May 18, 2022

Exploring “The New Princeton Companion”

By Stuart Mitchner

According to the first Princeton Companion (Princeton University Press, 1978), Woodrow Wilson “had a larger hand in the development of Princeton into a great university than any other man in the twentieth century. He left a vision of an institution dedicated both to things of the mind and the nation’s service, promoted a spirit of religious tolerance, and held up ideals of integrity and achievement that still inspire the Princeton community.”

In the words of The New Princeton Companion (Princeton University Press, 2022), “While many of Wilson’s accomplishments and ideas have had lasting beneficial impact, he was a divisive figure both during and after his Princeton presidency and his record of racist views and actions has deeply tarnished his legacy.” The trustees’ 2020 report concluded that the continued use of Wilson’s name on the University’s school of public affairs “impeded the school’s and the University’s capacity to pursue their missions.”

The Fountain’s Story

The Wilson article in Robert Durkee’s New Princeton Companion also mentions the 39-foot sculpture Double Sights, installed in the fall of 2019 on the plaza in front of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, formerly named for Wilson. Walter Hood’s sculpture is composed of “a slanted white column resting on a straight black column, both columns etched with quotes from Wilson,” along with quotes from contemporaries “who were critical of his views and policies, particularly as they related to race and gender.” The structure’s stated purpose is to educate the campus community “about both the positive and negative dimensions of Wilson’s legacy.”

Viewed from Washington Road, Double Sights serves as a frame for James Fitzgerald’s half-century-old Fountain of Freedom, its variously stated purpose to celebrate Wilson’s “vision of lasting world peace” and “man’s quest for peace and freedom.” While it’s possible to read the quest for freedom into the sheer force of the water splashing, jetting, gushing up and down and in and out of the craggy contours of the 20-foot-high bronze sculpture, it’s hard to imagine a “vision of lasting peace” in such tumult, everything seemingly at cross purposes, with the jets coming and going every which way, some at odd angles, spilling mist and spray in all directions. What the fountain puts in play, powerfully and wordlessly, encompasses the positives and negatives engraved on the black and white statement towering at the other end of the plaza. As long as the water’s flowing, the story it’s expressing is large enough to cover Wilson, Princeton, America, the World, then and now, what was, is, and will be.

Force and Clarity

Between 1976 and 1978, I shared a small third-floor office in Firestone Library with Secretary Emeritus Alexander Leitch (1901-1987), helping him pull together the first Princeton Companion. A Princeton native and member of the Class of 1924, he would be pleased to see his book referred to as “the classic 1978 edition.” After 42 years of service, he took on this epic project, planned with the help of his wife Mary and his son Sandy, both of whom died before it was completed. He deeply revered Old Nassau and was protective of its image, so he would be far from pleased with the current Wilson entry, or the one on “African American Students at Princeton,” which straightforwardly states that the school’s first nine presidents “were slaveholders at some point in their lives,” and that “faculty members owned enslaved African Americans on or near the campus well into the 1800s.”

The next paragraph goes straight to the heart of the story: “Much of the funding that built Princeton into a world-class institution came from donors whose wealth derived from slavery or the slave trade, among them the donors of the land on which Nassau Hall stands.”

Something in the force and clarity of these admissions, the sense of long-suppressed truths being released at last, brings the fountain to mind again, not as a metaphor for confusion and conflict on the grand scale, but as a celebration of diversity.

Many Minds

The 1978 Companion is dwarfed by its text-book-hefty successor, which also has the advantage in design, with boldly patterned, stylish endpapers and numerous illustrations, maps, diagrams, and photographs, including a photo spread tribute to diversity, with images featuring Black, Latinx, and Asian American alumni; Jewish Life; the “Many Minds, Many Stripes” conference for graduate alumni; banners on the front campus for the “Every Voice” event, and a shot of the jubilant Princeton women at the first “She Roars” conference. Another photo spread headed “Portrait Collection” includes, among others, Nobel Laureates Toni Morrison and Arthur Lewis, U.S. Senator and basketball legend Bill Bradley ’65, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 . In addition to photos like the one of Bob Dylan receiving his honorary degree in 1970, there’s an illustrated “This Day in Princeton History” calendar bordered with images, from Michelle Obama ’85 as an undergraduate (the first lady also has an entry to herself), to Albert Einstein on Lake Carnegie, to the Lewis Arts Complex.

Timely Additions

Two new entries appear on consecutive pages of the Companion. “Entrepreneurship and Innovation,” is where you’ll find Amazon founder Jeff Bezos ’86, Google CEO Eric Schmidt ’76, and eBay CEO Meg Whitman ’77. “Epidemics” is a subject the first Companion had no compelling reason to cover. In 2020-21, the book itself was part of the story, having been produced during lockdown by Robert Durkee and his numerous helpers in spite of the “wide-ranging impact” the coronavirus pandemic had on “the lives of students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”

Some other new subject areas of special interest: “Princeton in the Movies and on Television”; the “Princeton and Slavery Project”; “Protest Activity”; “Sustainability”; “Divestment”; “Coeducation”; and of course “The Nude Olympics,” which, according to the Companion, began making national news in 1974, notably when a streaking student nicknamed the Streak ran for student government president and gained a headline in the New York Times: “The Streak Strikes Out in Race for Princeton Student President.” 

The First Campus

In an article that precedes the alphabetical entries, the University’s 2026 long term campus plan suggests that “there is something about the look and feel of the campus that is immutable, powerful, and both comforting and uplifting.” Some background is offered in “Evolution of the Physical Campus,” to the effect that Princeton “was the first college in the world to be set back from the street, thereby creating an expanse of land between buildings and street that in 1774 became the first collegiate space to be described as a ‘campus.’ “

Beatrix Farrand, the University’s consulting architect from 1921-1943, has an entry to herself and is among the Princeton legends who rate a photograph, for the key role she played in creating the “distinctive character” of the campus.

Strollering the Campus

Born during our first spring in Princeton, my son spent a fair part of his first three years exploring the campus with the aid of a rickety, rattling stroller. We usually entered from the Washington Road side, rolling down McCosh walk to the plaza in front of Firestone Library. Favorite places for sitting doing nothing but make-believe were the lawns in front of Whig Clio and Nassau Hall. The gardens behind Prospect led to an early fascination with plants and flowers. The sculptures were another treat, with regular visits to Henry Moore’s Oval with Points, which we called the Donut, and to stare in wonder at the invisibly moving stainless steel panels of George Rickey’s Two Planes Vertical Horizontal. Probably the most visited building on campus next to Nassau Hall, and its two magnificent bronze tigers, was Chancellor Green, because of the cafeteria and its student ambiance, and the quiet atmospheric courtyard, where the father could catch his breath and the son could have a nap.

Some Hallelujahs

Six years before my wife and I moved here in November 1975, women were admitted to Princeton, an event heralded by WPRB with a playing of the Hallelujah Chorus, as reported in both Companions. Some other Hallelujah-worthy changes from one family’s point of view: in 1980, the Princeton Record Exchange opened and is still going strong, same for Small World Coffee, which opened its doors in 1993. We had Micawber Books from 1981 to 2006, and since 2009 we have a companionable, more than worthy successor in Labyrinth Books. We’ve had the Garden Theatre for 102 years, and it’s better than ever.

The New Princeton Companion was celebrated Monday in the Community Room of the Princeton Public Library with a conversation between Robert Durkee and Jill Dolan, dean of the College. If you missed the event, you can livestream it on YouTube.