Walter Kirn ’83 is correct to note that Princeton is best when looking outward instead of inward. I hope someday he can fill the apparent emptiness inside and do the same. I am convinced Princeton, like most worthy institutions, rewards those willing to jump into the deep end but cannot do much for those who merely dip a toe because they are afraid they might look foolish if they get all wet.
I have been happily introduced to various thoughtful and delightful fiction and nonfiction authors in part because of their affiliation with Princeton, from F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917 to John McPhee ’53 to Michael Lewis ’82 to Jennifer Weiner ’91. Then there is Walter Kirn.
Unfortunately, the through line in what I’ve managed to digest of Kirn’s work is his apparently pathological need to be accepted, perhaps even loved, by groups he could just as easily have joined if he were slightly more self-aware or a wee bit more courageous. Instead, he recounts episode after episode demonstrating that his mostly self-imposed level of alienation (whether from his colleagues, a certain number of women, the environment, or his classmates) that rivals the grotesque levels usually reserved for fictional characters — think overprivileged, grumpy, and oblivious white guys like J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield or John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom or Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe or even Kirn’s own clearly semi-autobiographical Ryan Bingham. In other words, the exemplars of those annoying guys who observe the world and generate snark from the sidelines, but cannot bring themselves to participate in the game as that is a bit louche or a bit too bourgeois (or violates some similar snotty Francophone concept). And then these navel gazers have the gall to wonder aloud why it’s all gone sideways.
Alas, it is simply too wearing and wearying to read prose that amounts to transcripts from Kirn’s self-directed therapy sessions. I doubt I will force myself to pick up his latest offering, even if his observations on our cultural divide prove correct or useful. It’s a safe bet he will manage to write about being alienated from both the coastal elites and from the working class in the heartland even as those groups are alienated from each other. Do tell.
But why am I spending time ranting in PAW about all this instead of leaving you all alone and just ignoring an author I don’t like reading? Well, that last bit is part of it — I’ve now read enough Kirn to be unhappy with his overall efforts and cocky enough to think I know why. And of course there is no denying I graduated just over 33 years ago, so now I am and old and occasionally grumpy alumnus and so obviously primed to write nastygrams in PAW about my glory days. But besides being in the cranky and creaky demographic sweet spot, I also I feel his accounts need a corrective that did not appear in the article and so wanted offer my own Princeton experience as one minor counterweight leading to a different.
Like Kirn, I showed up at Princeton in the ’80s (just a bit later than he). And like Kirn, I arrived from a “nonstandard” Ivy Leaguer background at time even for those us somewhat privileged white males. In his case, a Minnesota rural community not too far from Minneapolis/St. Paul and in my case a bedroom community near Toledo, Ohio, another industrial midwestern town. And heck, my parents had dropped out of college without finishing (though that hardly defines them) and there were thus no legacy admissions like Kirn’s for me or pioneers to blaze a trail for my college experience. Nor did I prep at a metro New York or D.C. feeder school or elite New England boarding school. I merely attended an all-boys Catholic high school — one with no AP courses and no crew or lacrosse, but with a city champion football team! While many of my suburban peers were college bound, not too many of my relatives were. And vanishingly few of my high school compadres were looking at fancy pants places like Princeton for higher education. I know I arrived a bit anxious, concerned I might be out of my depth. So I believe I do understand a bit how Kirn felt coming to Princeton and I was once sympathetic. But no longer.
Unlike Kirn, I was not sophisticated enough to hide my fears by hanging back and making dry or wry comments later. My somewhat blunt approach was to lurch around trying just about everything on the both the academic and nonacademic menu to see if I could get better, smarter, and stronger (and never remembering to try to impress folks by sending a dish back as purportedly uncooked!). I was the rube who did all the reading, even the reserves and the stuff that was not going to be on the test. I joined some clubs and quit the ones I did not like. I played intramural hockey and pickup basketball as varsity sports were beyond my skills. I tried and mostly failed at dating. I majored in politics and read enough political theory to want to change the whole damn world. I protested against the unfairness of the times. I got up pre-dawn and delivered newspapers from Mathey College down to Lake Carnegie (in addition to my work-study job at DFS) so I had some entertainment money in addition to my share of tuition contributions. The good news is that with such a diverse and spotty set of achievements, I was easily able to avoid the pure careerists and the grade grubbers and the kids who spent their parents’ money clubbing in NYC every weekend or passed out in an eating club taproom.
At my best, I kept myself open to learning from those around me who were smarter and more rigorous in their academic efforts (or both!), whether professors or classmates or grad student TAs. I took 100- and 200-level courses in at least half-dozen departments from faculty geniuses and did not worry that my understanding and performance varied widely and thus my GPA was a bit lower than it might have been with a few more gut courses to boost the numbers! I drank deeply from the well of amazing intellectuals (and yes even from a few taps on Prospect Avenue) and argued late into the night about matters of deep significance with folks who are my friends to this day. Basically, I immersed myself instead of trying to look cool or snipe from the safety of a sarcastic or cynical reserve. A ticket to lifelong learning and engagement was my reward for the small price of occasionally looking like a fool or admitting I did not know it all. And it may be too hokey to be believed (or so trite it does not bear repeating), but all that doubt I had as a freshman was gone by graduation, replaced by a mostly well-earned confidence.
By contrast, what a sad four years Kirn seems to have had, obsessing over the small minority of the socially-adept and avoiding so many of the best things on offer at Old Nassau. Left feeling judged and somehow not worthy. And what’s worse, that approach borne of fundamental insecurity and a stultifying status consciousness seems never to have left him. It did not have to be that way, and even now it could still be different. Hanging around with Greg Gutfeld will not patch the hole in Kirn’s soul; hopefully, he will yet find something real in his travels or at home that does and write about that down the road.