Alum Puts Medieval Into Modern Journalism

What do you do with a major in European studies and a yen for the medieval? If you’re as lucky as Cullen Murphy ’74, the answer is simple: put it into a comic strip story line.

Surprisingly, the “Prince Valiant” writer, who also enjoys an active journalistic life as managing editor and regular contributor at The Atlantic Monthly, did not seek out the comic strip.

“It’s a fluke,” he explained. “[My concentration in medieval studies] was just something I did. I wasn’t doing it for the strip.”

Nonetheless, Murphy’s involvement with “Prince Valiant,” which now appears in 350 newspapers around the world, started at almost the same time as did his studies in medieval history. While still at Amherst, he began sending story ideas for the strip to his father, a cartoonist and professional illustrator who had taken over production of “Prince Valiant” from its original creator, Hal Foster.

His father continues to draw the strip, but Murphy himself eventually became responsible for the creation of its story line, an undertaking that puts his knowledge of the medieval to good use.

“At this point, I have a pretty large library of medieval history,” he said. “Many of the books in it are books from courses I took at Amherst that I still use constantly. It’s one of the ways in which the Amherst experience keeps paying out, year after year.”

Back In The Day

As might be expected from an alumnus recently elected to Amherst’s Board of Trustees, Murphy is full of appreciation for his alma mater-a feeling that, he said, began as soon as he stepped onto campus.

“I felt physically at home from the moment I saw [Amherst]. It’s the kind of place where you take one look and think, ‘This is where I’d love to be,'” he said. “It offered everything a human being could hope to sample, in terms of both academics and extracurricular activities. And it promised to be the kind of place that could serve as a family or a community in a way that a bigger college never could.”

Murphy quickly discovered that Amherst offered him “the things I didn’t know about, the things no high school senior really knows before college.” One such surprise came in the form of personal bonds that still exist today.

“I didn’t know when I was coming here that I would be meeting friends I would have for the rest of my life-so much so that it’s wrong, in a way, to think of it as a four-year school,” Murphy explained. “It’s a part of the Amherst experience that never stops. Then there was the extent to which people on the faculty became a part of my life, though it’s something many Amherst people take for granted.”

Though Murphy had applied to Amherst as a pre-med student, he quickly found his academic attention diverted in the direction of medieval history. He devoted his spare hours to Scrutiny, the Student Allocations Committee and Chi Psi fraternity.

It should come as no surprise to those familiar with his career, however, that Murphy’s “activity number one” was working on The Amherst Student as a reporter and later as executive editor. His participation on the paper began with coverage of his freshman Convocation and lasted through his senior year.

Murphy credited the time he put in at The Student for helping to prepare him for his future career: “The people on the paper were really conscious of themselves as journalists, with standards to uphold,” he said. “It was as if they were already adults, working in the real world. There’s something both valuable and fetching about this attitude, and for those of us on The Student who have later gone into journalism, it has stood us in good stead.”

Together with the opportunity to involve himself at every level of the publication process, for Murphy, this professionalism meant that “four years at The Student was at least as good as a couple of years on a small-town newspaper after college.”

As it turned out, Murphy’s writing served him well even before he left Amherst. In response to a call for student work in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, he wrote a personal essay about his college experience, which was then published.

“I haven’t gone back to read it ever,” Murphy admitted. “And I’m afraid I would probably be embarrassed to read it now.” Still, its initial success led to a job offer from Change, which would employ Murphy for two years after graduation, first in the art department and later as an editor.

Fit To Print

Murphy then worked for the Wilson Quarterly at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where he would remain for eight years. “The aim of the Quarterly is to take the work of scholars and have it edited by journalists to create a publication for the educated general public, something which is an act of translation in many ways,” Murphy explained.

He described his stint there as a time of “terrific but grueling apprenticeship,” adding “We learned how to write quickly and accurately under great pressure, to write and write again and rewrite a third time.”

Despite this rigorous workload, Murphy began to publish in other magazines. “Meanwhile, as I was holding down a full-time job, I did what lots of people do in my position: try to write for other places on the side,” he said. “I began writing for Harper’s magazine, and then for the Atlantic Monthly.”

Not surprisingly, given the themes of his work at the Wilson Quarterly, “their subject matter almost always involved some area of arcane expertise which I was trying to explain to a wider audience. For instance, my first piece at Harper’s was about a group of Dominican monks, who, since the late 19th century, had been trying to produce a perfect Latin edition of the works of Thomas Aquinas.”

Although this topic was not an item likely to be found on the evening news, Murphy sees coverage of these issues as as essential to the upholding of journalistic standards. “In this time of ephemeral sound-bites, I think educated readers appreciate a substantial piece of narrative non-fiction.”

Eventually, Murphy went the way of his articles and joined the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, where he now serves as managing editor. He described his position as being “similar to an executive officer on a sub” because he has to coordinate many different departments under the pressure of deadlines.

“The managing editor has to be aware of everything that’s going on at a magazine-content, deadline, legal issues, hiring issues, communication between different departments, down to the mundane things like office management,” he explained. “I also assign pieces, edit them and work with authors, but there isn’t a matter that affects the magazine, whether as a functioning enterprise or a journalistic one that I’m not somehow involved in.”

At The Atlantic Monthly, as in his other projects, Murphy’s task is to master information and then to pass it along in a more easily comprehensible form. It is an enterprise which he sees as essential if journalism is going to flourish in the future.

“Right now, with a world full of unfettered information available, information that may or may not be true, there is all the more need for people who can come in, gather the facts, and report them to others in a reliable way,” he said. “Because of this, I don’t fear that the opportunities for people doing honest, sophisticated journalism are going to diminish.”

Here And Now

In addition to his dedication to journalism, Murphy’s major is serving as a newly-elected member to Amherst’s Board of Trustees, which will convene in October. “I was honored to be chosen as a nominee because going to Amherst was probably the most decisive event in my life up to the time I came there,” he said. “Aside from my marriage, the family I have now and the family that brought me up, it still is. I owe so much to Amherst that any opportunity to serve it is one I’ll embrace.”

Perhaps Murphy also enjoys it as a vicarious return to a favorite time and place. “From time to time, I wish I could go to college again,” he said wistfully. “Perhaps at some point, as we all head toward lifespans of 150, there will be a need for a second stint at college, say at a hundred or so-a wonderful new social experiment. If it ever comes to pass, I’ll look forward to spending time at Amherst again.”

Murphy appears to have boundless energy-for he has also written three books. The most recent, “The Word According to Eve,” chronicles “the revolution in Biblical scholarship brought about by the influx of women scholars into the field over the last 30 years.”

Murphy’s other two works are a collection of essays entitled “Just Curious” and what he terms an “oddball book” called “Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage,” which he co-wrote with William L. Rathje, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona.

“It’s an anthropological analysis of American garbage, which we examined as if we were archaeologists,” he explained.

Murphy has returned to a more classic, scholarly format for his current work in progress, a historical study of inquisition scholarship that he hopes will be published in 2003. “I’m writing about people’s theories as to how and why inquisitorial proceedings came into being as a way of doing business, so to speak, along with what their effects were and their legacies for modern times,” he explained.