Letters from readers about: Professors who were mentors

Read our October 5, 2006 Perspective article about mentors, click here.

To add your recollection of a Princeton professor who was a mentor to you, click here.

Kibitzing at Firestone with Arthur Link

As with Philip Weinstein ’62, Lawrance Thompson had a big impact on me. One of the best debates I’ve ever had came in a precept of Thompson’s when I went at it with my classmate Lawrence Buell, who now teaches at Harvard, over Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. Thompson also had the remarkable gift of influencing a large number of us who, like me, did not follow him into his field.

I knew from early on that history was the path I wanted to follow, and that was a great choice. The department boasted an all-time all-star lineup. Its members particularly excelled as lecturers. The three I remember best are Gordon Craig, Eric Goldman, and Harris Harbison. Craig and Goldman were performers, though not theatrical, and they
enjoyed a great advantage in their subject matter, which covered recent European and American history. In addition, Goldman played the same role that Arthur Schlesinger then did at Harvard and John Blum did at Yale – he was a New Deal liberal teaching mostly business-minded young Republicans and getting them to think about their politics. Harbison, by contrast, was dry and understated, but he brought off the incredible feat of bringing us up to his intellectual level and getting us to think about Erasmus, Machiavelli, Luther, Calvin, and other great figures of the Renaissance and Reformation in ways we hadn’t thought we were capable of doing. If there was a secret to his success, I wish I knew what it was – I’d either have plagiarized him or sold my soul to get it.

My senior thesis adviser was David Herbert Donald, the eminent Civil War historian. He was a scholarly and literary taskmaster. He brought an incomparable knowledge of sources to our subjects and sage advice about how to plunge into these oceans of material. With our writing, he tore us apart, but always constructively. It was a perfect introduction to the art and craft of doing history.

Despite those early exposures, the Princeton professor I got to know best and who had the greatest influence on me was someone I got to know only later – Arthur Link. A funny thing happened to me on the way to choosing my specialty in American history: In graduate school I became fascinated with the first two decades of the 20th century, particularly World War I. Nobody can study those decades and that war without encountering Woodrow Wilson, and nobody can study Wilson without encountering Arthur Link. First through letters and later through visits, I picked Link’s brain about sources in the field and approaches to subjects. He was always unfailingly helpful, and he read my work and encouraged me.

That was a good way for me to get to know him. I had made my own way and dealt with him as a fellow-scholar of some stature, albeit modest. That enabled me to see the fun side of Arthur, who insisted from the start on my calling him by his first name. In trading lore about Wilson and the era, I got past what others found stiff and, so they thought, “Wilsonian” about him. We could joke and laugh and get incensed about various people and doings of his era. It also helped that we shared a common background in North Carolina and that his lovely wife, Margaret, reminded me so much of my mother and my aunts. Later, when my daughter was an undergraduate, the Links would have her over regularly for Sunday dinner, and she would often stop by the offices of the Wilson Papers in Firestone to visit with “Professor Link.”

By then, he was no longer teaching undergraduate courses, but one of my daughter’s friends was his thesis advisee, the last in a distinguished line that includes Bill Bradley ’65 and Steven Oxman ’67. I would visit the Links at least once a year from 1978 until Arthur’s retirement in 1991, usually for a meeting of the editorial advisory committee to the Wilson Papers. Those meetings were mainly social occasions, a Friday dinner at Prospect, a Saturday-morning kibitzing session at Firestone, and a sumptuous lunch at Lahiere’s. Richard Leopold ’33 and I would stay for the rest of the day and have dinner with the Links that evening. Arthur needed those meetings because he was the least solitary scholar I have known – much different from his subject. He did not like to be alone, and he liked getting feedback about what he was doing.

My last memory of Arthur Link at Princeton is the memorial service for him in the chapel in 1998, where I delivered one of the eulogies. I recall observing that he never became a modern academic in his habits – he smoked cigarettes, drank whiskey, and drove big American cars. Also, he was openly religious – a prominent member of the Nassau Presbyterian Church and someone who stated in his Who’s Who entry that he believed God had called him to be an historian. Through his two greatest achievements – his five-volume biography of Wilson and his editorship of the 69-volume edition of the Wilson Papers (the only such edition to be completed by one editor) – Arthur Link did great things. He made Wilson and his era more open to understanding than any other president and his times. That feat brought glory to Princeton and the man who made it the university it is today.

Professor of History, University of Wisconsin

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Clear, sensible advice from Carlos Baker

In the fall of 1959, as one of a handful of transfer students new to the campus, I made the leap from a small Baptist college in Jackson, Tenn., into the Princeton English department, where Professor Carlos Baker got assigned the unenviable job of being my junior-year adviser. My initial interview with the department chair, whose name and image I long ago suppressed, had left me sure that both Princeton and I had made some huge mistake: Mumbling around, I had struggled in that session to recall a single book I’d read that summer – or ever, in fact. (All my dad’s country sisters sounded like Minnie Pearl, and my own speech was surely some variant of that nasal mode.)

My course in English drama was soon proving me uniquely unprepared to deal with extended essay exams about how, following Oscar Wilde, “Art is so much more real than life.” And my European novel preceptor had scribbled in the margins of a short paper on The Princess of Cleves that “despite odd phrasings and strange lengths,” my points sometimes seemed relevant. A hot-shot, page-focused word-wielder from the hinterlands, I was in way over my head, facing belatedly what many Princeton students must go through as freshmen.

My first interview with Professor Baker gave me hope that I could salvage myself. Tweedy, with a gray crewcut and stoked-up pipe, the renowned Hemingway scholar put me at ease, calling me “Graves” and proposing such topics for my junior papers as “Fielding’s Dramatic Method” and “Tennyson and Arnold and the ‘Problem of Social Participation.’ ” I recall in sharp detail my first tutorial session with him after he’d read a partial draft on Fielding: “Nobody ever talked to you about topic sentences. Right, Graves?” he’d said. I confessed that nobody had, to speak of, and he proceeded to set me straight. Why hadn’t somebody said all this before? Write in paragraphs. Hook your thoughts onto main points. Maybe somebody had. But Mr. Baker drove the point home.

Jim Adams, my good buddy that year in the Class of 1961, was working as a researcher for Mr. Baker and told me stories about his home and family out in town. I never got to know him on that personal level, but I do recall that Carlos Baker gave me just what I needed that fall – clear, sensible advice, along with enough support that I kept faith in myself. No condescension colored his manner. He’d absorbed something of the Hemingway style – efficient, succinct. That a man of such importance, who’d just written A Friend in Power, would spend time doctoring my feeble prose was flattering to ponder.

I also recall Professor Laurence Thompson, Frost’s biographer and one of my preceptors. Thompson, another manly man, loved to reduce novels to geometric shapes, to triangles or circles or squares. The joke was that once in class he’d tried to analyze a novel using various diagrammatic schemes and, failing to come up with one that worked, had concluded, “Oh, hell, it wasn’t a very good book anyway.”) Thompson missed our precepts now and then to visit Frost, and later, when that tell-all life came out, I had the sense of having been a tangential witness to its origins.

And I recall R.P. Blackmur, aged and unfathomable in his “Forms of Poetry” course, quoting Dante in Italian while puffing on a cigarette and teetering precariously behind the lectern like a tree just cut by the logger and ready to topple, a roomful of us novitiates hanging on the sound of his voice, certain that we basked in the chiaroscuro of a deep and brilliant man. Our final exam in the course required us to write a “personal theory of poetry,” and we spent the whole term bent on the fool’s errand of trying to devise a set of tenets that would impress our mentor.

Willard Thorp, too, was a genial power of that era, an old ’30s radical with a pure prose style who couldn’t believe, in that post-McCarthy era, I would personally stoop to signing a loyalty oath in order to get an N.D.E.A fellowship to go to Duke for grad school. (I told him that as best I could recollect, I honestly hadn’t yet tried to overthrow the federal government that was rather generously offering to pay my way through school for three more years.)

But among the giants of those days in the English department, Mr. Baker, with his practical approach, was what I needed to ease my segue into the Big League. I was reared on common sense, and Carlos Baker had a lot of it. Maybe Cornel West would have called him a “romantic pragmatist.” Certainly he had charisma and in that sense straddled the romantic/utilitarian divide. But as a teacher he seemed to me to be all business.

Even today, when the voluptuous, orotund convolutions of academese chant siren melodies in my ears, Mr. Baker’s preachments echo: Make sense, be orderly, be clear, say what you mean, support what you say.

Professor of English, The University of Tennessee at Martin

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A penny from John Archibald Wheeler

I was a sophomore (Class of 1975, third class of women) in John Archibald Wheeler’s physics course in 1972. He was the most amazing professor I’ve ever had – his lectures were captivating and fun. His first assignment was to determine “how far can a wild goose fly.” That was it. We all began to appreciate the power of estimates, and to understand what pieces of information go into a good one. Professor Wheeler was so meticulous in his derivations in class that he offered a prize of a penny to anyone who could point out a mistake he had made – which was very rare. My greatest joy then was earning a penny once. Today, I’m a professor in Vassar College’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, and still tell stories of that great man to my students.

Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy, Vassar College

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Shaping character and sense of vocation

My classmate Philip Weinstein’s tribute to three of our English professors in the Oct. 5 PAW spoke for a number of us. May I add my own remembrance of Princeton’s great teachers, published originally in our 35th reunion book:

Although I’ve never attended a reunion, I’ve come to realize that I’ve been bound to Princeton throughout my life as a teacher and scholar. Only in the past decade have I fully understood how the great teachers with whom I studied shaped my character and sense of vocation. My own courses in literature to this day reverently plagiarize lecture outlines, exam questions, strategies of instruction and argument that I absorbed in lectures and preceptorials during my undergraduate days. My notions of what serious teaching is and why it matters are grounded there.

Many members of our class will also remember the fine teachers who mattered so much to me – their intellectual seriousness, their generosity, maybe even their names: R.P. Blackmur, Sherman Hawkins, E.D.H. Johnson, John Keuhl, A. Walton Litz, Alpheus Mason, Julian Moynahan, John William Ward, Larry Holland, Larry Holland.

Newton, Mass.

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