“For eighty years Princeton’s Creative Writing Program, international in stature, rigorous and intimate, has furthered its mission of bringing writers and undergraduates together in the classroom.”
— Jhumpa Lahiri, Director of the Program in Creative Writing
In 1939, Dean Christian Gauss approached the Carnegie Foundation to help Princeton 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.
“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
Howard G.B. Clark ’21 University Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Creative Writing
Theodore Weiss joined Keeley in 1966 and together, the two continued to expand the program, bringing in such distinguished writers as Elizabeth Bowen, Thom 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.”
Under Keeley’s leadership 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 award-winning poet James Richardson (1981 to 1990), whose period as director saw the arrival of Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature during her Princeton tenure, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon. Following Richardson, the program was briefly directed by A. Walton Litz (1990 to 1992), and then by Paul Muldoon (1993 to 2002), and Edmund White (2002 to 2006).
On January 20, 2006, in a report presented to the University’s Board of Trustees, former University President Shirley Tilghman heralded a sweeping initiative for Princeton “not only to expand its programs in the creative and performing arts, but to establish itself as a global leader in the quality of its offerings and in their integration into a broader liberal arts education.”
The result was the formation of a new Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, thereafter named the Lewis Center for the Arts in honor of its lead patron, Peter B. Lewis ’55.
The Lewis Center brought together Princeton’s academic programs in Creative Writing, Dance, Theater, Music Theater, Visual Arts and the Princeton Atelier, at 185 Nassau Street, and connected them to partners like the Department of Music and the Princeton University Art Museum.
With the creation of the Lewis Center and the University’s investment in the arts, the Program in Creative Writing has seen further significant growth: from 2007-2018 the number of creative writing course offered have grown 69%, enrollment in courses has doubled, and the number of students graduating with a certificate in Creative Writing has grown by 87%. This expansion of the program was led by a new generation of writers serving as Director of the program: Chang-rae Lee (2006 to 2010), Susan Wheeler (2010 to 2015), 2017-19 US. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith (2015 to 2019), and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri (current).
By 2010 the Lewis Center’s programs outgrew 185 Nassau Street and Creative Writing moved to New South, occupying an entire floor to accommodate expanded space for writing seminars and faculty offices. In 2017 the new Lewis Arts complex opened next to New South in the new “arts neighborhood” with much of the Program in Creative Writing’s public programming scheduled in the new theaters and studios of the arts complex.
In more recent years the core and guest faculty has included Simon Armitage, John Berryman, Jeffrey Eugenides, Robert Fitzgerald, David E. Kelley, John McPhee, Lorrie Moore, Neel Mukherjee, Philip Roth, Claudia Rankine, Erika Sánchez, Delmore Schwartz, Kevin Young, and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.
Over the years, the Program’s public programming has also grown to include the Althea Ward Clark W’21 Reading Series in which writers of national and international distinction visit campus throughout the year to read and discuss their work; the C.K. Williams Reading Series that showcases senior thesis students of the Program in Creative Writing alongside established writers as special guests; awarding of the Theodore H. Holmes ’51 and Bernice Holmes National Poetry Prize; presentation of the Theodore H. Holmes ‘51 and Bernice Holmes Lecture; the Leonard L. Milberg ’53 High School Poetry Prize; and the biennial Princeton Poetry Festival that features poets from around the world in a two-day festival of readings, lectures and panel discussions.
Currently, the core faculty includes award-winning writers Michael Dickman, Aleksandar Hemon, A.M. Homes, Christina Lazaridi, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li, Paul Muldoon, James Richardson, Tracy K. Smith, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Susan Wheeler, and Monica Youn.
Over the past 80 years, many now distinguished and successful writers have graduated from the Program including Jonathan Ames ’87, Catherine Barnett ’82, Jane Hirshfield ’73, Boris Fishman ’01, Kristiana Kahakauwila ‘03, Galway Kinnell ’48, Walter Kirn ’83, William Meredith ’40, W. S. Merwin ’48, Emily Moore ’99, Jodi Picoult ’87, Jonathan Safran Foer ’99, Julie Sarkissian ’05, Akhil Sharma ’92, Whitney Terrell ’91, Monica Youn ’93, and Jenny Xie ’08, among many others.