In the late 1960s, when I was a dedicated college newspaper editor and a lackadaisical college student, my version of Google was A. Walton Litz, chairman of the Princeton English department, and — by luck of the draw, I am sure — my undergraduate thesis adviser.
For most of my college career I spent more time in a day at 48 University Place, home of the Daily Princetonian, than I did in a week at McCosh Hall, site of most of the courses in my major, English.
But at the end of the fall semester, 1968, my duties at the newspaper ended, and for the first time in my college career my attention was focused on academics, especially the all-important undergraduate departmental thesis.
My choice of topic was one that you might expect from a newspaper editor suddenly trying to fake it as an English major — narrative technique. You could imagine an editor admonishing a reporter for submitting a story in the first-person — highly subjective — when objective news standards required a third-person narrator.
But I had absorbed enough from my occasional appearances at lectures and precepts over the previous three years to appreciate that the subject was richer than what any newspaper editor could imagine, and a field ripe with literary criticism. And I knew that my choice of novels showed the development of narrative technique running roughly in parallel with the development of the novel itself as a literary form: Jane Austen’s “Emma,” Henry James’ “The Ambassadors,” James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” and Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” (all written from the point of view of a central consciousness).
That was the kernel of the thesis that I proposed to Professor Litz, a 1951 Princeton alumnus, a Rhodes Scholar, and a highly respected literary critic with a special interest in T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, among others. I summed up my thesis proposal and then sat back in the kind of awe that only an undergraduate can hold for a professor. Litz applauded the choices but cautioned me that I shouldn’t try to prove that one author had built upon an earlier author — that would be beyond the scope of a 60 to 80-page undergraduate thesis.
Then he flashed some of his encyclopedic mind, referring me to specific literary publications, with the month and year of a specific issue. Sometimes the article itself was not on target for my research, but rather it was a particular footnote in the article that was relevant.
Finally Litz proposed a path to the prize: Why not, he suggested in a way that boosted my confidence considerably, knock out a chapter a week in each of the first four weeks of the spring semester. That would mean that the body of my thesis would be done by around March 1, leaving three weeks to tweak it, refine it, and then type — yes, type — the final draft to be bound and submitted by March 21.
Amazingly I did it, just as Litz had suggested. Each Monday morning for four weeks in a row, I watched out the window of my dorm room in Little Hall. When I saw Litz walking across McCosh Walk to his office, I dashed out with a chapter in hand.
On the fourth Monday I turned over my final chapter. At that point, with the journalist’s sense of skepticism, I asked Litz if I was missing something. Most of my classmates were still agonizing over their senior theses. Can the thesis experience possibly be this easy, I asked. It seemed too good to be true.
Litz took a breath of his miniature cigar, and then slowly exhaled. It really is that easy, he said. None of what we do is hard. It’s a dirty little secret and academics don’t want to admit it.
I think back to Litz in part because of Edward Tenner’s article on page 25 of this issue on the history of academic searches in the days before Google, and in part because of the news of Litz’s death, on June 4, at the age of 84.
Not much of a fuss was made about Litz’s death. The university posted an obituary on its website, and the obituary generated two comments. Both were from people who had studied as graduate students under Litz. Both echoed some of my undergraduate awe.
Lee Van Valkenburgh was pursuing a Ph.D. thesis at the same time I was working on my undergraduate paper. After having “watched patiently as I rummaged about in Firestone Library for six months or so, trying and failing to narrow the topic to a manageable size,” Van Valkenburgh recalled, Litz offered some genial advice: “I’d really like to see a chapter in about two weeks. Just write it, and let’s see what we have.”
Victory Van Dyck Chase, a graduate student from the 1970s, recalled that “Walt was the best — always engaged, always supportive, always trying to help you make your professional hopes come true. He was smart, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and funny. Whatever his demons, Walt was always on the side of the angels.”
The lack of a memorial service for Litz, or even a gathering of old friends and colleagues, might be explained by those demons of Litz’s later years. I recall his name showing up in the police blotter a few times. If I were as sharp as Litz had been, I might be able to give you a specific date. But now, of course, you can just Google it.