The shaping of Marshall Bloom at Amherst College in the ’60s

Events shape Marshall Bloom’s life at Amherst College

  • President John F. Kennedy arrived at Amherst College by helicopter.  AMHERST COLLEGE ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

  • President John F. Kennedy visits Amherst College, Oct. 26, 1963. AMHERST COLLEGE ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

  • President John F. Kennedy visits Amherst College on Oct. 26, 1963. AMHERST COLLEGE ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

  • Coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 to Amherst led the next issue of the Amherst Student newspaper.  AMHERST COLLEGE ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

  • MARSHALL BLOOM

  • Members of the Bloom family, including Marshall, at right beside sister Barbara, parents Sam and Lillian, and brother Alan. COURTESY BARBARA BLOOM

For the Gazette
Published: 5/26/2016 3:30:35 AM

Second of four parts

When the life force known as Marshall Irving Bloom arrived in the Pioneer Valley from Denver, it was, technically speaking, the 1960s.

It just didn’t feel like it. Back in September 1962 at Amherst College, hair was short. Many students hadn’t heard of marijuana. The No. 1 song in America was “Sherry” sung with the innocent falsetto of Frankie Valli.

There was almost no political activism. Vietnam was way beyond the horizon. Civil rights had not taken hold — Rosa Parks, sit-ins, and freedom rides notwithstanding. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was not yet published. There was no back-to-the-land consciousness. The letters LGBT had no meaning. There was, in short, no “Movement.”

The Amherst Class of 1966 — whose surviving members gather this week for their 50th reunion — stepped into the circumscribed culture of an elite college. The class was all male. It was virtually all white. Chapel was mandatory. Everyone had to rush a fraternity. Printed rules in the freshman handbook included, “Freshmen are forbidden to wear preparatory school insignia” and “Only Seniors sit upon the College Fence.”

The class included some geographical and socioeconomic diversity, but these were often the sons of high-powered families with big expectations. A  “Jr.” or “III” was affixed to many names. These students played rugby, sang in glee clubs, didn’t question all that much.

With conservative short black hair and glasses, but lit with firecracker intensity, Marshall Bloom moved into Room 206 in James Hall, a brick building on Amherst’s main quad. His freshman roommate, Elliott Isenberg, now a San Francisco psychotherapist, was struck by Bloom’s  animated speech and obsessive need to write. His Smith Corona Marchant typewriter would clack away at all hours. Many a night Isenberg would awaken at 3 a.m. to find his roommate “on the 12th draft” of a paper for freshman English.

Bloom yearned to be a journalist and fretted in the early days about the pecking order at the college newspaper, The Amherst Student, wanting to get bylines and write important stories. In an era well before email and cell phones, he was an inveterate letter writer. For hours, he would go on binges, hammering out multi-page, single-spaced letters to friends and family. He fed carbon paper beneath his stationery, convinced his words were worth preserving.

His journals and correspondence, even as a college freshman, point to a young man who was  creative, curious, argumentative, and filled with doubts.

 

i feel the same sensation when i draw a building, or write something i’m excited about, or use bricks and mortar to build a fireplace, or create a notebook. i have something creative in me, maybe everyone does, that if i can only channel it, will be a tremendous and tenthusiastic (sic) force. it is tied, also, to sexuality; it is almost the same excitement. it is tied also to insecurity. i get excited and thoughtful and intense, and self-confident. the world is mine…

 

Western roots

He had come east from Denver, the youngest of three children of Sam and Lillian Bloom. Sam was a successful businessman who had built a hardware shop into a chain of appliance stores known as Downing’s. He embodied the can-do robustness of post-war America, standing before sparkling new dishwashers by Whirlpool, dryers by Maytag, electric ranges by GE.

The entrepreneurial apple didn’t fall far. For several summers, Marshall set up fireworks stands around the edges of Denver, selling sparklers and bottle rockets to celebrate Independence Day.

Beneath that confidence, though, lay an acute sensitivity, according to his older sister, Barbara. “He was certainly a thoughtful kid, a searching kid,” she said. She remembers him as opinionated but insecure. He yearned for approval, but was driven by a moral righteousness that could be polarizing. “We came from a pretty intense family, and we’re Jewish, and dysfunctional on some level,” she said. “Learning how to handle that intensity, I suppose, is part of growing up.”

That would be an ongoing battle for her brother. Part of that stemmed from torment about his masculinity. Traditional gender roles were rarely questioned in 1950s America, and certainly not in the Bloom household. Sam’s domineering personality ruled, while eldest son Alan was a high school wrestler and avid outdoorsman.

When Marshall was 12 or 13, he swallowed a bunch of aspirin, a suicidal gesture Barbara says was brought on by the shame he felt about being attracted to a man. She recalls their parents debating what to do, and ultimately deciding to send Marshall to a psychiatrist. “But,” she said, “psychiatry was notably not very helpful at that period.” The American Psychiatric Association categorized homosexuality as mental illness until 1973.

When Bloom arrived at Amherst, the closet doors were bolted shut. Elliott Isenberg never heard anything about people being gay or lesbian when he was in college. He recalls Marshall going out on “outlandish dates” with girls from Smith, coming back drunk and throwing up. Classmate Paul Bloom, who would come out as gay many years later, generally avoided Marshall (no relation) because he was perceived as effeminate.

Still, some cultural Pandora’s boxes were beginning to crack open in that fall of 1962. A political manifesto known as the Port Huron Statement had just been issued by Tom Hayden and a group called the Students for a Democratic Society; though it garnered little attention at the time, it would come to be viewed as a launching point of student activism. During Marshall Bloom’s first weeks of college, more than 20,000 federal troops were dispatched to the University of Mississippi to quell riots when an African-American student named James Meredith tried to enroll. Weeks later came the showdown of wills known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The year 1963 would bring civil rights to the front porch of America. In January, George Wallace took the oath of office as governor of Alabama, declaring, “Segregation now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever!” In April, in Birmingham, fire hoses drilled into the backs of youthful protesters; German shepherds tore at their legs.

In June, President Kennedy, who had been slow to the fight on civil rights, called for a comprehensive bill to ensure them. Then in late August, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered perhaps the most memorable speech in American history.

But if the arc of the moral universe was bending toward justice, it was not without some bounce-back. Two and a half weeks later, dynamite tore through a Birmingham church, killing four young girls in white dresses. This was the backdrop as Marshall Bloom’s sophomore year began, a year that would transform him into a radical.

Big world

In a span of 18 days, as autumn leaves pirouetted to earth on Valley campuses, the big world descended. On Oct. 20, Martin Luther King stood in the amphitheater at Mount Holyoke, preaching on the “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” On Nov. 7, Smith hosted George Wallace. Marshall Bloom, now established as a top reporter for The Amherst Student, covered the controversial speech on Page 1 (“Alabama’s Governor George Wallace today presented a smooth and guardedly polite speech to 2400 area students who accepted his arguments but interrupted to hiss four times, laugh at him occasionally, and applaud once”).

In between those speeches, on Oct. 26, came one of the most famous days in the history of Amherst College. President John F. Kennedy arrived to dedicate the brand-new library, named for Robert Frost. Bloom wrote the front-page story about the security precautions surrounding Kennedy’s visit. He also participated in a civil rights vigil, urging the president to more forcefully push for the bill he had introduced in June, but had allowed to since get sidetracked. Kennedy landed by helicopter on the soccer field, then took an open-air limousine the rest of the way. He delivered a brief but eloquent speech, thoroughly apolitical, about the value of writing and art in the culture.

“When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

Kennedy’s chopper thwocked away that late October afternoon. It would prove to be his last appearance in his home state. Twenty-seven days later, in the back of another open-air limo, he was gunned down in Dallas.

On the Amherst campus the tragedy felt especially raw, haunting, and personal, given Kennedy’s recent visit. Marshall Bloom attended a memorial service that night and listened to the comments by College President Calvin Plimpton and campus Chaplain Lew Mudge. Then he took to his Smith Corona and reflected on Kennedy, on a meaningful life, and on himself:

“…there are some people, like nixon and jfk, not like ike or stevenson, who will sacrafice (sic) all for something, in this case, for immortality, for a niche in history, for a real achievement even for the kennedys. there is no doubt, i would, too. to have lived a 40 years of significance, a 40 years that will leave a mark, i would willingly sacrafice the other 30…”

 “…cal plimpton was rather inspiring when he urged us to go out and finish the work he would have done. inspiring because that’s what I believe in, i hope. that there are tasks which supersede all of one’s personal happiness otherwise, that make it impossible to be happy otherwise, that take top priority. these we must do; otherwise it is not worth living.”

TOMORROW: Marshall Bloom embraces – and begins to define – “The Movement.”

Former Gazette staff writer Martin Dobrow is a professor of communications at Springfield College. Marshall Bloom is one of the central figures in his forthcoming book about civil rights.

 




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