Feature - November 4, 1998

The Fictive Princeton
Novelists have been making the grassy gothic campus the setting of stories -- about snobbery, male camaraderie, and now love and sex -- for more than a century

By Ann Waldron

What in the name of Christ is it about Princeton that inspires such sentimental lyricism in its graduates? No other American institution of higher learning has so inspired its progeny to stick pen to paper and effuse about it to the same extent that Princetonians have effused about lilac evenings on the quad and the Pure Young Strong-jawed Sons of Nassau and all the rest of it.

-- Andrey Slivka, reviewing The Complete Works of William Spackman ['27], in the New York Press, April 30-May 6, 1997.

Faculty Novels
In passing ...
The Complete List of Princeton-related Fiction

Men have been writing novels about Princeton for at least 120 years, and from these books there indeed emerges a picture of spires and arches, the cheerful camaraderie of handsome, lucky young men, and the voices of choral groups raised in song.

In many novels about Princeton, however, a dark narrative of class distinctions, regional snobbery, and antisemitism weaves in and out of the "effusions." Over and over, male authors have recounted the plight of the outsider at Princeton, and in their stories the outsider can be almost anybody -- a midwesterner, a southerner, a westerner, a graduate of a public high school instead of a prep school, and, most outside of all, a Jew.

Princeton became coeducational in 1969, and as women graduates turn to their student experience for the stuff of fiction, the traditional novelistic take on Princeton may be in for radical change. The two alumnae who have written novels about Princeton ignore the camaraderie and snobbery, focusing instead on relationships between the sexes. One of them, Rebecca Goldstein *76, lards her comic novel, The Mind-Body Problem (1983), with robustly explicit sex scenes that would have shocked F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 or William Mumford Baker of the Class of 1846, whose His Majesty, Myself (1880) appears to be the first novel about Princeton.

Baker was a Presbyterian minister from Holly Springs, Mississippi, and his work was published anonymously as part of Roberts Brothers's "No Name Series" of novels. Set in the 1840s, His Majesty, Myself tells the story of cousins Theodore Thirlmore, a Vermonter, and Stephen Trent, a southerner, who come to "Old Orange College" and room in a "huge stone edifice" that is obviously Nassau Hall: their room opens upon "a brick-paved hall running the whole length of the prison-like structure." Every student hears the story of how George Washington had stood upon the steps of this building to thank God for his victory over the British at Princeton.

"It was dull in Old Orange," the author comments glumly. Social intercourse "between teacher and taught" was "undreamed of," and professors enjoyed baiting students having a hard time with their work. An undergraduate named Grumbles, whose expenses at the college are paid by his church, breaks down and weeps at his inability to master mathematics. Part of the story centers on Caesar Courteous, an elderly runaway slave who sells pies to the students. When a U.S. marshal comes to arrest Caesar, Stephen, the southerner, goes to every member of the faculty to raise money to buy his freedom. They rebuff him, but after hiring a horse, he scours the countryside and collects the necessary funds.


Baker's view of antebellum Princeton must have seemed quaint to the Gilded Age writers who came after him. By the 1890s, Princeton had become a rich boy's school, and a stock Princeton plot began to emerge: A graduate of a rural midwestern high school enters Princeton, where he has to deal with snotty East Coast preppies.

A Princetonian, by James Barnes, a nonalumnus who nevertheless had a working knowledge of Princeton, was published in 1896 as part of a series that included Harvard Stories, by W.K. Post, and Yale Yarns, by J.S. Wood. It's the story of Newton Wilberforce Hart, a 23-year-old Nebraska store clerk who decides to come to Princeton after catching a performance of its touring glee club. Hart arrives the next fall with his meager savings, passes the entrance examination, and gets a cheap room in Edwards Hall. (Rent for dormitories varied according to desirability until World War II, and Edwards was at the bottom of the heap.) He is awed by senior Ray Danforth's room in upscale Witherspoon Hall: "A brilliant Indian lamp hung in the middle of the room. A divan, half concealed by some rich colored tapestry, occupied the window seat. The walls were covered with things of unusual interest -- old musical instruments, bits of valuable plate, and specimens of various enamels."

Published in 1899, The Adventures of a Freshman, by Jesse Lynch Williams 1892 (who in 1900 became PAW's first editor and in 1918 won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Why Marry?), is a hearty, manly book full of moral lessons. William Young, who comes to Princeton from an Illinois farm, resists hazing by sophomores, refusing to take off his hat as a mark of respect. He has a lot to learn, and eventually catches on that graceful submission is easier than confrontation. When sophomores say, "Show us how prairie dogs run, out home on the farm," he gets down on all fours and crawls about. Then, as ordered, he crows like a rooster, barks like a dog, cheerfully goes with the sophomores to the canal, and when ordered, swims across. City boys look down on Young as uncouth, and he has to learn not to eat peas with a spoon. He gets in fast company and gambles away money he can't afford to lose, but in the end he turns out all right.

The anomalous Cherry, by Booth Tarkington 1893, is entirely different. Published in 1903 but set in 1762, it ignores the strains of adjusting to college life and spins a lively tale of charm versus pedantry. Tarkington had already published The Gentleman from Indiana (1899) and the immensely popular Monsieur Beaucaire (1900), and he would go on to write many other beloved novels, including two Pulitzer Prize winners, The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams, plus the bestsellers Penrod and Seventeen. Although Cherry didn't make the splash his other books did, it has the same vitality and delights the reader from the very beginning. Its dedication reads, "To the diligent and industrious members of the class of 1893 at Nassau Hall." The narrator of this rambunctious tale is a high-minded but hopelessly pompous and conceited junior named Sudgeberry. He and another student, named Fentriss, compete for the affections of Miss Sylvia Gray. When the two visit her during summer vacation, Fentress talks to Sylvia, while Sudgeberry lectures her father on such topics as a defense of infant damnation, "tracing the doctrine and quoting many commentators with laborious exactitude." Not surprisingly, Fentress gets the girl.

When the The Harbor, by Ernest Poole 1902, was published in 1915, it became an immediate bestseller. In a chapter about Princeton, the protagonist remarks on the genial tolerance that students had for "all those poor dry devils known to us as 'profs'" and, alluding to Francis L. Patton, the "weary sighs of our old college president as he monotoned through his lectures on ethics" while students cracked and ate peanuts. The campus had a large contingent of southern students, and racism was rampant -- the author describes one "fiery son of the South" who rails against blacks and defends lynchings. A Socialist, Poole went on to win the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel His Family, published in 1918.


F. Scott Fitzgerald, who graduated from Princeton 20 years after Booth Tarkington, clearly admired him. In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald's hero, Amory Blaine, notes that "one of Booth Tarkington's amusements [was] standing in mid-campus and singing tenor songs to the stars, arousing mingled emotions in the couched undergraduates."

This Side of Paradise is, of course, the Ur novel of Princeton life. Published in 1920, it inspired any number of young men, including statesman George F. Kennan '25 and biographer A. Scott Berg '71, to apply. Fitzgerald, who came from a shabby-genteel family in St. Paul, Minnesota, and his fictional alter ego, Amory Blaine, both loved Princeton, and the book is their hymn to it. Before he ever gets there, Amory thinks of Princeton "as being lazy and good-looking and aristocratic -- you know like a spring day," and it drew him "with its atmosphere of bright colors and its alluring reputation as the pleasantest country club in America." Once Amory finds himself amidst the "spires and towers and battlemented walls," he is seized by the same self-doubts that bedeviled Newton Hart and William Young. Amory worries about his clothes and feels awkward "among these white-flanneled, bareheaded youths." In an oft-quoted passage he eagerly scopes out the upperclass eating clubs: "Ivy, detached and breathlessly aristocratic; Cottage, an impressive melange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers; Tiger Inn, broad-shouldered and athletic." The "glittering caste system" appeals to Amory. When members of less prestigious clubs come calling during bicker, he shocks them with his unorthodox opinions, but with visitors from Ivy, Cottage, and Tiger Inn he plays the "nice, unspoilt, ingenious boy." As Fitzgerald puts it, Amory (like the author) "slid smoothly into Cottage."

The Class of 1917 also produced novelist Harvey Smith, whose four works of fiction include The Gang's All Here, published in 1941 by Princeton University Press. Smith was a New York advertising man and wrote the 1917 class notes for 20 years, from 1927 to 1947. His Princeton novel is a tour de force in the form of a 25th-reunion book at "Nostalgia University," supposedly edited by Tubby Rankin, the class secretary. Tubby prints biographical sketches of class members in alphabetical order, heading each entry with name, occupation, political party, religion, war record, and undergraduate activities. In the text, he tells the truth about each member's life. In spite of the rigid format, there's even a semblance of a plot, and a good bit of suspense.

As Tubby explains, when he wrote his class notes for Alma Mater (the fictional PAW), he couldn't tell the truth. He had always known Beansy Coleman for a louse -- a man who "was playing around with Jim Denison's wife until he got her to divorce Jim. ... I couldn't tell you that the divorce broke Jim's heart or that his death wasn't accidental as I reported it at the time. That wouldn't have been Nostalgian." Harvey Smith deals with the same old questions of class and social distinction, but with a pen more acid than Fitzgerald's. Chick Burke, a high school graduate, was snubbed at Nostalgia by four boys from St. Swithin's and never once comes back to Reunions. W. Whitman Morton, another high school boy, wants to be in the top fraternity, SRO, but "only prep school boys make SRO," says Tubby. At Reunions, the wife of the snootiest member of the class, who was St. Swithin's and SRO, falls head over heels for a former scholarship student, Whitey Nielson.

The Gang's All Here is the first Princeton novel to deal with antisemitism. Tubby's class has only two Jews. One of them, Irwin S. Morse, knew from the first day "that there was a line, invisible but as clearly defined as the equator, between Jew and gentile." Morse broke the backstroke record and revived the Nostalgia Literary Magazine and was, Tubby reports, "a good mixer" who at "any other college ... would have made a good fraternity without any difficulty. But Nostalgia being Nostalgia, he didn't make any." The other Jew, Morris S. Posner, left after fraternity elections and was never heard from again.


Two postwar novels -- Frederick Buechner '48's A Long Day's Dying (1950) and William M. Spackman '27's Heyday (1953) -- ignore the insider-outsider theme and dwell on the bliss of Princeton.

Buechner began A Long Day's Dying as an undergraduate studying creative writing under critic R.P. Blackmur and poet John Berryman, a writer in residence at the time. At one point in his narrative, a young instructor speaks of "The lovely, giddy, green disease of this place, this sweet and dangerous hospital that nobody wants to leave -- ever." The students are all "invulnerable, safe, brilliantly handsome." Buechner, who was a teacher at Lawrenceville School when A Long Day's Dying appeared, later became a Presbyterian minister and eventually a full-time writer who went on to produce 11 more novels, as well as books of meditations and theological essays. Critics especially praise his four novels about Leo Bebb, a former Bible salesman and the president of a religious diploma mill. One of them, Love Feast (1974), takes place at Reunions, where Bebb pilots a stunt plane and crashes into the P-rade.

Heyday concerns a group of men from the Class of 1927 and their life in New York during the Depression. The narrator, Webb Fletcher, laments that everything Princeton had "polished us to attain -- the easy good manners, the charm, the intelligence, the stations in life hereditary to the ruling caste. ... vanished under a mountainous rubble of avalanching quotations" when the stock market crashed. Four class members committed suicide, and one, a former editor of The Daily Princetonian, kept from starving by updating old jokes culled from books and selling them to magazines. They all look back on their time at Princeton, "that enchanted campus," as a paradise "with the sunflooded unfolding of green by day and the air heavy with blossom through the soft damp-smelling nights of spring."

Richard Kluger '56, a writer best known for his nonfiction (most recently Ashes to Ashes, a book about the tobacco industry which won a 1997 Pulitzer Prize) has also written several novels, one of which, National Anthem (1969), opens with a chapter describing the 10th reunion at a school that's patently Princeton. "The ground under the tent is already muddy from the beer and it is only Friday night," observes the narrator, Kit Kwait. "I squish through the foam-edged puddle that seeps from the base of the portable bar and bang on the counter for a refill." Various classmates appear, including Shag Shaughnessy, "the only saloonkeeper in our class," and Gibby Good, a mousy assistant professor on sabbatical to complete a seminal work tentatively titled The New Dionysian Ego.

In a short story that deals with social distinctions of a sort, Madison Smartt Bell '79 drew on his experiences in the old freshman-sophomore dining halls known as Commons. The freshman narrator of "The Structure and Meaning of Dormitory and Food Services," collected in Bell's Zero db and Other Stories (1987), describes the difference in Madison Hall (full of nerds) and Upper Eagle ("much more cheerful" with clean-cut, well-dressed young men, talking brightly).

Geoffrey Wolff '60 confronts antisemitism in his 1990 novel, The Final Club, which begins in 1956 with Nathaniel Clay's arrival at Princeton and ends in 1980, when he returns for his 20th reunion. Nathaniel has grown up in Seattle with his mother's loving parents, Jewish owners of a department store. At Princeton, Nathaniel rooms with a pair of preppie wasps, Booth Tarkington Griggs and Pownall Hamm, who were roommates at St. Paul's. "The men from those schools," writes Nathaniel to his grandfather, "seem armor-plated, impervious to hurt or perhaps indifferent to pain."

Wolff faithfully records campus landmarks -- Prospect Street, Alexander Hall, McCosh 50, Commons, the boathouse, the Chapel, and Palmer Stadium. Even more precisely, he dissects the social structure of Princeton in the 1950s. His description of bicker during his sophomore year is excruciatingly painful. Booth and Pownall get into Ivy Club, but Nathaniel winds up bidless. Wolff bases his story on the infamous real-life "dirty" bicker of 1958, in which half of the 23 rejected men were Jewish. For several years before then, presidents of the eating clubs had arranged that each club take one or two of the rejects, but the system broke down. In Wolff's story the clubs try again to divide up the pariahs; Nathaniel makes it into Ivy, then resigns. (In real life, Wolff received no bids, and left Princeton for the rest of the year. When he came back, he joined Colonial Club.)

Howard S. MacAyeal '52 writes about snobbery at Princeton in Tiger! Tiger!, a 620-page self-published novel printed and distributed in 1996 by Minerva Press. It recounts the undergraduate career of Harry Douglas "Bubby" Macaulay and his roommate, Skokie. In some cases the author dispenses with pseudonyms; Bubby, for example, blames Francis R.B. Godolphin '24*29, the dean of students, "for planting the class in ... its bed of well-mannered elitism."


Women authors who have set their narratives in Princeton have eschewed traditional themes of snobbery and discrimination, focusing instead on relationships bred in the hot-house environment of the coeducational campus. The first Princeton-based novel written by an alumna is Nostalgia (1982), by Nanci Heller McAlpin '77. It opens six years after protagonist Leslie Delorme's graduation, but most of the action takes place in flashbacks. Alex Knight and Leslie are boyfriend and girlfriend for their entire four years of student life but never sleep together because Alex isn't "ready." Leslie goes to law school and marries Claude Delorme, with whom she lives on New York's Upper West Side. Meanwhile, Alex spends six years in Europe, Japan, and graduate school. Returning to New York, he calls Leslie. After several encounters, including a picnic on campus, she is finally able to exorcise him from her life.

The Mind-Body Problem (1983), Rebecca Goldstein's steamy academic novel, remains a cult favorite on campus -- the copy in Firestone Library is always checked out or on recall; for a time after the novel appeared, the author says, a graduate student gave a campus tour pointing out the characters' trysting spots. Goldstein earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, and her narrator, Renee Feuer, is a first-year graduate student in that department. She is overwhelmed by Princeton, seeing it not as just a college town but as "an old-wealth exurb with a pedigree reaching back to colonial times," with its university of "massive gray stone and ivy-muffled red brick, archways and courtyards, sweeping lawns and ancient trees." Renee, who is Jewish, muses that there were Jews at Princeton, of course, but "nobody seemed Jewish."

Overawed by Princeton, Renee loses confidence in her intellect and stops doing class work, turning her attention instead to affairs with fellow graduate students. One lover introduces her to mathematics professor Noam Himmel. Renee hopes that marrying Himmel will give her an identity at Princeton. After the wedding, Noam neglects her for his work, and she again seeks lovers. The marriage is saved in a surprise ending.

Goldstein sets her novel firmly in Princeton. Renee lives at the Graduate College, "the great cathedral dorm for unmarried graduate students," confers with her philosophy professors in 1879 Hall, and goes to a faculty party at a "large Tudor on a block of large Tudors." She and Himmel eat at Lahiere's. She seduces him after a picnic beside Lake Carnegie (they have bought strawberries at Davidson's and beaujolais at Nassau Liquors). She goes to New Hope, Pennsylvania, for lunch with one of her lovers, mentions McCarter Theatre, Canal Road in Griggstown, and the faculty club at Prospect House. One lover has an apartment on Spring Street, another at the Institute for Advanced Study. Noam's house is on Faculty Road, and he and Renee later rent an apartment in a stucco building on Prospect Street. Her novel is an up-to-date picture of the same campus that inspired William Mumford Baker, Booth Tarkington, Scott Fitzgerald, and Geoffrey Wolff, with the added attraction of explicit sex.

Ann Waldron's Eudora, a biography of Eudora Welty, is published this month by Doubleday. For suggestions for novels to include in this article, PAW thanks the Princeton Matters chat group and Don Skemer, Firestone's curator of manuscripts.

Faculty Novels

In a category of their own are novels about Princeton (even though it's always called something else) by faculty members.

The late Carlos Baker *40, a professor of English and the author of a 1969 biography of Ernest Hemingway, wrote A Friend in Power (1958), which recounts the resignation of President Vaughn of "Enright College" and the search for a successor. The narrator, Ed Tyler, the chairman of the department of modern languages, gets the job. Baker must have drawn on some of the events of the search that led to the appointment, in 1957, of Robert F. Goheen '40*48, at the time an associate professor of classics, to replace Harold Dodds *14.

The Party at Cranton appeared in 1960, well before its author, John W. Aldridge, taught at Princeton, in 1975-76. Aldridge, better known for such works of literary criticism as After the Lost Generation, paints a sour picture of Cranton, the community that's supposed to be Princeton, which had "the smugly superior air of a town that believed itself to have been immaculately conceived." Aldridge is also hard on young faculty wives, whom he portrays as ravening beasts who "throw themselves hysterically about like a gaggle of harpies in heat." The main character, Arthur Buchanan, said to be based on R.P. Blackmur, for many years the director of Princeton's creative-writing program, is a nasty piece of work, as is everyone else in the book.

One Fat Englishman appeared in 1963, four years after author Kingsley Amis taught at Princeton as a visiting writer. Amis's hero, the loathsome fat Englishman of the title, is a publisher who comes to the college town of Ammanford whenever he's in New York because he lusts after a professor's wife. Amis's "Budweiser U" bears some slight resemblance to Princeton (it has proctors and arches), but mostly the book is a vessel for the author's loathing of America and children.

William Goldman, a noted screenwriter whose credits include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men, taught creative writing at Princeton in 1965-66, a year after he wrote Boys and Girls Together, a 600-page tome about five young people who had miserable childhoods. The chapter about Princeton deals with the familiar themes of insider-outsider and rich-poor. Aaron Firestone, a scholarship student whose family lives in Princeton, is poor; he types term papers to get money to buy books, and in his senior year he works in the Nassau Food Shoppe. Hugh White, who is rich and handsome, befriends him and gets him a blind date, Shelly Bingham, who arrives for a weekend with a friend from Sarah Lawrence. The boys meet their dates at the Dinky, take them to dinner at the Princeton Inn, go to Hugh's eating club, and end up at Aaron's empty house. When Aaron is at last alone with Shelly, he's hit with the devastating revelation that the person he loves is Hugh.

-- A.W.

In passing ...

Ernest Hemingway, who never went to college, seems to have been obsessed by Princeton, telling a friend that he was an alumnus and once blaming his mother for squandering money he could have used to attend Princeton. His friends included Edmund Wilson '16, Scott Fitzgerald '17, and Harold Loeb '13. Loeb was an American expatriate in Paris and the editor of a little magazine called Broom, which published work by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, and e.e. cummings. Loeb was also the model for the character with whom Hemingway begins The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926: "Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton."

The hero of "Fo' Dolla'," one of the short stories in James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific (1947) is Joe Cable, a Princetonian and Marine lieutenant. Cable falls in love with a lovely Tonkinese girl, Liat, on the magic island of Bali-ha'i. One of his fellow Marines says of him that he went to Princeton, so he must have good sense -- an ironic remark about a man who is clearly behaving without it.

Herman Wouk, a Columbia alumnus, made the young, attractive Willie Keith a Princetonian in his 1951 novel, The Caine Mutiny. Wouk has nothing to say about Princeton but plays on its stereotype as a way of emphasizing Willie's straight-arrow, upperclass nature.

In a 1980 book for children, Superfudge, Judy Blume plants her hero, Peter Hatcher, in the town of Princeton. The boy across the street wears a Princeton '91 T-shirt; Peter and his father go to Tiger hockey games and watch the crew row on Lake Carnegie.

In Colony (1992), by Anne Rivers Siddons, the wife of Heyward Siddons '48, heroine Maude Gascoigne visits Peter Chambliss at Princeton. To her surprise, says Maude, "I did well enough with his clubmates and friends on that dreaming old campus. ... I was given just the proper modest rush by the other members of Colonial." Almost all the action takes place at Retreat, a grim vacation colony in Maine, where many of the cottage owners are Princetonians.

Brent Monahan's The Book of Common Dread (1993) is a vampire novel set in the rare-books department of Firestone Library. The title derives from some Babylonian clay tablets that are actually part of the library's collections.

The Archivist (1998), by Martha Cooley, concerns an archivist named Matthias, working at an unnamed institution. He is responsible for the sealed correspondence of T.S. Eliot and Emily Hale, letters that in fact are held in Firestone's manuscript library.

-- A.W.

The Complete List of Princeton-related Fiction

Books mentioned (in order of publication)

· His Majesty, Myself (1880), by William Mumford Baker 1846

· A Princetonian (1896), by James Barnes

· The Adventures of a Freshman (1899), by Jesse Lynch Williams 1892 (1899)

· Cherry (1903), by Booth Tarkington 1893

· The Harbor (1915), by Ernest Poole '02

· This Side of Paradise (1920), by F. Scott Fitzgerald '17

· The Sun Also Rises (1926), by Ernest Hemingway

· The Gang's All Here (1941), by Harvey Smith '17

· Tales of the South Pacific (1947), by James A. Mitchener

· A Long Day's Dying (1950), by Frederick Buechner '48

· Heyday (1953), by William M. Spackman '27

· A Friend in Power (1958), by Carlos Baker *40

· The Party at Cranton (1960), by John W. Aldridge

· One Fat Englishman (1963), by Kingsley Amis

· Boys and Girls Together (1964), by William Goldman

· National Anthem (1969), by Richard Kluger '56

· Love Feast (1974), by Frederick Buechner '48

· The Final Club (1990), by Geoffrey Wolff '60

· Nostalgia (1982), by Heller McAlpin '77

· The Mind-Body Problem (1983), by Rebecca Goldstein *76

· Zero db and Other Stories (1987), by Madison Smartt Bell '79

· Colony (1992), by Anne Rivers Siddons s'48

· The Book of Common Dread (1993), by Brent Monahan

· Tiger! Tiger! (1996), by H.S. MacAyeal '52

· The Archivist (1998), by Martha Cooley