There is more to daybreak than light, just as there is more to nighttime than darkness. — Geoffrey Chaucer
We circle around again to the holiday season, most notable here in the History Corner because nobody connects it with Princeton, but instead with the various respites from Princeton of which we’ve availed ourselves during seasonal breaks past. So my earnest attempt each December to leave you a little gift does have its peculiar challenges — an image of Cannon Green in the snow or a bronze tiger wearing a spiffy evergreen wreath festooned with orange and black bow is cheery, but most of us don’t connect it with our own experience, just with the most photogenic spot in central New Jersey, as if there were other contenders.
A little literary invocation has sometimes been useful in gift planning, whether in the form of president Harold Dodds *1914’s present of books to our servicemen during World War II, or the singular offering by Rod Serling and Art Carney to a vast holiday television audience in 1960. It came in especially handy a year ago, when I
stole borrowed wholesale from Dickens to think back on some Princeton moments that may have been bittersweet, reflective in 2020 of a holiday with a locked-down campus and a world in medical and attitudinal turmoil. You, the Learned Historian, will recognize in these examples an indication of one of our overarching principles, “steal from the best,” as Dodds did for Christmas 1943. Of course, for this seasonal purpose we term it “regifting,” easily one of the top 10 euphemisms of the entire free enterprise system.
Recently, I was again waylaid from productive activities and civil discourse by David Remnick ’81’s addictive New Yorker and its tale of Robert Caro ’57 selling his archives to the New-York Historical Society, when an added nuance popped into mind — how about giving you a subscription this year, so you too can be continuously waylaid from productive activities and civil discourse? With derisive chuckles from the financial powers at both PAW and the New Yorker an utter certainty (see “free enterprise system” above), I realized I needed a rara avis, a literary pillar worthy of Caro’s books and Remnick’s weekly, but freely regiftable without pesky prosecution.
Speaking of blogs and vlogs and podcasts and … forget it, you get the idea: From the above mother-of-invention process comes perhaps my best regift idea ever, and one which traces its origins to both the insight of the students and the brilliance of the faculty. Back on Groundhog Day of 1995, the new board of the Princetonian took its position of infinite power and put into motion a Great Idea which began modestly, as many Great Ideas do. According to the principal,
I was hardly prepared to be invited into the pages of the ‘Prince’ as a “regular contributor,” and native modesty would certainly have forced me to decline were it not for two things. First, there was the charm of the invitation itself. My editorial host explained that the new journalistic regime wants to make the ‘Prince’ “look like the campus” — that is, “represent all segments of the Princeton community, different points of view, stuff like that.” Then the clincher: “After all, from a certain perspective, the faculty are a part of Princeton.”
And so was born Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche, a weekly look into the mind of one of the great Princetonians of our time, professor John V. Fleming *63 of the departments of English, comparative literature — which he helped ignite — and for all practical purposes any other with which he wishes to ally. In 10 years of writing the weekly Prince op-ed column, he wandered knowingly through everything from his experience in Rat Psych to professor David Billington ’50’s boundary-defying “Bridges” course to rock music. In fact, he started with a column not only pledging to highlight the unfamiliar, but using as an example the Class of 1969 Garden (then just completed), between Murray Theater and Dodge Hall, which has as its focal point Joni Mitchell’s 1969 Woodstock, one of the most under-regarded of highly popular rock songs, bringing together science, religion, and symbology.
Engraved upon a gorgeous stone that celebrates forever the unity of black and white, the divinely sought harmony of the sexes, the happy codependence of the ying and the yang, is the following:
WE ARE STARDUST (BILLION-YEAR-OLD CARBON)
WE ARE GOLDEN (CAUGHT IN THE DEVIL’S BARGAIN)
AND WE’VE GOT TO GET OURSELVES BACK TO THE GARDEN
Now that is a great song. That is a true song, a profound song. Must I point out the obvious? It is an Augustinian song.
His seemingly effortless columns — anyone who’s ever put fingers to keyboard will know how laughable that is — proceeded merrily apace until Fleming had the temerity to retire from the faculty after 40 years of college mastering, departmental chairing, committee committifying, academic procession chief marshalling, and multiple awards for some of the best classroom teaching the big grey stone walls have ever seen. His bedrock Chaucer course was a responsibility of double weight inherited from the famed D.W. Robertson, his dissertation adviser. But he taught all sorts of other topics that came along, from the Franciscans to American literature to Medieval Societies:
Although there’s been a large change in human nature since the 12th century, one thing that’s stayed consistent is that people don’t really want to do celibacy.
He was the perfect cross-topical scholar/organizer to run the multidiscipline Freshman Seminars, so of course he did that, too. Meanwhile he was leading various alumni programs, and as a grad alum involving himself in even more volunteer committee work; he’s one of a tiny number of faculty ever to be given the Alumni Council Award for Service to Princeton. Just as rarely, he received an honorary Princeton doctorate this year for the way “he offered the gifts of his research and teaching, his humility and humor, and his humane and charitable view of worlds past and present to generations of admiring students.” Also cited for his persistent repute as “the funniest man alive” (see examples above), he surely appreciated his Commencement co-elevation with that other unique New Jersey linguist, Jon Bon Jovi. I’ve long vaguely wondered what the degree honoris causa “Doctor of Humane Letters” meant exactly; I now realize it was pre-named for John Fleming.
But waite (as we always say at the precept conclusion of yet another of the Canterbury Tales, in anticipation of a tasty Fleming anecdote about gym lockers or something), there’s MORE! At 2:11 p.m. on Saturday, June 13, 2009, the actual purpose of the Internet — so cavalierly hatched long prior by the DARPA folks — was fulfilled as Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche hit blogspot.com, with the primary goal of offering you a priceless present in December 2021 and beyond. Resurrected after a three-year hiatus, the first blog included the final column from the Prince and then set sail from there, in part blaming the publisher of his new book, but then gleefully diving into Portuguese poetry and noting his son’s blog as well.
Being a plain country fool is not technically required of the blogger, but it is an enormous advantage.
In more strategic terms, he promised that, having begun with GLGT the column and now devolved to GLGT the blog, that uncharted vistas of GLGT the movie, GLGT the opera and GLGT the theme-park were on the horizon, in the spirit I presume of Yogurt, the great sage of Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, and his marketing campaign for the Schwartz.
Essentially every week since — well over 600 times — Fleming has published his matchless blog, usually from his continued abode in Princeton. His humanity and madcap insight is likely the truest way to remain in touch with our second home, and just a random look at this year’s entries will offer conclusive proof. There’s the instantly-infamous Harvard overtime football game:
My view is that sometimes there really is such a thing as a tied game between equally matched adversaries, a result bringing honor to two teams and disgrace to neither. This truth, which is recognized in chess, the supreme game of all games, ought to continue to be recognized in football.
There are the beloved Brood X cicadas on their every-17-year escapades:
Denis de Rougemont wrote a once famous book (Love in the Western World in its English translation) explaining the inescapable connections between eroticism and death, but you can save a lot of time and just look at the cicadas.
There is the visceral writing in Slaughterhouse Five:
The “Vonnegut figure” is a very ordinary joe named Billy Pilgrim. With this name Vonnegut invokes a classic literary tradition of peregrine commentators on worldly folly that includes Pilgrim’s Progress and Candide.
And of course, there is his Doctorate of Humane Letters, bestowed in the socially-distanced football stadium ceremony:
Humane practice has had a special home in our institutions of higher education — some evidences of which, trivial but not insignificant, are the funny vestments and Latin phrases one encounters in academic ceremonies.
Being able to be so easily in touch with that part of us is certainly a nice gift of the Virtual Age. Being able to do it through John Fleming borders on a miracle; it makes alive again each week the real reason for his honorary degree — he simply embodies the University, in any ideal way you choose to conceive it, and shows us in orange-and-black stripes the full flower of our better selves. God bless him.
And God bless us, every one.