The Best of PAW:
100 Years of Princeton Alumni Weekly

Jim Merritt '66 talks about the new PAW centennial book

At last it's out - The Best of PAW: 100 Years the Princeton Alumni Weekly, which former editor J.I. (Jim) Merritt '66 has been working on for much of the last 16 months, arrived from the printer on November 13. We asked Merritt, who edited PAW from 1989 to 1999, a few questions about this centennial anthology.

Tell us about The Best of PAW.

Well, I guess the first thing to say is that it's big - 518 large-format pages (8 1/2 by 11 inches, with the text laid out over two columns) and with lots of pictures (296). Then I would say - and obviously I'm biased, and this is a subjective judgment - that it's good! Lanny (Landon Y.) Jones '66, another former PAW editor who is also biased (he was a member of the committee that helped select the articles) thinks it's one of the most important and revealing books about Princeton ever published. He calls it "the people's history of Princeton," which I guess you'd expect from a former editor-in-chief of People magazine.

It has 99 feature-length articles in all, plus hundreds of shorter items culled from every issue of PAW from the first - April 7, 1900 - through the last - July 5, 2000 - of the most recent publishing year. That's 3,005 issues comprising, the best I can estimate, some 60,000 pages and 12 million words. I waded through it all and made most of the selections. Also, thanks to the miracle of desktop publishing, I electronically scanned and typeset them myself, scanned all the illustrations, and laid out the book - a regular one-man band. All the features were edited to one degree or another (to provide context for a modern reader, for example) and most of them were abridged, some significantly.

The "sub" subtitle, if you will, is "A compendium of articles on the history, culture, and traditions of Princeton University." Four or five years ago, when I first thought about compiling an anthology to celebrate PAW's centennial, my idea was to select perhaps 40 or 50 feature articles on the history of the university as seen through the eyes of its alumni magazine. Then, as I thought about it more, I realized the book had to include articles, historical or not, that captured the spirit of the place. At that point I still envisioned a rather modest book of maybe 300 pages in a smaller, single-column format, without pictures. But once I got around to making selections, it quickly became apparent that I was going to have way too many pieces to squeeze into such a limiting format. Fortunately, I had an excellent designer helping me. She was Meg (Margaret M.) Davis '78, who lives in Princeton and at the time was working for PAW on a freelance basis. She came up with the larger format and encouraged me to use as many pictures as possible. I started out with the notion of having 50 to 100 illustrations and wound up with almost 300.

How did you organize all this material?

I arranged the contents chronologically, more or less. They follow the history of Princeton from 1746, the year the College of New Jersey was founded, to the present. But many of the features are retrospectives written years after the events they describe. So, for example, in the section dealing with the Vietnam era you'll find reportage on the heckling of Interior Secretary Walter Hickel during a speech on campus in March 1970 next to an article published in 1995 on that spring of discontent 25 years before.

All the articles on Princeton up to 1900, of course, were written long after the fact. From 1900 on, they're a mix of contemporary accounts and historical pieces. The anthology is organized into seven period - 1746-1900, 1900-14, 1914-30, 1930-46, 1946-80, and 1980-2000. Each of the six sections from 1900 begins with a selection of short items (mostly 100-400 words) taken from that period and arranged chronologically according to the date of the issue in which they appeared. In the second part of the section are the features chronicling the period.

How did you decide what to put in?

We had a selection committee of three former editors - me, Lanny Jones, and Chuck (Charles L.) Creesy '65. As a practical and logistical matter it was effectively impossible for the three of us to sit down together and go over this mountain of material, so I wound up making most of the selections unilaterally. Anyone who questions why an article appeared in the book or why another was left out should direct his or her complaints to me - and I'm sure there will be some! Lanny and Chuck did the first-cut selecting for the years they edited the magazine (1969-74 and 1974-87, respectively), and I made the final choices based on the articles they proposed. Once we started producing page layouts, I sent printouts to Chuck and Lanny for proofing and comment, and sometimes I deleted or added a piece at their suggestion. But for better or worse, most of the initial selections and all the final ones were mine.

That was the selection process. As for selection criteria, as I said, the book reflects on Princeton's history, culture, and traditions. Especially when it comes to history, it does have some gaps. For example, to my surprise PAW never published a compelling article on the extraordinary presidency of Bob (Robert F.) Goheen '40 *48, who served as Princeton's chief executive from 1957 to 1972, a period of growth and change that was probably unparalleled in the school's history. But several articles - on the decision to admit women and the administration's handling of student protests, for instance - do point up the importance of Goheen's leadership. I also regret not having a suitable piece about Fred Hargadon, the current dean of admission. I think Fred has had as much positive impact on Princeton as any administrator in the last 50 years.

Are there other articles you wanted to get in but couldn't?

The selection criteria excluded many outstanding articles on Princeton's faculty. I could fill another whole volume on pieces written by or about professors on their areas of expertise. In that sense, at least, the "best" in the title is somewhat misleading. I did manage to include a few faculty pieces, however - on Homer translator Robert Fagles, for example, religion scholar Elaine Pagels, and master teacher of organic chemistry Maitland Jones. There are others as well.

In the category of Princeton athletics, I intended to have more contemporary stories about some of the great games played by Tiger teams over the years, but I found that few such play-by-play accounts hold up over time. Some abbreviated game accounts appear in the up-front sections.

The anthology is also short on alumni profiles, unless the subjects reflect directly on Princeton or are strongly associated with Princeton in the public mind. So, for example, I included two pieces on Bill Bradley '65 - a profile written by student journalists during his senior year, plus a short retrospective by Bradley himself on his undergraduate days. Others articles in this category include pieces on the legendary athlete-scholar-spy Moe Berg '23, actor Jimmy Stewart '32, and the late Keeper of Princetoniana Fred Fox '39. The profile of Fox was written by Scott Berg '71, whose recent biography of Charles Lindbergh won a Pulitzer Prize.

Give us some other highlights from the book.

Where to begin? In the pre-PAW period there are a number of articles I especially like. Historian Lawrence Stone writes about Oxford and Cambridge as models for the young Princeton. Nathaniel Burt '36 has a charming piece on student life in Nassau Hall from 1756 until 1900, when the last undergraduates moved out - I had no idea it had served, at least in part, as a dormitory for that long. Stephen Dujack '76 does an excellent job describing the improbable Princeton athletes who took part in the first modern Olympics. An important story - and one that raised a lot of hackles when it was first published, in 1990 - is Theodore Ziolkowski's analysis of what Woodrow Wilson really meant by the phrase "Princeton in the nation's service." It turns out that Wilson's view of "service" was a lot narrower than ours. As the author also points out, on educational matters Wilson was much more conservative than is generally realized - he was deeply skeptical of the importance of sciences in the curriculum, for example.

In the 1900-14 period, former PAW editor John Davies '41 writes with insight on Princeton's precept system. When Wilson, as president, recruited his "preceptor guys" he imagined them as generalists who could teach anything, whether or not the subject was related to their academic specialty. And he wanted them exclusively to teach and not bother doing research. This was obviously a model that could not survive Princeton's evolution into one of the world's great research universities. Davies also gives us a compelling portrait of Gilded Age icon Hoby Baker '14, perhaps Princeton's greatest all-around athlete. On student life there is Woodford Howard's description of the college days of Judge Harold Medina '09. Brown Ralston '10's reflections on student life in the pre-World War I era offer a fascinating glimpse of dating (no respectable girl showed up on campus without a chaperone); he also alludes to "other" women (Trenton prostitutes) in the lives of some undergraduates.

In the 1914-30 section we have pieces on the great teacher and man of letters Christian Gauss, the enduring friendship of Don Lourie and George Love of the Class of 1922, football's undefeated Team of Destiny, and F. Scott Fitzgerald '17. In 1930-46, Robert Carlisle '44 contributes a wonderful profile of Triangle songwriter Brooks Bowman '36, who, had he not died young in a car crash, would probably have been Princeton's answer to Yale's Cole Porter. Historian Richard Challener '44 writes about the Veterans of Future Wars, a nationwide movement that started more or less as a joke at Princeton in the 1930s, and the enduring changes to Princeton wrought by World War II. Another distinguished writer, William Zinsser '44, movingly describes the war's effect on his class.

In the three sections comprising 1946-2000, I especially like Selden Edwards '63's "Reflections of a Scrubby Gun," his memoir of playing basketball for Cappy Cappon and Eddie Donovan in the pre-Bill Bradley era, and Daniel White '65's poignant and bittersweet "Lust and Love at Pre-coed Princeton." White also contributes the definitive account of Princeton Reunions and a memorable portrayal of his classmate Will Parker, an opera singer who died of AIDS. I could go on.

What are some of the things that compiling The Best of PAW taught you about Princeton?

I came away with a couple of insights. One is what you might call the persistent perversity of undergraduates, from the 1740s to the present, to behave like the late adolescents they are. Virginia Kays Creesy writes about George Washington Parke Custis of the Class of 1799. Parke was the step-grandson and ward of George Washington, a charming but insouciant lad whose indolence and lack of direction gave poor George fits. In 1797 the faculty suspended him for unruly behavior, and that was the last Old Nassau ever saw of him. In another piece on that era, Aims McGuinness '90 writes about the Great Rebellion of 1807, which resulted in the expulsion of nearly half of the student body. At the heart of the rebellion, observes McGuinness, were questions about the status of students, the nature of a residential college, and the relationship between the two: "How to define someone who is neither a child nor fully grown? Or a place that is neither a family nor a civil society?" Questions, indeed, that remain unresolved to this day.

The Best of Princeton also has pieces on more recent shenanigans like the spring riot of 1963 and the Nude Olympics, which the administration finally banned two years ago. We'll see how long the ban holds.

Another insight - and I knew this already, but several articles reinforced it - is the special nature of Princeton as "the smallest of the great universities," as I heard Neil Rudenstine '56 describe it once, when he was provost. Princeton's size makes all the difference. It's large enough to have the critical mass needed for a graduate school and to attract first-rate scholars (the two are related), yet small and cohesive enough to compete with the best liberal-arts colleges when it comes to undergraduate teaching. The selections underscore that duel commitment to research and teaching.

Finally - and I realize this may sound like a cliché -compiling this anthology made me realize yet again that Princeton really is a family of sorts. At least, there's a special, quasi-familial relationship between the university and its students and alumni. The relationship may be a bit dysfunctional at times, but the analogy holds. In a piece titled "The Hiss Hassle Revisited," John D. Fox '76 looks back on a revealing incident from 1956, when Whig-Clio on a lark invited convicted perjurer and suspected Soviet spy Alger Hiss to speak on campus. Hiss's visit, his first public appearance since his release from prison, touched off political passions and made Princeton (not for the last time) a target of conservative outrage. The administration's calculated response to apoplectic alumni ignored the issue of academic freedom - something it figured most graduates wouldn't understand or care about - and fell back on a paternalistic "boys will be boys" argument, saying in effect that Whig-Clio's student officers would learn from their mistake.

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