Jesse Lynch Williams 1892 (1871-1929)

This is an illustration of Jesse Lynch Williams.
A member of the Princeton College Dramatic Association, Williams decided that campus needed fewer histrionics and more hysterics.
Illustration: Daniel Hertzberg

The immortal question of a 1997 review in the New York Press: “What in the name of Christ is it about Princeton that inspires such sentimental lyricism in its graduates? No other American institution of higher learning has so inspired its progeny to stick pen to paper and effuse about it to the same extent that Princetonians have effused about lilac evenings on the quad and the Pure Young Strong-jawed Sons of Nassau and all the rest of it.”

Naturally, we wouldn’t have this problem if Princeton didn’t have so many lilac evenings. But Princeton’s vast literary territory also owes much to the wicked influence of wonderful writers. Jesse Lynch Williams 1892 may have been the first writer to make Princeton his presiding subject. A co-founder of both the Triangle Club and the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Williams influenced generations of authors who wrote in thick shades of rich orange pigment. This month marks exactly 122 years since PAW’s debut.

As an undergraduate, Williams joined the Princeton College Dramatic Association, a high-minded company of serious thespians. He soon decided that campus needed fewer histrionics and more hysterics. Together with Booth Tarkington 1893, a future playwright, Williams reshaped the group — which took the name Triangle in 1893 — into the riot of comedians it is today. (“How a Triangle show ever got off was a mystery,” remarked F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917, a member of the Triangle Club, “but it was a riotous mystery anyway, whether or not one did enough service to wear a little gold triangle on his watch-chain.”) 

Many writers draw their stories from a single powerful decade of life. For Williams, whose life began in college, his graduation was just the start of his writing about Princeton. In 1895, he published a book of short stories titled Princeton Stories. He followed up, in 1899, with The Adventures of a Freshman, a novel of campus life. They catalog in loving detail the college years he knew: A freshman saves his class from disgrace by stealing the bell clapper from Nassau Hall, a campus tradition. (His classmates have the clapper melted into tiny souvenir clappers “to be worn as watch-charms by the whole class.”) The freshman and sophomore classes put up bill posters denouncing each other: “They cast aspersions on you, call you fresh and green and heap ignominy on your prominent men and deride your eccentric characters.” 

In Williams’ telling, students work up slang into a shared moral order: greasy poling, for studying; loafing, for slacking off; dead-gaming, for gambling. They join Whig or Clio, where they learn secret rituals and roast each other as “Blamed Neo-Platonists” or “Doggoned Transcendentalists.” Only on game days may freshmen wear “the sacred orange and black”; they seize the opportunity, wearing “yards of it, hung all over their hats, their clothes, the coach, the driver, and the horses.”

On April 7, 1900, the Princeton Alumni Weekly published its first issue. As its founding editor, Williams explained that he hoped the magazine would give alumni a continued connection to the University and thereby an incentive to stay active in its affairs: “Even though the graduates of Princeton have no voice in the conduct of their college, as yet, they ought at least to know how it is being conducted; and how well.” 

Through PAW, through his stories, and through his influence on Fitzgerald, Tarkington, and other writers, Williams shaped the University’s literary voice in ways we still hear today. That voice sings, with notes as strange and soft as evening light slanting through trees on the quad. Williams’ descriptions can evoke the same memories for alumni today as they did for alumni 130 years ago: “At first he could not make up his mind whether it was vocal or instrumental, or whether it was real at all, in fact, or part of a dream like everything else perhaps. The seniors were singing, and from that part of the campus it echoes oddly, as you doubtless know.”