James Axtell’s book on Princeton University (“The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present,” Princeton University Press) may be the first college history one ever written by an “outsider,” someone who is not a graduate of that institution. Axtell wrote as an outsider for an additional reason; he is an anthropologist at heart.
Axtell, who is Kenan Professor of Humanities at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, speaks at two Reunions events. He will be at the Princeton University Store, 36 University Place, on Friday, June 2, at 2 p.m. In Alexander Hall on Saturday, June 3, at 9:15 a.m., his topic will be “Can a Bulldog Tell the Tiger’s Tale?”
Born in Endicott, New York, the son of an accountant, Axtell majored in history at Yale, Class of 1963, with a focus on colonial history, and he continued those studies at Cambridge University. He has written 10 books and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004.
“Doing colonial history, I ran into the Indians,” he says in a telephone interview. “Europeans were stepping off a boat into the new country — how did they learn about the place? The Indians obviously taught them all kinds of things. To put this into an educational context was groundbreaking.”
Using anthropological tools Axtell helped to get Indian studies accepted as a bona fide field, rather than as a footnote to colonial history.
Unusually for a college historian, Axtell focuses seriously on student life. “In a sense, I treat the strange Tiger tribe as I would the cultural strangeness of the 17th-century Iroquois,” he says. “They are both strange tribes with strange regalia — especially at reunions.”
Organizing his book by topic rather than by presidential regimes, he devotes four chapters to students — admissions, curriculum, extracurriculars, and the ever-changing student culture. He augmented the official histories (he did his own index of the Princeton Alumni Weekly) with alumni interviews. (See main story, beginning on page 39, for his colorful accounts of Daily Princetonian production manager Larry DuPraz, who also is listed on the U.S. 1 staff box, and the Nude Olympics.)
This is not beach reading. This 647-page volume includes 23 pages of bibliography and index, but it is highly readable, especially if you take it a chapter at a time. Read it to go down memory lane, or because you want to see how Axtell evaluates certain university administrators (hint: he has nothing but praise for those who are alive), or simply to pick up some gossipy lore for the next time you show a visitor around the campus. Axtell is one of the few historians who relegates some of his juiciest tidbits to the footnotes.