1907," describes a childhood memory in which Thayer and her brother climbed a tree and watched several hired men cut hay with hand-held scythes. Perhaps my favorite is one that traces origins of the names of almost every road in town. In "Country Roads" she explains that Flat Iron Road makes "a small triangle, a flat iron by old account," that Harlow Road was named for "a well-known family who had a prosperous farm here, at the turn of the century," and that Stage Road was "the stage-coach road when the town was barely begun." She explains that Potash Hill Road, where we both lived, was named as such because the hill "was once a potash where ashes would be leached/Producing lye for making soap, but, once this stage was reached/They'd 'boil it down' to Potash (calcium carbonate)/For which there was a good market back at that long ago date."
However, Thayer's poem offers no explanation for why Potash Hill Road continues for a quarter-mile past its ninety-degree left turn, then for no apparent reason becomes Dodwells Road (named after Darwin Wells, nicknamed Dod) at some unidentified point between my driveway and my neighbors'. In fact, another unlikely friendship I've developed can be traced to this conundrum, as it perpetually fools drivers of UPS and Federal Express trucks.
I'm number 87 Potash Hill Road, whereas Richard and Charlotte Wilbur are number 87 Dodwells. Over the years, I've received many of their truck-delivered packages, often from Wilbur's publisher or L.L. Bean. Early on, I would sign and take the package before looking at the address, then inevitably wind up driving the mile or so down to the Wilburs.
On one occasion what I would call "a situation" occurred. A book for Wilbur was delivered to my house in January of 1994, while he and Charlee, as she prefers to be called, were wintering in Key West. At the time, my friend Katherine Glennon was house-sitting for the Wilburs. But on short notice, she had been offered a one-month teaching job in Ohio for which she would be paid $10,000. Since the terms of the house-sitting deal required her to stay there all winter, she made the ethically equivocal decision not to tell the Wilburs. She also gave me the key and asked that I check the house a few times during that month.
The day the book was erroneously delivered, I decided to drop it off and make what would be my first Wilbur house check. During the five minutes I was there, the answering machine picked up a call from Charlee, who asked Kathy to find and send her a pair of Dick's white trousers.
I went up to the Wilburs' bedroom, searched the bureau and found the pants. I sent them off to Key West via two-day priority mail the next morning (the postmaster had the forwarding address) and then called Kathy to let her know that I had done this. After that she started checking on her messages every day. But after two-plus weeks, the pants had still not arrived in Florida. So I returned to search the Wilburs' bureau a second time. I managed to find another pair, which this time got to Key West in its guaranteed two days. The first pair never showed up, and it was not until recently, when I was interviewing Wilbur, that I admitted it was me who had lost his trousers.
I am sitting on a couch in Richard Wilbur's new Dodwells Road study, where his books line the rows of shelves that cover most of every wall. On his work desk sits a 1920s LC Smith desk model typewriter, which his uncle Bert gave him when he was a teen-ager, and which he claims is "as solid as a Model-T Ford." Wilbur does not own a computer or a fax machine, and does much of his copying at the Old Creamery Grocery. "Life seems rich enough without the latest technology," he says, though he admits to owning a TV satellite dish, and adds that it routinely gets knocked out by lightning.
The study is rectangular and wider than its two-story, silo-shaped predecessor, which caved when a pine tree fell on it during a 1995 storm. As Wilbur notes, however, both buildings have the same volume--a fact he hopes the town will come to recognize when next they reassess his property taxes. And though he does recall the previous study fondly, he explains that "a silo is such a tense thing, wanting terribly to implode if it can."
So far Maya, the Wilburs' greyhound, has chewed a pencil up, knocked over my glass of seltzer, and attempted to eat her master's spectacles. A former racing dog, she is new and still adjusting to domestic life. The Wilbur's previous ex-racing greyhound, Durcie, passed away in winter of 1997.
I ask Wilbur what it is about Cummington that keeps him here. His answer is notably similar to Philbrick's. He claims that first, it is the landscape. Wilbur grew up on a farm in North Caldwell, New Jersey (which, coincidentally, borders my hometown of Livingston), and claims he feels best in the country. "I know that my imagination and emotions work best with the kind of nature and the people you have in a town like this one," he explains. "Here ideas come for me. They come from things I encounter, things I walk through, and places. Another thing about Cummington is it's a place small enough that you can possess it and pretty well know all of it--all the road names and all of the streams and where they go. Cummington can be possessed the way a child can possess an imaginary town."
Wilbur says he once imagined that he would end his years living by the sea, but finds that Cummington obviates this desire. The sound of wind in the trees and woods; the noisy streams; "the up and down-ness of the terrain and cool nights" amount to what Wilbur sees as "the complete equivalent to the ocean."
In the same breath, he cites the people. "There's a real solicitude for one's neighbors here, such as one might not find in a larger or changing place," he says. To illustrate this, he recounts an instance in the mid-'60s, when he decided to walk the two miles from his house to the post office, which was then on Main Street. "People I saw kept wondering why I was walking," he explains. "Later that day I got a call from someone asking if my car was out."
When I learned Wilbur lived down the road from me, I never imagined I would actually get to know him. But in a small town like Cummington, these things happen. About a year after I had shuttled over his first piece of misdelivered mail, we became doubles partners, playing weekly against Robert and Ronald Berenson, who co-own the Old Creamery Grocery.
Although the Berensons now seem to have retired in shame, I still play intermittently at the Wilburs' court, which sits beside a cow pasture owned by his dairy-farming neighbors. At certain points during each match it seems that all the heifers will suddenly grow interested, line up in a long row along the fence and watch attentively, sometimes to the distraction of the server.
But my favorite tennis anecdote belongs to Durcie, their late greyhound. I usually bring Boz over to the Wilburs', and before Durcie died the two dogs would wander around together, sniffing and marking as Charlee kept on eye on them. Boz was frequently reproached for his attempts to wander out onto the tennis court, but Durcie seemed to have developed a more effective way of securing our attention. At a certain, unpredictable point each match she would start sprinting with uncanny speed around the tennis court, apparently improvising a small racing oval. The exhibition would continue until, at Charlee's lead, we all broke into to wild cheering and applause, at which point Durcie would assume she had won the race.
On the subject of literary anecdotes, dogs excluded, the Wilburs are known to have lured the late Ralph Ellison and his wife, Fanny, to the area. The Ellisons wound up buying property in Plainfield, which borders Cummington to the North. According to Wilbur, the Ellisons did some "very impressive vegetable gardening there," and Ralph Ellison even purchased his own equipment to cut hay. He said the Ellisons also held many a party, though he claims "nothing unsuitable ever went on."
In 1965, the same year the Ellisons bought their summer home, an electrical fire razed the house, famously taking with it the only copy of a portion of Ellison's unfinished second novel, from which Ellison once read during a fund-raiser at the Bryant Free Public Library in Cummington. For almost twenty years after the fire, the Ellisons continued to spend summers in outbuilding on the property. But since Ralph Ellison's death in 1995, Fanny has remained in their small apartment in Spanish Harlem.
The Wilburs also can take credit for luring William Jay Smith to Cummington. U.S. Poet Laureate from 1968-1970, renowned for his poetry, prose, and children's verses, Smith claims he was not in the market for a house. But in the summer of 1966, the Wilburs arranged a tour with the local real estate agent who had found the Wilburs' house for them. As Smith has written in a 1986 essay, he decided it would be "a lark" and went on the proposed tour. The last place the agent took them was a small colonial, up a dirt road less than a mile below the William Cullen Bryant Homestead. As Smith has written, "Its gambrel roof, outlined against tall birches, and luxuriant pale green ferns enclosing its white clapboards and the bright Indian paint-brush blooming in the fields gave it a dreamlike fairy-tale quality."
Both Smith and the Wilburs were also taken in by what seemed to be the writerly and literary spirit of the place. Before driving away that afternoon Smith found he could not resist making an offer on the house.
As it turned out, Smith and the Wilburs were quite right about the little house's literary spirit. The main rooms had once been a wing of the Bryant Homestead--an office where Bryant's father practiced medicine. It is believed to have been the place where Bryant wrote his first draft of "Thanatopsis."
The house then moved around a bit, ultimately winding up on Luther Shaw Road, where it was restored and christened "Thanatopsis House" by its 1914 owner, Harriet Moody, widow of the poet William Vaughan Moody. The house was later occupied or visited by a number of writers, including Edwin Arlington Robinson, Glenway Wescott, and Nobel Prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore. As Smith notes in his 1986 essay, Moody even offered the house permanently to Robert Frost, who declined it because there was not a nearby high school for his children.
Smith and his Parisian wife, Sonja Haussmann, occupy the house each year from July until Christmas, when they're not in France. Smith turned eighty this spring, an event marked by the publication of his collected works from 1938-1998 (Johns Hopkins University Press). He claims that though he has always been something of a European traveler, he loves the contrast to Paris that Cummington affords. He also notes that the western Massachusetts landscape has an uncanny way of conjuring up inspiration. Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick in nearby Pittsfield, always said Mt. Greylock in winter looked like a white whale. Meanwhile Smith finds that looking out from his second-story study window, onto the rolling and sloping Cummington landscape, tends to remind him of his much-written-about years spent at sea as a Navy lieutenant.
Inevitably, Smith also cites the people he's met in Cummington. And inevitably, he cites the Old Creamery Grocery. "I like the fact that one can know the people in a town like this," he said while staring out his window one day last fall. "I like the fact that we have a store where I can get my paper every day and know everyone there. It goes back to how it was a long time ago."
Copyright © 1999 Frederick Reiken.