Never underestimate the drama of a literary event. This week officials at Barnes and Noble at MarketFair were bracing for an onslaught of fans to hear from the young authors of “The Rule of Four,” the Renaissance-inspired murder mystery set on the Princeton University campus, and perhaps more importantly, to get copies of their first editions signed by both of the authors.
Last week Barnes and Noble hosted a quieter gathering for my friend Lanny Jones, who has been an editor of mine at four different publications dating back to 1965 and who just published the first biography of William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As far as I could tell no one was there to capture an autograph on a first edition that could go up on E-bay. But there were 40 people or so genuinely interested in exploration — not only of the great American west but also of the intellectual landscape.
When my 12-year-old son left his seat and dawdled at a nearby stack of books for a few minutes, his prime spot was quickly spotted by a casually dressed gentleman of retirement age. “Is this seat available?” he asked politely. “Yes,” I replied. The man was one of the first questioners: What about the role of Alexander Mackenzie, he asked Jones. The reference was to the Scottish born Canadian who crossed North America in 1793, a full decade ahead of Lewis and Clark.
I later realized that the questioner was former Princeton president Harold Shapiro, himself a Canadian. My kid, who ended up sitting on the floor, learned an important lesson in life from a university president: You snooze, you lose.
Another question, this time about Thomas Jefferson, who initiated the Lewis and Clark expedition and who directed that the party keep copious notes in their journals. A woman in back offered some insight, based on the papers of Jefferson stored at Princeton’s Firestone Library. Jones pointed out the reliability of this source: The woman was Barbara Oberg, editor of the Jefferson Papers.
Then a man with large black glasses seated near the front of the room had a question. He wanted to know something about Jones’s methodologies as a biographer. How did Jones proceed when the trail of information went cold. What would he rely on to keep his narrative moving. To put his question in perspective he quoted a few lines from poet Ezra Pound:
Even I can remember
A day when the historians left blanks in their writings,
I mean for things they didn’t know,
But that time seems to be passing.
At a time when most commentators don’t let a nanosecond pass without offering some opinion, Jones had no quick answer for this question. After some thought he offered that he had two courses of action when the trail went cold. First he looked back at the journals kept by the people he was studying. If that led nowhere, then he considered the landscape, the physical landscape, which played a major role in the shaping of the 19th century western United States.
Later I discovered that the Pound-quoting questioner was Bob Fagles, the Homer translator and recently retired Princeton professor. That quiet discussion of William Clark and the removal of the American Indians by the federal government included other literary figures: Edmund “Mike” Keeley, the translator and author, novelists Jane Shapiro and Ann Waldron, editors Gretchen Oberfranc (of the Princeton University Library Chronicle) and Chuck Creesy (former editor of the Alumni Weekly), and Ray Smith, co-editor of the Ontario Review (and husband of Joyce Carol Oates).
It was a friendly group, and I didn’t hesitate for a second to later call Fagles at home to ask for help on the Ezra Pound citation. After he patiently and slowly read the lines aloud to me, I hung up the phone and pondered the civility that still exists amid all the Big 10-style hoopla that seems to consume Princeton University at times.
Now might be a good time to consider the concept of the Princeton gentleman, I thought. Reunions are over, the Class of 2004 has graduated, and the campus is quiet except for the shrill undertone of the cicadas and the roar of the earth movers as another building — this one by celebrated architect Frank Gehry — gets squeezed into a corner of previously open space.
You don’t hear much about the Princeton gentleman anymore. By the time I arrived in the mid 1960s the concept had been reduced to “gentleman Cs,” a derogatory reference to the grades attained by some of us who didn’t place their highest priorities on class work. I suspect that the pledge on the honor code — “I pledge my honor as a gentleman that I have neither given nor received assistance” — was modified with coeducation. And now I wonder if, in the age of specialized undergraduate education, Princeton gentlemen — and ladies — still have the same place they once did.
I have no easy answer. Instead I am leaving it as a blank in my own writing. Maybe it can be answered by a thoughtful reader.