I majored in English at Princeton. Trust me when I say that my academic work had nothing to do with my 40-hour work weeks as a reporter and editor for the Daily Princetonian. My thesis, still the rite of passage for most Princeton undergraduates, had to do with narrative technique in four novels — by Jane Austen (Emma), Henry James (The Ambassadors), James Joyce (Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man), and Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men).
I was lucky that my thesis topic was approved: Robert Penn Warren, who wrote All the King’s Men in 1947, was still alive and well when I wrote my thesis. He didn’t die until 1989. But Austen (who died in 1817), James (1916), and Joyce (1941) were all well settled in their graves.
Others have not been so lucky. John T. Osander, Class of 1957, who later became director of admission at Princeton, was — and still is — a devotee of F. Scott Fitzgerald and wanted to write his senior thesis on him. Osander was turned down. Though Fitzgerald had died in 1940, his status in the literary pantheon was still uncertain, at least in the view of the Princeton English department.
A few years later Lanny Jones ’66 suggested a senior thesis on James Agee, the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the landmark study of the rural poor in the Great Depression published in 1941. Agee, also an accomplished poet, novelist, and screenwriter, died in 1955 at age 45 — his mark not big enough to be the subject of a senior thesis in Princeton’s English department. Jones ended up doing his thesis on Mark Twain’s use of switched identities as a dramatic device.
In my senior year, 1968-’69, John Sacret Young, the author, producer, and screenwriter who produced The West Wing and China Beach for television, originally wanted to do his senior thesis on the Irish novelist Arthur Joyce Lunel Cary, known as Joyce Cary, whose most popular work was The Horse’s Mouth, written in 1944. As Young related at a recent presentation at the Garden Theater in Princeton (presented by the university’s visual arts program), he thought Cary’s death in 1957 would place him firmly in the English department’s rear-view mirror. Young instead wrote a “creative thesis,” a novel accompanied by a lengthy essay analyzing the novel.
Given that background, I was intrigued to see a recent notice for an English department panel on “Writing in Public.” The notice said that “writers need readers — and in the present moment many academic writers are seeking ways to address a broader and more diverse readership.” The panel would include four current and former English department graduate students whose public writing credits included the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New Republic, Rolling Stone, and the Nation, among others. Several dozen undergraduates and graduate students attended. I also showed up, eager to see just how much the English department has changed in the last half century or so.
By checking out the English department syllabus, you can tell that it’s changed a little, though not radically. You can still take courses in Milton, Chaucer, Spenser, and of course Shakespeare. A seminar on major authors focuses on one or two the following: Austen, Dickinson, Wordsworth, George Eliot, Dickens, Melville, Faulkner, James, Stevens, or Woolf. A course on 19th century poetry considers the poems by Tennyson, D.G. Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Barrett Browning, Browning, Swinburne, Hardy, Clough, Bridges, and Hopkins.
On the other hand, the current syllabus includes a course on children’s literature, considering such questions as “the role of fantasy in an age of repression, didacticism versus amorality, male versus female writers, and the conventions of the Victorian fairy tale.” A course called “New Diasporas” addresses contemporary authors of the African and Caribbean Diaspora “in relation to the changing historical and cultural context of migration and globalization.” Graduate school courses focus on “Women and Liberation: Feminist Poetics and Politics in the Americas (1960s to the present)” and “Comparative Poetics of Passing: Race, Ethnicity, Sexuality.”
All of that could be grist for a lot of topical writing in the public arena. But graduate students haven’t rushed the doors of magazines and journals to throw manuscripts over the transom for consideration. In part that was due to the wary eye senior faculty at English departments such as the one at Princeton cast toward a Ph.D. candidate who chose to take precious time off from her dissertation to write an essay for, say, Rolling Stone — as panelist Sara Marcus did in response to Miley Cyrus’s controversial appearance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. (Though it should be noted that Marcus came to the English department in 2012, with a foot already in the door of popular commentary with her 2010 book, Girls to the Front, a cultural history of the 1990s punk-feminist movement.)
“Early on the attitude was ‘don’t do it’ — no one will think you are serious about being an academic,” says the panel moderator, Matthew Karp, an assistant professor of history with an interest in the American Civil War. “But that view has changed, even in the last 10 years.”
There’s another obstacle to writing in public, according to the panel: Moving from the rigorous world of academe to the fleeting deadlines of journalism. “Graduate students want things to be done and polished. The dissertation will follow us around forever,” says Marcus. But the academicians are apparently learning what we journalists have known for a long time: Don’t get it right, get it written. “The swiftness of writing for the public is a virtue,” Marcus says. “There’s something freeing about that.”
Writing in response to contemporary events, adds English Ph.D. candidate Kameron Austin Collins, challenges him “to respond quickly as a writer and a thinker.” Collins, who writes for a culture website called “The Ringer” and has constructed crossword puzzles for the New York Times, sometimes churns out three movie reviews in a week. “It’s liberating — I love being able to move on.”
There’s another side to public writing, says panelist Briallen Hopper, now a lecturer at Yale who also studied for several years at divinity school after completing her Ph.D. at Princeton. “I learned how to preach, I learned that people need a dose of words for each week,” she says. “In times of urgency people are looking for words to help them do what they need to do.”
For the past half century or so I have been trying to decide if majoring in English had any practical relevance to me as a journalist. I now believe that my thesis subject — narrative technique — may have made me attuned to how the narrator of a piece of journalism — the journalist himself — needs to be controlled as carefully as any of the subjects quoted or described in the piece.
After the panel on “Writing in Public,” I’m thinking the road may now be two-way. Something in journalism may be relevant to the academicians. One is the need to share critical thinking with the public at large. “To me it’s a basic civics question,” says Jesse McCarthy, one of the Ph.D. candidates on the panel. “We’re here at a university with massive amounts of knowledge, and the society around us is mired in division. We have an opportunity to oxygenate the public sphere. The work, if done right, can be rewarding.”