Princeton University has an extensive history of supporting both the study of English and, later, creative writing. The English department’s beginnings can perhaps be traced to as early as 1864, when John S. Hart was the first to be officially recognized as a “Lecturer on English Literature” at the University. Six years later, the first description of English courses appeared in the University’s course catalogue, most likely a result of the recently modified elective system put in place by President James McCosh, the namesake of the current English department building, McCosh Hall. The department expanded enormously in the last decade of the nineteenth century due to the appointment of prominent professors to teach English courses; additionally, in 1904 President Woodrow Wilson added to this early batch of professors a variety of skilled preceptors who would significantly shape the department. These figures included Thomas Marc Parrott, who juggled lectures in Shakespeare, Renaissance drama, and Victorian literature; George McLean Harper, also a teacher of the Renaissance era as well as a pioneer in Wordsworth research; and Gordon H. Gerould, a scholar known for his mastery in early narrative poetry — in particular, the ballad — who also introduced the first University course devoted entirely to prose fiction. In the 1920s and 30s, another generation of teachers emerged, cementing English as a prominent and important department of the University. This group included Willard Thorp, a scholar of Melville who joined the department faculty in 1926 and whose expertise helped establish a Program in American Civilization; Lawrence R. Thompson, the official biographer of Robert Frost; Richard Ludwig, the chief bibliographer for the Literary History of the United States; and William Howarth, chief editor of an edition of Thoreau’s complete works, issued by Princeton University Press with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In 1939, Christian Gauss, then Dean of the University, appealed to the Carnegie Foundation in hopes of better educating its future writers and artists. The result was both a generous grant to pursue this goal, as well as a new arts program, spearheaded in part by professors of the Department of English, determined “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.”
Shortly afterwards, Professor Thorp nominated the first Resident Fellow in Creative Writing, after which the new Creative Arts Committee continued to invite poets and critics to the University to teach, including high-profile writers like John Berryman and Philip Roth. This program is now the Hodder Fellowship, awarded yearly to exceptional artists and writers to pursue independent projects at the University.
The University’s early commitments to promoting the arts have evolved tremendously, undergoing various changes and improvements that remain present today. Notably, under Edmund Keeley ’48, Professor of English and Creative Writing, Emeritus, the program saw a shift in the way creative writing courses were designed — rather than meet individually with advisers periodically, students in creative writing workshops now enjoy the benefits of small, intimate workshops in which students share their work with one another and with faculty. Today, English concentrators who participate in such workshops can use these courses not only to pursue the Creative Writing department’s certificate, but also to earn course credit for their major in the English department’s Creative Writing track.
Under Professor Keeley’s leadership and that of his eventual successor as director — the award-winning poet James Richardson ’71, who still teaches at the University as a professor of creative writing — the program expanded tremendously with the help and incredible talent of figures such as acclaimed writer Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, who would also go on to serve as director of the program from 1993 to 2002.
A new chapter for the arts scene at the University began in 2006, when then-President Shirley M. Tilghman launched an initiative “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 goal was to establish an “arts neighborhood” on the campus, and the result is today’s beautiful Lewis Center for the Arts, a cluster of facilities that together form Princeton’s academic programs in Creative Writing, Dance, Theater, Music Theater, Visual Arts, and the Princeton Atelier — a unique academic program that matches professional artists from varying disciplines to create new works of art.
Since the LCA’s inception, enrollment in creative writing courses has increased dramatically, and a new generation of writers have since walked through Princeton’s gates to lead the program, including prominent writers Chang-rae Lee, Susan Wheeler, Tracy K. Smith, and the current director, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. The program’s lecturers are likewise impressive; in addition to such renowned writers as Mario Vargas Llosa and Jeffrey Eugenides, the program has had the honor of including poets such as Simon Armitage and Claudia Rankine as members of its core and guest faculty.
Professor Keeley once aptly noted that, “for many students, taking creative writing courses at Princeton was also how they first discovered literature, or at least a passion for literature.” These very students would go on to create a significant impact in the world of poetry and the arts — the program’s long list of graduates includes, among many others, distinguished poets William Meredith ’40 — the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1978 to 1980 — Galway Kinnell ’48, Pulitzer Prize winner W. S. Merwin ’48, Jane Hirshfield ’73, Catherine Barnett ’82, and Emily Moore ’99.
Beyond offering numerous courses on poetry and the arts, the University also has a rich history of inviting prominent poets to campus. The Bain-Swiggett Lectureship in Poetry, for example, was established in order to bring talented poets and critics to the University and to, as the donors put it, “create and enjoy great poetry.” The lectureship has brought a wide variety of writers to speak at the University, from its first annual lecturer, Reed Whittemore — a Poet Laureate of Maryland and who served twice as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress — to its most recent awardee, Kevin Young, a long-time professor of creative writing and English at Emory University and the poetry editor of The New Yorker.
The Bain-Swiggett fund also allows the University to invite other poets to give readings periodically; other opportunities to hear from great speakers on campus include the Contemporary Poetry Colloquium, which explores modern-day poetry through readings supplemented by a Q&A session with featured poets — past guest speakers have included poets and professors Charles Bernstein, Rosanna Warren, and Eduardo Corral. Other poets have graced the campus on other occasions, such as the recent LCA event, “Black Poetry: A Conference,” during which over 40 Black poets — like award-winning writers Yusef Komunyakaa and Terrance Hayes — joined to read their work and ponder with the campus community over today’s social, political, and artistic issues.
Currently, the University boasts a tremendous core faculty in both the English and Creative Writing departments. In English, students learn from professors who have dedicated large parts of their careers to the study of poetry, including, but not limited to: Meredith Martin, Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at the University and creator of the Princeton Prosody Archive, a searchable database of thousands of digitized books in English published between the 16th and 20th centuries; Jeff Dolven, who specializes in poetry of the English Renaissance and who teaches in the Humanities Sequence; and Susan Stewart, a poet, critic, and translator who teaches the history of poetry, literary criticism, and aesthetics. A full roster of English faculty working in poetics can be found here.
In Creative Writing, students have the opportunity to work closely with the following critically acclaimed poets: Michael Dickman and Alex Dimitrov, the recipients of multiple prestigious prizes in poetry; Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Muldoon; Joyce Carol Oates, whose work has earned prizes such as the National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Visiting Professor Rowan Ricardo Phillips; James Richardson ’71, a National Book Award finalist; Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, and Chair of the LCA Tracy K. Smith; Susan Wheeler, also a National Book Award finalist; Monica Youn ’93, whose recent poetry collection Blackacre was a finalist for the National Book Award; and recent graduate Jenny Xie ’08, whose debut poetry collection Eye Level has been met with much critical success. A complete list of faculty across all of Princeton’s departments with poetry-related interests can be found here.