“For those who have tended to think that Princeton has only recently put such emphasis on the creative and performing arts, it’s good to be reminded that the Creative Writing Program has made such a large impact for so very long. It is, quite simply, the best in the country.”
— Paul Muldoon
In 1939, Dean Christian Gauss approached the Carnegie Foundation to help the University focus on the cultivation of writers and other artists. The Foundation promptly responded with a generous five-year grant of $75,000 to pay the salaries of “practioners in the arts.” Gauss convened and chaired a faculty committee that included Professor Coindreau (French), Professors Davis and De Wald (Art), Professor Welch (Music), and Professors Hudson and Thorp from the English Department. They defined the program’s mission, “to allow the talented undergraduates to work in the creative arts under professional supervision while pursuing a regular liberal arts course of study, as well as to offer all interested undergraduates an opportunity to develop their creative faculties in connection with the general program of humanistic education.”
That same year, Professor Thorp nominated poet and critic Allen Tate as the first Resident Fellow in Creative Writing, and Tate began teaching the following September. He was to “act as general adviser to undergraduates interested in writing and will be in general charge of the new plan designed to further the work of entering freshman in creative writing.” The following year, the Creative Arts Committee appointed Tate for a second year and allowed him to invite poet and critic Richard P. Blackmur to assist him. In 1942, the Committee appointed George Stewart, Princeton class of 1917, as Resident Fellow and, over the course of the nearly 20 years that followed, brought a succession of poets, writers, and critics to teach in the program under the Committee Chairman Professor Arthur Szathmary and the Program Director R.P. Blackmur. Among these were John Berryman, Joseph N. Frank, Delmore Schwartz, William Meredith, Robert Fitzgerald, Sean O’Faolain, Richard Eberhart, Kingsley Amis, and Philip Roth. Today, this program has evolved into the Hodder Fellowship.
The Creative Arts Program went through a series of evolutions, the most notable of which occurred under the leadership of Edmund Keeley, Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and Professor of Creative Writing, Emeritus. Professor Keeley was responsible for changing the format of creative writing courses from precepts, with students meeting individually with their adviser once a week to discuss their writing, to the current workshop format, where the focus is on students sharing their work with other students under the guidance of faculty, supplemented with readings in literature and individual conferences. Professor Keeley introduced the workshop format on the basis of his experience during a sabbatical year at the Iowa Writers Workshop, one of the earliest creative writing programs in the country.
“A wonderful development in the program in recent years is that we’ve been able to accept more students than ever before; in the past we couldn’t accept every qualified student — even for our introductory-level classes — as we simply had many more applications than spots. But with the addition of both permanent and adjunct faculty, we’ve increased the number of workshops we offer, and we’re pleased that now many more underclassmen have the chance to work with our great roster of writers.”
— Chang-rae Lee
Theodore Weiss joined Keeley in 1966 and together, the two continued to expand the program, bringing in such distinguished writers as Elizabeth Bowen, Thomas Gunn, Anthony Burgess, Galway Kinnell, Joyce Carol Oates, and Russell Banks. “The Creative Writing Program,” Keeley remarked, “was primarily to teach students how to read as a writer might read and to begin writing with knowledge of the creative process. For many students, taking creative writing courses at Princeton was also how they first discovered literature, or at least a passion for literature.”
It was also during Keeley’s leadership that the program moved to the former Nassau Street School at 185 Nassau Street, where it expanded with the rapid growth of student interest in the creative arts in the early seventies. Edmund Keeley was succeeded as director by James Richardson (1981 to 1990), whose period as director saw the arrival of Toni Morrison and Paul Muldoon. Following Richardson, the program was briefly directed by A. Walton Litz (1990 to 1992), and then by Paul Muldoon (1993 to 2002), Edmund White (2002 to 2006), Chang-rae Lee (2006 to 2010), Susan Wheeler (2011 to 2015), and Tracy K. Smith (current).