Emily Gray Tedrowe ’95
Majoring in English at Princeton was both the obvious and the obscure path to my becoming a novelist. When I began college I couldn’t have told you that my life’s dream was to write fiction, even though that was the secret truth. To write was a desire I held so deeply that I hardly recognized it myself for many years. But one thing I did know for sure, from long before I arrived at Princeton, was that I loved literature: loved to read, loved to talk about books, loved even to hold them in my hands. Choosing to major in English meant that I would get to study what I loved, and I couldn’t think of anything better.
Not to say it was easy. What I discovered was that it’s more difficult than I thought to say something interesting and relevant about the structure of a book, its topics and themes, its historical context. Before my English courses at Princeton, I had mostly allowed myself to read by instinct, following an inchoate sense of what I liked and didn’t like, not really needing to go deeper than that. Now I was being asked to assess why I found William Faulkner fascinating, or what Flannery O’Connor’s work did that no one else’s did, or where the connections were between the two. So much of my previous response to literature had been automatic, ingrained; making the transition from reader to scholar was engaging but tricky. Maybe I was worried that by examining too closely the works that I loved, their magic would be drained.
Gaining perspective as a reader
It didn’t happen. Through stellar courses with Lawrence Danson and Maria DiBattista, my knowledge of Shakespeare grew exponentially as I learned to pay real attention to the plays’ language, culture, and criticism. In a course on postmodernism, I learned about pastiche and wrote an essay on a rap video. And in Firestone Library, I spent hours reading, taking notes, and trying to organize my own thoughts about Cormac McCarthy’s novels, the center of my senior thesis. At times, I would observe the students I knew who were in the creative writing program and wonder what their courses were like; I admired their ability to declare themselves to be artists. Did I envy them? Maybe a tiny bit. But in the main I was absorbed by reading and studying literary texts—it wasn’t for a long time that I myself would try to create one.
Now that I’ve published my first novel, Commuters—and as I write my second—I can see that majoring in English at Princeton was the perfect choice for me. It gave me a thorough grounding in some of the most important works of my chosen field from the perspective of a reader. At some level, I hold that in mind every time I sit down at the computer to write. And the form of study I began at Princeton—to understand what makes a text into a work of art—continues now, as I pursue a life spent happily in the company of books, mine and others’.