In preparatory school and up to the middle of sophomore year in college, it worried me that I wasn’t going and hadn’t gone to Yale. Was I missing a great American secret? There was a gloss upon Yale that Princeton lacked; Princeton’s flannels hadn’t been pressed for a week, its hair always blew a little in the wind. Nothing was ever carried through at Princeton with the same perfection as the Yale Junior Prom or the elections to their senior societies. From the ragged squabble of club elections with its scars of snobbishness and adolescent heartbreak, to the enigma that faced you at the end of senior year as to what Princeton was and what, bunk and cant aside, it really stood for, it never presented itself with Yale’s hard, neat, fascinating brightness. Only when you tried to tear part of your past out of your heart, as I once did, were you aware of its power of arousing a deep and imperishable love.
Princeton men take Princeton for granted and resent any attempt at analysis. As early as 1899 Jesse Lynch Williams was anathematized for reporting that Princeton wine helped to make the nineties golden. If the Princetonian had wanted to assert in sturdy chorus that his college was the true flower of American democracy, was deliberately and passionately America’s norm in ideals of conduct and success, he would have gone to Yale. His brother and many of the men from his school went there. Contrariwise he chooses Princeton because at seventeen the furies that whip on American youth have become too coercive for his taste. He wants something quieter, mellower and less exigent. He sees himself being caught up into a wild competition that will lead him headlong into New Haven and dump him pell-mell out into the world. The series of badges which reward the winner of each sprint are no doubt desirable, but he seeks the taste of pleasant pastures and a moment to breathe deep and ruminate before he goes into the clamorous struggle of American life. He finds at Princeton other men like himself and thus is begotten Princeton’s scoffing and mildly ironic attitude toward Yale.
Harvard has never existed as a conception at Princeton. Harvard men were “Bostonians with affected accents,” or they were “That Isaacs fellow who got the high school scholarship out home.” Lee Hugginson & Company hired their athletes for them but no matter how much one did for Harvard one couldn’t belong to “Fly” or “Porcellian” without going to Groton or St. Mark’s. Such ideas were satisfying if inaccurate, for Cambridge, in more senses than one, was many miles away. Harvard was a series of sporadic relationships, sometimes pleasant, sometimes hostile—that was all.
Princeton is in the flat midlands of Mew Jersey, rising, a green Phoenix, out of the ugliest country in the world. Sordid Trenton sweats and festers a few miles south; northward are Elizabeth and the Erie Railroad and the suburban slums of New York; westward the dreary upper purlieus of the Delaware River. But around Princeton, shielding her, is a ring of silence-certified milk dairies, great estates with peacocks and deer parks, pleasant farms and woodlands which we paced off and mapped down in the spring of 1917 in preparation for the war. The busy East has already dropped away when the branch train rattles familiarly from the junction. Two tall spires and then suddenly all around you spreads out the loveliest riot of Gothic architecture in America, battlement linked on to battlement, hall to hall, arch-broken, vine-covered-luxuriant and lovely over two square miles of green grass. Here is no monotony, no feeling that it was all built yesterday at the whim of last week’s millionaire; Nassau Hall was already thirty years old when Hessian bullets pierced its sides.
Alfred Noyes has compared Princeton to Oxford. To me the two are sharply different. Princeton is thinner and fresher, at once less profound and more elusive. For all its past, Nassau Hall stands there hollow and barren, not like a mother who has borne sons and wears the scars of her travail but like a patient old nurse, skeptical and affectionate with these foster children who, as Americans, can belong to no place under the sun.
In my romantic days I tried to conjure up the Princeton of Aaron Burr, Philip Freneau, James Madison and Light Horse Harry Lee, to tie on, so to speak, to the eighteenth century, to the history of man. But the chain parted at the Civil War, always the broken link in the continuity of American life. Colonial Princeton was, after all, a small denominational college. The Princeton I knew and belonged to grew from President McCosh’s great shadow in the seventies, grew with the great post bellum fortunes of New York and Philadelphia to include coaching parties and keg parties and the later American conscience and Booth Tarkington’s Triangle Club and Wilson’s cloistered plans for an educational utopia. Bound up with it somewhere was the rise of American football.
For at Princeton, as at Yale, football became, back in the nineties, a sort of symbol. Symbol of what? Of the eternal violence of American life? Of the eternal immaturity of the race? The failure of a culture within the walls? Who knows? It became something at first satisfactory, then essential and beautiful. It became, long before the insatiable millions took it, with Gertrude Ederle and Mrs. Snyder, to its heart, the most intense and dramatic spectacle since the Olympic games. The death of Johnny Poe with the Black Watch in Flanders starts the cymbals crashing for me, plucks the strings of nervous violins as no adventure of the mind that Princeton ever-offered. A year ago in the Champs Elysees I passed a slender dark-haired young man with an indolent characteristic walk. Something stopped inside me; I turned and looked after him. It was the romantic Buzz Law whom I had last seen one cold fall twilight in 1915, kicking from behind his goal line with a bloody bandage round his head.
After the beauty of its towers and the drama of its arenas, the widely known feature of Princeton is its “clientele.”
A large proportion of such gilded youth as will absorb an education drifts to Princeton. Goulds, Rockefellers, Harrimans, Morgans, pricks, Firestones, Perkinses, Pynes, McCormicks, Wanamakers, Cudahys and Du Ponts light there for a season, well or less well regarded. The names of Pell, Biddle, Van Rensselaer, Stuyvesant, Schuyler and Cooke titillate second generation mammas and papas with a social row to hoe in Philadelphia or New York. An average class is composed of three dozen boys from such Midas academies as St. Paul’s, St. Mark’s, St. George’s, Pomfret and Groton, a hundred and fifty more from Lawrenceville, Hotchkiss, Exeter, Andover and Hill, and perhaps another two hundred from less widely known preparatory schools. The remaining twenty per cent enter from the high schools and these last furnish a large proportion of the eventual leaders. For them the business of getting to Princeton has been more arduous, financially as well as scholastically. They are trained and eager for the fray.
In my time, a decade ago, the mid-winter examinations in freshman year meant a great winnowing. The duller athletes, the rich boys of thicker skulls than their forbears, fell in droves by the wayside. Often they had attained the gates at twenty or twenty-one and with the aid of a tutoring school only to find the first test too hard. They were usually a pleasant fifty or sixty, those first flunk-outs. They left many regrets behind.
Nowadays only a few boys of that caliber ever enter. Under the new system of admissions they are spotted by their early scholastic writhings and balkings and informed that Princeton has space only for those whose brains are of normal weight. This is because a few years ago the necessity arose of limiting the enrollment. The war prosperity made college possible for many boys and by 1921 the number of candidates, who each year satisfied the minimum scholastic requirements for Princeton, was far beyond the university’s capacity.
So, in addition to the college board examinations, the candidate must present his scholastic record, the good word of his schools, of two Princeton alumni, and must take a psychological test for general intelligence. The six hundred or so who with these credentials make the most favorable impression on the admissions committee are admitted. A man who is deficient in one scholastic subject may succeed in some cases over a man who has passed them all. A boy with a really excellent record, in, say science and mathematics, and a poor one in English, is admitted in preference to a boy with a fair general average and no special aptitude. The plan has raised the standard of scholarships and kept out such men as A, who in my time turned up in four different classes as a sort of perennial insult to the intelligence.
Whether the proverbially narrow judgments of head masters upon adolescents will serve to keep out the Goldsmiths, the Byrons, the Whitmans and the O’Neills it is too early to tell.
I can’t help hoping that a few disreputable characters will slip in to salt the salt of the earth. Priggishness sits ill on Princeton. It was typified in my day by the Polity Club. This was a group that once a fortnight sat gravely at the feet of Mr. Schwab or Judge Gary or some other pard-like spirit imported for the occasion. Had these inspired plutocrats disclosed trade secrets or even remained on the key of brisk business cynicism the occasion might have retained dignity, but the Polity Club were treated to the warmed over straw soup of the house organ and the production picnic, with a few hot sops thrown in about “future leaders of men.” Looking through a copy of the latest year book I do not find the Polity Club at all. Perhaps it now serves worthier purposes.
President Hibben is a mixture of “normalcy” and discernment, of staunch allegiance to the status quo and of a fine tolerance amounting almost to intellectual curiosity. I have heard him in a speech mask with rhetoric statements of incredible shallowness; yet I have never known him to take a mean, narrow or short-sighted stand within Princeton’s walls. He fell heir to the throne in 1912 during the reaction to the Wilson idealism, and I believe that, learning vicariously, he has pushed out his horizon amazingly since then. His situation was not unlike Harding’s ten years later, but, surrounding himself with such men as Gauss, Heermance and Alexander Smith, he has abjured the merely passive and conducted a progressive and often brilliant administration.
Under him functions a fine philosophy department, an excellent department of classics, fathered by the venerable Dean West, a scientific faculty starred by such names as Oswald Veblen and Conklin; and a surprisingly pallid English department, top-heavy, undistinguished and with an uncanny knack of making literature distasteful to young men. Dr. Spaeth, one of several exceptions, coached the crew in the afternoon and in the morning aroused interest and even enthusiasm for the romantic poets, an interest later killed in the preceptorial rooms where mildly poetic gentlemen resented any warmth of discussion and called the prominent men of the class by their first names.
The Nassau Literary Magazine is the oldest college publication in America. In its files you can find the original Craig Kennedy story, as well as prose or poetry by Woodrow Wilson, John Grier Hibben, Henry van Dyke, David Graham Phillips, Stephen French Whitman, Booth Tarkington, Struthers Burt, Jesse Lynch Williams—almost every Princeton writer save Eugene O’Neill. To Princeton’s misfortune, O’Neill’s career terminated by request three years too soon. The Princetonian, the daily, is a conventional enough affair, though its editorial policy occasionally embodies coherent ideas, notably under James Bruce, Forrestal and John Martin, now of Time. The Tiger, the comic, is generally speaking, inferior to the Lampoon, the Record and the Widow. When it was late to press, John Biggs and I used to write whole issues in the interval between darkness and dawn.
The Triangle Club (acting, singing and dancing) is Princeton’s most characteristic organization. Founded by Booth Tarkington with the production of his libretto, The Honorable Julius Caesar, it blooms in a dozen cities every Christmastide. On the whole it represents a remarkable effort and under the wing of Donald Clive Stuart, it has become, unlike the Mask and Wig Club of Pennsylvania, entirely an intramural affair. Its best years have been due to the residence of such talented improvisers as Tarkington, Roy Dursrine, Walker Ellis, Ken Clark, or Erdman Harris. In my day it had a rowdy side but now the inebriated comedians and the all-night rehearsals are no more. It furnishes a stamping ground for the multiplying virtuosos of jazz, and the competition for places in the cast and chorus testifies to its popularity and power.
Princeton’s sacred tradition is the honor system, a method of pledging that to the amazement of outsiders actually works, with consequent elimination of suspicion and supervision. It is handed over as something humanly precious to the freshmen within a week of their entrance. Personally I have never seen or heard of a Princeton man cheating in an examination, though I am told a few such cases have been mercilessly and summarily dealt with. I can think of a dozen times when a page of notes glanced at in a wash room would have made the difference between failure and success for me, but I can’t recall any moral struggles in the matter. It simply doesn’t occur to you, any more than it would occur to you to rifle your roommate’s pocketbook. Perhaps the thing that struck deepest in the last autumn’s unfortunate Lampoon was the mention of the honor system with an insinuation and a sneer.
No freshmen allowed on Prospect Street; these are the eighteen upper class clubs. I first heard of them in an article by, I think, Owen Johnson, in the Saturday Evening Post nearly twenty years ago. Pictures of Ivy, Cottage, Tiger Inn, and Cap and Gown smiled from the page not like the tombs of robber barons on the Rhine but like friendly and distinguished havens where juniors and seniors might eat three semiprivate meals a day. Later I remember Prospect Street as the red torchlight of the freshman parade flickered over the imposing facades of the houses and the white shirt fronts of the upper classmen, and gleamed in the champagne goblets raised to toast the already prominent members of my class.
There are no fraternities at Princeton; toward the end of each year the eighteen clubs take in an average of about twenty-five sophomores each, seventy-five per cent of the class. The remaining twenty-five per cent continue to eat in the university dining halls and this situation has been the cause of revolutions, protests, petitions, and innumerable editorials in the Alumni Weekly. But the clubs represent an alumni investment of two million dollars—the clubs remain.
The Ivy Club was founded in 1879 and four years out of every five it is the most coveted club in Princeton. Its prestige is such that, broadly speaking, it can invite twenty boys out of every class and get fifteen of them. Not infrequently it has its debacles. Cottage, Tiger Inn or Cap and Gown—these three with Ivy have long been known as the “big” clubs—will take ten or fifteen of the boys that Ivy wants and Ivy will be left with a skeleton section of a dozen and considerable bitterness toward its successful rival. The University Cottage Club, feared and hated politically, has made several such raids. Architecturally the most sumptuous of the clubs, Cottage was founded in 1887. It has a large Southern following, particularly in St. Louis and Baltimore. Unlike these two, Tiger Inn cultivates a bluff simplicity. Its membership is largely athletic and while it pretends to disdain social qualifications it has a sharp exclusiveness of its own. The fourth big club, Cap and Gown, began as an organization of earnest and somewhat religious young men, but during the last ten years social and political successes have overshadowed its original purpose. As late as 1916 its president could still sway a wavering crowd of sophomores with the happy slogan of “Join Cap and Gown and Meet God.”
Of the others Colonial, an old club with a history of ups and downs, Charter, a comparative newcomer, and Quadrangle, the only club with a distinctly intellectual flavor, are the most influential. One club vanished in the confusion of the war. Two have been founded since, both of them in a little old building which has seen the birth of many. The special characteristics of the clubs vary so that it is hazardous to describe them. One whose members in my day were indefatigable patrons of the Nassau Inn Bar, is now, I am told, a sort of restaurant for the Philadelphian Society.
The Philadelphian Society is Princeton’s Y. M. C. A., and in more sagacious moments it is content to function as such. Occasionally, though, it becomes inspired with a Messianic urge to evangelize the university. In my day for example, it imported for the purpose a noted rabble rouser, one Dr. X, who brought along in all seriousness a reformed Bad Example. Such students as out of piety or curiosity could be assembled were herded into Alexander Hall and there ensued one of the most grotesque orgies ever held in the shadow of a great educational institution. When Dr. X’s sermon had risen to an inspirational chant, several dozen boys rose, staunch as colored gentlemen, and went forward to be saved. Among them was a popular free thinker and wine bibber whose sincerity we later probed but never determined. The climax of the occasion was the Bad Example’s account of his past excesses, culminating in his descent into an actual stone gutter, his conversion and his rise to the position of Bad Example for Dr. X’s traveling circus.
By this time the tenderer spirits in the audience had become uncomfortable, the tougher ones riotous; a few left the hall. The unctuousness of the proceedings was too much even for those more timorous days, and later there were protests on the grounds of sheer good taste. Last year “Buchmanism,” a milder form of the same melodrama, came in for some outspoken and impatient criticism in the university press.
There is so much of Princeton that I have omitted to touch. Perhaps to be specific for a moment will be a method of being most general. Vivid lights played on the whole colorful picture during the winter and early spring of 1917, just before the war.
Never had the forces which compose the university been so strong and so in evidence. Four score sophomores had democratically refused to join clubs, under the leadership of David Bruce (a son of Senator Bruce), Richard Cleveland (a son of President Cleveland), and Henry Hyacinth Strater of Louisville, Kentucky. Not content with this, the latter, the first man in his class to make the Princetonian and an ardent devotee of Tolstoy and Edward Carpenter, came out as a pacifist. He was brilliant and deeply popular; he was much patronized, somewhat disapproved of but never in the slightest degree persecuted. He made a few converts who joined the Quakers and remained pacifists to the end.
The Nassau Literary Magazine under John Peale Bishop made a sudden successful bid for popular attention. Jack Newlin, later killed in France, drew Beardsley-like pictures for frontispieces; I wrote stories about current prom girls, stories that were later incorporated into a novel; John Biggs imagined the war with sufficient virtuosity to deceive veterans; and John Bishop made a last metrical effort to link up the current crusade with the revolution—while we all, waiting to go to training camps, found time heartily to despise the bombast and rhetoric of the day. We published a satirical number, a parody on the Cosmopolitan Magazine, which infuriated the less nimble-witted members of the English department. We—this time the board of the Tiger—issued an irreverent number which burlesqued the faculty, the anticlub movement and then the clubs themselves, by their real names. Everything around us seemed to be breaking up. These were the great days; battle was on the horizon; nothing was ever going to be the same again and nothing mattered. And for the next two years nothing did matter. Five per cent of my class, twenty-one boys, were killed in the war.
That spring I remember late nights at the Nassau Inn with Bill Coan, the proctor, waiting outside to hale selected specimens before the dean next morning. I remember the long afternoons of military drill on the soccer fields, side by side perhaps with an instructor of the morning. We used to snicker at Professor Wardlaw Miles’ attempts to reconcile the snap of the drill manual with his own precise and pedantic English. There were no snickers two years later when he returned from France with a leg missing and his breast bright with decorations. A thousand boys cheered him to his home. I remember the last June night when, with two-thirds of us in uniform, our class sang its final song on the steps of Nassau Hall and some of us wept because we knew we’d never be quite so young any more as we had been here. And I seem to remember a host of more intimate things that are now as blurred and dim as our cigarette smoke or the ivy on Nassau Hall that last night.
Princeton is itself. Williams College is not “what Princeton used to be.” Williams is for guided boys whose female relatives waul them protected from reality. Princeton is of the world; it is somehow on the “grand scale”; and for sixty years it has been approximately the same. There is less singing and more dancing. The keg parties arc over but the slags line up for a hundred yards to cut in on young Lois Moran. There is no Elizabethan Club as at Yale to make a taste for poetry respectable, sometimes too respectable; exceptional talent must create its own public at Princeton, as it must in life. In spite, of all persuasions the varsity man conservatively wears his P on the inside of his sweater, but so far no Attorney General Palmers or Judge Thayers have bobbed up among the alumni. President Hibben sometimes disagrees aloud with Secretary Mellon and only ninety-two members of the senior class proclaimed themselves dry last year.
Looking back over a decade one sees the ideal of a university become a myth, a vision, a meadow lark among the smoke stacks. Yet perhaps it is there at Princeton, only more elusive than under the skies of the Prussian Rhiheland or Oxfordshire; or perhaps some men come upon it suddenly and possess it, while others wander forever outside. Even these seek in vain through middle age for any corner of the republic that preserves so much of what is fair, gracious, charming and honorable in American life.
This essay on Princeton was originally written for a series on American colleges printed in College Humor. Fitzgerald’s essay appeared there in December, 1927; it was reprinted in 1929 in a volume called Ten Years of Princeton ’17. It was Fitzgerald’s humor to place the events of any fiction he wrote about undergraduate life at Yale. But the real source of Basil Duke Lee’s inner experience at Yale was Scott Fitzgerald’s experience at Princeton, and this essay shows us what Princeton was for Fitzgerald’s imagination, in a more responsible way, in some respects, than does This Side of Paradise, where, as he here points out, he was influenced by a desire to romanticize Princeton in a way he no longer thought possible when he came to write this essay.
Not that this essay is not romantic in another sense; in fact, it is a particularly good example of the way Fitzgerald could summon up before the court of memory the exact imaginative force of an earlier experience and another occasion. It puts us back in a time when the great middle-western universities hardly existed for the American understanding, when Dexter Green of “Winter Dreams” would make immense sacrifices to go to an eastern university and the University of Minnesota was largely populated—one thought-by farce characters like Mr. Utsonomia of “Forging Ahead”; it was a time when one dreaded the effect of the “insatiable millions” on the bloody-bandaged glory of Big-Three football players—when, in short, one could seriously consider the possibility of a survival in American society of a world of responsible and cultivated aristocrats, “a meadow lark among the smoke stacks.” Fitzgerald does not criticize Princeton for being undemocratic, but for being snobbish instead of aristocratic. This is a very precise representation of the attitude of a time and a place, and perhaps of the attitude of later times and other places with different names.
Published in College Humor magazine (December 1927); reprinted in Princeton University. Class of 1917. Ten years of Princeton ’17. A record of the Class of 1917 of Princeton university for the decade 1917-1927. [Princeton, 1929]. pp. 37-42 (with some manuscript changes and annotations in copy of Princeton University Library).
Advertisement for the article in College Humor magazine (November 1927).