Princeton Arts Profiles

The Arts at Princeton: a Historical Sketch

… An institution with a broader mission—one that would prepare citizens for all sorts of service and leadership in an ever-changing world.

bergIn their wisdom, the Colonial divines who founded Princeton University did not create a sectarian seminary but an institution with a broader mission—one that would prepare citizens for all sorts of service and leadership in an everchanging world. Classical and religious studies were the crux of the curriculum; but those fire-and-brimstone-breathing clerics believed in a “plan of Education as extensive as our Circumstances will admit.” Almost from the beginning, what began as the College of New Jersey encouraged lofty, if not creative, thought; and it offered an inspiring “college yard” for growth—of the institution and its students.

Princeton’s fourth president, Samuel Davies, composed odes that were sung at Commencement; and his successor, Samuel Finley, planted a pair of sycamores in front of today’s Maclean House—creating the campus’s first landscaping. Culture and cultivation of the grounds at Princeton steadily increased. The Reverend John Witherspoon arrived from Scotland in 1768 to become the college’s sixth president; and this son of the Scottish Enlightenment, who specialized in philosophy and literature, taught courses in belles lettres. When he remarried upon the death of his wife, a student orchestra serenaded the newlyweds from the belfry of Nassau Hall.

Witherspoon’s greatest legacy was a generation of Princeton students he had led into public service, many with remarkable literary talent. Along with his prize pupil, James Madison— that eloquent author of the new nation’s founding documents— the Class of 1771 also boasted Philip Freneau, who became known as the “Poet of the Revolution.” With another classmate, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, he composed an epic patriotic poem (“The Rising Glory of America”) and a picaresque work of prose, which became the progenitors of American literature.

Into the 19th century increasing numbers of students found creative options in the college’s literary and musical organizations—which even included a banjo club. Future Dean of the Graduate School Andrew Fleming West 1874 started a glee club. A few years later, “Tommy” Wilson 1879 would find himself writing editorials and book reviews and even a theater review as the managing editor of the new school paper, the Princetonian. After a decade, he returned to campus as a professor of jurisprudence and political economy; now using his middle name, Woodrow Wilson was there to witness the most prodigious member of the Class of 1893, Booth Tarkington, who edited the Nassau Literary Magazine, contributed sketches and cartoons to The Tiger, and established the Triangle Club, a band of undergraduates that would write and perform an original musical comedy every year.

By then, the world—and practically every discipline on campus—was immersed in an era of scientific method. In his 1896 commemorative address on the college’s 150th anniversary—“Princeton in the Nation’s Service”—Wilson did not indict the sciences; but, he declared, “We must make the humanities human again.” A man of culture—and married to a talented painter who would design the garden at Prospect—he felt Princeton should become a place for greater self-expression.

That notion took root in the classroom, where Wilson— having become University president—introduced “preceptorials,” in which young professors would conduct seminars with small groups of students, encouraging them to speak their own minds. The most stimulating of that original cohort of young dons proved to be Christian Gauss, a professor of modern languages. Many Princetonians suggested that Professor Gauss taught them not just to think but also to write; his most promising students included Edmund Wilson 1916 and F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917, both of whom wrote for the Triangle Club, which had by then attained extracurricular eminence on campus.

“How a Triangle show ever got off was a mystery,” Fitzgerald wrote in This Side of Paradise, “but it was a riotous mystery.” With so many undergraduates involved in the writing, acting, stage design, music, and dance of these annual extravaganzas, Triangle became the beacon of the arts at Princeton. Each Christmas vacation, the club took its show on the road—around the country.

By the late 1920s, some young men—such as Joshua Logan ’31 of Shreveport, Louisiana—were drawn to Princeton because of Triangle. Others—such as James Stewart ’32 and Jos. Ferrer ’33, both of whom studied architecture at Princeton—discovered their future callings while members of the club. Over the decades, even some professional juvenile actors made their way to Princeton and found Triangle worthy of their time and talents, all the while writing their theses and earning their degrees.

Princetonians continued to seek more outlets for artistic expression. Today the campus teems with dozens of theatrical troupes, dance companies, music ensembles, and singing groups. Beyond that, artists of international standing can be found in theaters, classrooms, studios, and ateliers teaching painting and sculpture and music composition and dance and filmmaking and stagecraft; students can try their hands writing poetry, drama, screenplays, and all forms of fiction and non-fiction prose.

I spent the fall of 2007 on campus, researching my biography of Woodrow Wilson and teaching a course called “Life Writing.” I expected no more than a few English majors to audition with writing samples just so they could partake in the many forms of biography. In the end, I accepted 16 students—representing a dozen different departments. None enrolled to become a professional biographer, but all of them had banked on the simple belief that practicing a specialized form of art might get them thinking outside the box, which might somehow affect their futures as doctors, professors, attorneys, engineers, or tycoons.

At Princeton, one has only to walk out any door to behold spectacular architecture, sculpture, and a veritable arboretum; and now the Lewis Center for the Arts commands the campus limelight, presenting boundless opportunities for creative exploits. The arts are no longer fringe on the Princeton experience but essential threads in its fabric, inextricably woven into everything we teach and learn—thus affecting how we look at the world and how we might contribute to it.

And, as a former Triangle man myself—did I mention that the arts can be lots of fun?