The Consecrated Eminence

Congressman, Senator, President Kennedy

On Saturday, October 28, Amherst College was honored to host Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy III who delivered an address on the steps of Frost Library as part of a day-long celebration of the legacy of President John F. Kennedy. You can watch his speech and read more about the event here: JFK 100: Of Poetry & Politics.

President Kennedy’s visit to Amherst College on October 26, 1963 is well known; he gave an important, and frequently quoted, speech about the role of the artist in society before participating in the ground-breaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library. We recently made more images of that event available through Amherst College Digital Collections:

Amherst College Photographer Records: JFK at Amherst
Kennedy Convocation Collection: Color Slides

Audio of Kennedy’s address is freely available through the Kennedy Library & Museum in Boston, and this small web exhibition includes scans of many documents held in the Archives.

What is less well known is that the Frost Library ground-breaking was not Kennedy’s first visit to Amherst College, nor was it his first contact with members of the Amherst Community. As I dug into our holdings to prepare an exhibition for the “Of Poetry & Politics” celebration, I turned up some interesting items, such as these two letters from then-Senator Kennedy to Karl Loewenstein:

German-born emigré political scientist, professor, lawyer, and government advisor, Karl Loewenstein had a long academic career, which began in Munich and continued at Yale (1933-1936) and Amherst (1936-1961) after his emigration to the United States.  He worked as an advisor for the Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense of the American Republics (1942-1944) and for the U.S. Office of Military Government for Germany (1945-1946). The Karl Loewenstein Papers are held by the Archives & Special Collections.

In addition to responding to Loewenstein’s letters, Senator Kennedy also reached out to Amherst College President Charles Cole:

Charles Woolsey Cole, Class of 1927, served as Professor of Economics at Amherst from 1935-1942 and as the twelfth College President from 1946-1960. In this letter, Senator Kennedy invites Cole to participate in a lunch with himself and “others in the academic, research and related fields” to give him advice on policy.

It is likely that Senator Kennedy met both Karl Loewenstein and President Cole when Kennedy spoke at Amherst College in May 1956. Senator Kennedy’s 1956 visit might have been forgotten were it not for this small piece that appeared in the Amherst Student:

I have not found any additional documents related to this visit anywhere in our holdings yet, but we will keep looking.

John F. Kennedy was the first President to invite a poet to participate in his inaugural celebration; Frost supported Kennedy during his campaign and he agreed to recite “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s request. Kennedy was unaware that Frost also composed a new poem – “Dedication” – as a preface to his earlier piece. Unfortunately, because of the inclement weather and difficulty reading the typescript, Frost did not read “Dedication” and recited “The Gift Outright” from memory. When asked to comment after Frost’s death in January 1963, Kennedy said:

“I’ve never taken the view the world of politics and the world of poetry are so far apart. I think politicians and poets share at least one thing, and that is their greatness depends upon the courage with which they face the challenges of life.”

But Robert Frost was not the only poet involved in the 1960 inaugural celebration:

Louise Bogan was a poet who frequently appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, Poetry, Scribner’s and The Atlantic Monthly. For thirty-eight years, she reviewed poetry for The New Yorker. Here, the President thanks her for her participation and asks her for any further suggestions she might have for “contributions the national government might make to the arts in America.” The Louise Bogan Papers are held by the Archives & Special Collections.

Kennedy’s connections to Amherst faculty continued into his Presidency, as seen in this letter to Amherst Professor Willard Thorp:

Willard Thorp, Amherst Class of 1920, was a pioneer statistician, economist, domestic and foreign policy advisor, international development expert, and private business consultant. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs from 1946-1952, he played a critical role in the design and implementation of the Marshall Plan and later held a number of United Nations appointments. Thorp taught Economics at Amherst from 1927-1935 and from 1952 until his retirement in 1965. In this letter, Kennedy thanks him for his work on cultural exchange with Japan. The Willard L. and Clarice Brows Thorp Papers are held in the Archives.

The invitation to President Kennedy to speak at Amherst College for the ground-breaking of Robert Frost Library was sent by John J. McCloy. Here is the President’s letter formally accepting the invitation:

John J. McCloy graduated from Amherst College in 1916 and served on the Board of Trustees from 1947-1989. He thought of himself as a public servant and in his speeches often emphasized the importance of public service. Among his many influential posts, he served as Assistant Secretary of War from 1941 – 1945. He was an advisor to President Kennedy, acted as Chairman of the Coordinating Committee of the US on Cuban Missile Crisis, and was a member of the Warren Commission charged with investigating President Kennedy’s assassination.

In his Convocation address, the President describes the invitation he received from McCloy thus:

“The powers of the Presidency are often described. Its limitations should occasionally be remembered, and, therefore, when the Chairman of our Disarmament Advisory Committee — who has labored so long and hard, Governor Stevenson’s assistant during the very difficult days at the United Nations, during the Cuban crisis, a public servant of so many years – asks or invites the President of the United States, there is only one response.” 

The John J. McCloy Papers are one of the most heavily used collections held in the Archives.