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Program History

“For those who have tended to think that Princeton has only recently put such emphasis on the creative and performing arts, it’s good to be reminded that the Creative Writing Program has made such a large impact for so very long. It is, quite simply, the best in the country,” said Paul Muldoon, Howard G.B. Clark '21 University Professor in the Humanities; Professor of Creative Writing, Chair of the Fund for Irish Studies and Chair of Lewis Center for the Arts.

The Creative Arts Program, the precursor of three later programs (Creative Writing, Theater and Dance, and Visual Arts) was established in 1939 under the leadership of Dean Christian Gauss, who observed that Princeton University departments at the time focused their teaching on the history and achievements of poets, writers, sculptors and artists but did little to cultivate writers and other artists. Dean Gauss approached the Carnegie Foundation to help the University address this “lack of foresight.” The Foundation promptly responded with a generous five year grant of $75,000 to pay the salaries of “practionners in the arts” for several years to come. With the aid of the Carnegie grant, Dean Gauss set up the Creative Arts Program and convened a faculty committee to assist him. This Creative Arts Committee, chaired by Dean Gauss and including Professor Coindreau (French), Professors Davis and De Wald (Art), Professor Welch (Music) and Professors Hudson and Thorp, both from the English Department, established the program’s mission “to allow the talented undergraduates to work in the creative arts under professional supervision while pursuing a regular liberal arts course of study, as well as to offer all interested undergraduates an opportunity to develop their creative faculties in connection with the general program of humanistic education.” The Committee also set a one-year rule to limit the appointments of the Resident Fellows they would invite to campus.

In 1939 Professor Willard Thorp nominated poet and critic Allen Tate as the first Resident Fellow in Creative Writing. Tate signed a letter of acceptance on April 17, 1939 and began teaching the following September. According to the Princeton University Catalogue in 1939-1940, Tate was to “act as general adviser to undergraduates interested in writing and will be in general charge of the new plan designed to further the work of entering freshman in creative writing.” The following year, the Creative Arts Committee broke its one-year rule and appointed Tate for a second year and allowed him to invite poet and critic Richard P. Blackmur to assist him. The Committee broke their one-year rule again and gave Tate a third year (1941-42) but for 1942-43 the Committee resumed its original plan and appointed George Stewart, Princeton class of 1917, as Resident Fellow. Over the course of nearly 20 years that followed, under the Committee Chairman Professor Arthur Szathmary and the Program Director R. P. Blackmur, a succession of poets, writers and critics taught in the program. Among these were John Berryman, Joseph N. Frank, Delmore Schwartz, William Meredith, Robert Fitzgerald, Sean O'Faolain, Richard Eberhart, Kingsley Amis and Philip Roth.

The Creative Arts Program went through a series of evolutions, most notable of which occurred under the leadership of Edmund Keeley, who held the directorships as the program changed its name from the Creative Arts Program (1966 to 1971), to the Creative Writing Program and Theatre Program (1971 to 1973), and finally to the Creating Writing Program (1978 to 1981), the name by which it is still known today. So far, Professor Keeley has directed the Creative Writing Program for the longest period of time.

Theodore Weiss joined Keeley in 1966 and together, over the next two decades, the two men did much to expand the program, bringing in such distinguished writers as Elizabeth Bowen, Thomas Gunn, Anthony Burgess, Galway Kinnell, Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks.

Professor Keeley was responsible for changing the format of creative writing courses from precepts, with students meeting individually with their adviser once a week to discuss their writing, to the current workshop format, where the focus is on students sharing their work with other students under the guidance of faculty, supplemented with readings in literature and individual conferences. Professor Keeley introduced the workshop format on the basis of his experience during a sabbatical year at the Iowa Writers Workshop, one of the earliest creative writing programs in the country.

“The Creative Writing Program, as I initially understood it, was primarily to teach students how to read as a writer might read and to begin writing with knowledge of the creative process. For many students taking creative writing courses at Princeton was also how they first discovered literature, or at least a passion for literature,”  said Edmund Keeley, the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English Emeritus and  Professor Creative Writing, Emeritus.

It was also during Keeley’s leadership that the program moved to its current location, the former Nassau Street School at 185 Nassau Street. There the program expanded with the rapid growth of student interest in the creative arts in the early seventies and by 1975 there were three separate programs in Creative Writing, Theater and Dance and Visual Arts. In 2006 those programs were united under the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts which subsequently was named the Lewis Center for the Arts in November 2007 following the University’s single largest gift ever from Peter B. Lewis ’55. Pulitzer-prize winning poet Paul Muldoon is the founding chair of the Center.

Edmund Keeley was succeeded as director by James Richardson (1981 to 1990), whose period as director saw the arrival of Toni Morrison and Paul Muldoon. Following Richardson, the program was briefly directed by A. Walton Litz (1990 to 1992), and then subsequently by Paul Muldoon (1993 to 2002), Edmund White (2002 to 2006), Chang-rae Lee (2006 to 2010) and Susan Wheeler (2011 to present). 

Princeton University undergraduates continue to have the unique opportunity to pursue original work in fiction, poetry and translation under the guidance of practicing writers in the creative writing faculty, many of whom hold the country’s most prestigious literary honors and awards. The Creative Writing faculty include: Jeffrey Eugenides, Chang-rae Lee, Paul Muldoon, Joyce Carol Oates, James Richardson, Tracy Smith, Susan Wheeler, Edmund White and C.K. Williams. Small workshop courses, averaging eight to ten students, provide intensive feedback and instruction for both beginners and advanced writers, and each year 15-20 seniors work individually with a member of the faculty on a creative thesis: a novel or a collection of short stories, poems, or translations.

“People often say that if we offered a Masters of Fine Arts our program would be the most celebrated one in the world, given the renown and talent of our teaching team. In the true tradition of Princeton’s dedication to undergraduate education we are able to lavish on our students the acquired experience and talent of our extraordinary writer-professors,” commented Edmund White.

Novelist and program chair Chang-rae Lee commented, “A wonderful development in the program in recent years is that we've been able to accept more students than ever before; in the past we couldn't accept every qualified student -- even for our introductory-level classes -- as we simply had many more applications than spots. But with the addition of both permanent and adjunct faculty, we've increased the number of workshops we offer, and we're pleased that now many more underclassmen have the chance to work with our great roster of writers.”

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