John V. Fleming *63 describes his time as a Ph.D. student as “a blur,” but his four decades on the faculty left a clearer impression. “For me, Princeton was the perfect place,” he said. “I became a Princetonian by adoption, in a sense, rather than by rite.”
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John V. Fleming *63 is known to generations of Princetonians as a popular professor, an expert on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the head of a residential college, and, late in his career, a columnist for The Daily Princetonian. But Fleming’s experiences at the University began before his time on the faculty, when the young Rhodes scholar returned from England to pursue his Ph.D.
Fleming: I’d had a good friend, Chuck Fish [*64], who was a fellow Rhodes scholar in my year. He had gone home after two years, and he had come to the Princeton graduate school. He was so enthusiastic about this that I thought well, I’ll really look into this. Princeton had what they advertised as a three-year program, which meant you could get your Ph.D. in three years. I thought, well, that sounds really great. It was on the basis of trivial and inconsequential information like this that I applied.
I applied late. These days my application would never even be considered, but things were a lot more casual and informal in those days. They not merely admitted me, but they gave me a great fellowship. So I came, and in a sense the rest is history because it was the perfect place for me. I here met my great teacher D.W. Robertson, who then later for several years was my senior colleague.
My graduate experience was something of a blur. If you’re doing two years’ work in one year, you don’t do anything but work. I didn’t have a room in the Graduate College. I had to rent a room in town because of my late application. That was on Park Place, which is very near the Garden Theater. It was the private house of an elderly couple, with a marvelous Scottish lady who was the landlady. I very much remember the cost. It was $11 a week – quite a deal. I took my meals at a boarding house that is no longer there anymore, down on Tulane Street. And all I did was work.
My primary interest had always been in modern literature and American literature, but at Oxford I had to study Old and Middle English medieval literature, which was taught in a very dreary way actually. But they did teach you the languages.
Medieval literature is harder than a lot of other stuff simply because of the languages that are involved. Chaucer’s language is difficult. Old English, meaning Beowulf and that kind of stuff, is impossible. That is, you have to be a student of early Germanic dialects before you can read the language, so you have to do a lot of preparation. I also was drawn to a romantic view of the Middle Ages when I was at Oxford because you’re surrounded by old buildings, old churches, tombstones, all this kind of stuff. I was kind of prepared. But when I came to Princeton, I encountered this man D.W. Robertson who had a completely revolutionary, mind-blowing approach to the literature.
In a sense I was a convert when I came here. I could’ve gone any way, but after about two seminar meetings with Robertson I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Robertson’s method, which I’ve been associated with in my lifetime, was to really try to study medieval literature within the context of the master literary paradigm of what I will call “medieval Christian high culture,” meaning serious theologians like Saint Augustine and others. I came to Chaucer thinking, like everybody else, that he’s a bawdy poet, light. What was it that Matthew Arnold said – it lacked high seriousness and so on. Here was Robertson revolutionizing one’s reading of Chaucer. Now you’re dealing with a very serious-minded Latin-based Augustinian theologian.
There are not many undergraduate departments of English in which medieval literature is a major component, but the Chaucer course has always been pretty big here. When I was teaching it, it always had a hundred, hundred and fifty sometimes, it went up as high as two hundred students, which is very, very big for a Chaucer course. I felt that we had found a way without dumbing it down, because we did it in Middle English. We had found a way of really including this early literature as a vital part of the department.
Fleming also found a vital role in campus life as one of the early masters of Wilson College, created as an alternative to the eating clubs.
Fleming: There was a real effort being made to provide some kind of cultural diversity among the social options for undergraduates, and that has now, marvelously I think, been pretty well completed with the college system and so on. But Wilson was the first. Its original sign-ups, the people who wanted to belong to Wilson, wanted to belong to it because they didn’t want to belong to things, if you see what I mean. So being the master of it was kind of like being the second vice president of the international anarchists’ association or something like that.
That was in the late ’60s. I was there for the revolutionary time, which I reckon is ’68 through ’72 – the strike, the bombing of Cambodia, the Kent State massacre, and all that kind of thing. I’m a pretty politically conservative kind of guy. I’m not a cutting-age cultural revolutionary or anything. But I was able to have a very good relationship with the students in Wilson College, many of whom from that era have remained friends, now for almost 50 years.
It was a turbulent time for all on campus, not just the students or the faculty members involved in Wilson College — particularly in the spring of 1970.
Fleming: There was a strike. Students went on strike. Some faculty members went on strike. The faculty participation in the faculty meetings was so large that there was no way possible to have it in the faculty room in Nassau Hall. I remember this meeting in McCosh 10. [President] Bob Goheen [’40 *48] was trying to do this. He’s sitting up on that stage. It’s like a Brecht play or Chekhov, because here are all these thousands and Bob Goheen and the clerk of the faculty up on the dais. Urgent issue – what are we going to do about Kent State?
Early in the meeting, reporters from the student radio station arrived, demanding to broadcast the proceedings.
Fleming: The discussion, which is already pretty pointy-headed and so forth, turns to the question of whether or not we ought to allow WPRB to come in. For the next hour, and more, this is the discussion – we should, we shouldn’t. Then at last Tom Kuhn [a professor of philosophy and the history of science] raised his hand and was recognized by the president. He said, “Mr. President, I submit that if the next hour of this meeting is as stupid as the last hour of this meeting, the last thing in the world we want is to have it broadcast.” There was stuff like that — so there’s even humor in some of the heavy stuff.
Fleming transferred to emeritus status in 2006, after four decades on the faculty, and continues to live in Princeton, a few blocks from the campus.
For me, Princeton was the perfect place. In a way it was better that I was not an undergraduate alumnus because I became a Princetonian by adoption in a sense, rather than by rite.
There are no institutions of higher education, here or anywhere else I think, that are static. They’re either getting better or they’re declining. It’s been my honor, really, during the 40 years I taught at Princeton to have the feeling that we’re always getting a little bit better.
Our thanks to John V. Fleming for sharing his story. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.
We’ll be recording oral history interviews with alumni at Reunions. If you have a story to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.