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Preface by John McPhee
One morning in 1957, Edgar Gemmell, an administrative vice-president of Princeton University, telephoned Willard Thorp, chairman of the English Department. He said, "Willard, I wonder if you'd stop in here on your way to the faculty meeting this afternoon. Something has come up." Gemmell's office was in Nassau Hall, the school's oldest and principal building, and so is the Faculty Room. When Thorp showed up, Gemmell told him that the owner and founding editor of the Scranton Times had died, and, more recently, the widow of the owner and founding editor of the Scranton Times had died, and now the Girard Trust Corn Exchange Bank of Philadelphia had informed the university that 92 percent of the resulting estate had been left to Princeton specifically to establish and maintain a professorship in journalism.
Thorp was a man of exquisite words, each highly selected. He had built a broad critical platform underlying the whole of American literature. He was large of heart and girth. To Gemmell he said, "Over my dead body."
Gemmell looked out the window and up through the canopies of dying elms. Offhandedly, he mentioned that the will said that if Princeton were to refuse the bequest it was to go to the Society of the Home for Friendless Women and Children of the City of Scranton. Then he said, "Willard, the amount of this bequest is . . . "
He named a sum that translates into twenty-first-century money as five million dollars.
Right back, without a flicker, Thorp said, "What this university has long needed is deeper insight into contemporary communication."
The deeper insight came first from Irving Dilliard, formerly of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, who held the Ferris professorship for fourteen years. Thereafter, as Princeton's Council of the Humanities gradually broadened the themes of Ferris seminars--under titles like Politics and the Press, The Literature of Fact, Workshop in Scientific Writing, etc.--the number of Ferris professors grew exponentially, and, for several decades now, different figures from the world of journalism have appeared every year to teach directly from their writing experience.
In 1984, Harold W. McGraw, Jr., of the Princeton Class of 1940, created a closely analogous professorship--with seminars called, for example, Writing about Films and Theater, Writing about the Economy, Writing about Nature--that engaged even more working journalists in dialogue with Princeton students. As the twentieth century was fading out, nearly sixty journalists had served as Ferris or McGraw professors. Examples of their own journalistic prose--chosen by them--are the contents of this book.
The contents are long, short, individual, and idiosyncratic. They represent so many aspects of magazine and newspaper writing, not to mention television and the Internet, that it seems uninviting to attempt to present them in fabricated compartments--e.g., Foreign Correspondence, Domestic Ruminations, Other. Instead, we spread out all the pieces and then put them together in a freelance manner that we hoped would enhance the pleasure of the whole. We saw juxtapositions of association, and went for them, but not always. We tried juxtapositions of dissociation if, for example, somebody's act was hard to follow in kind. Uncharitably, this could be described as magnetic structuring done with black-and-white Scotty dogs. But it seemed vastly preferable to an alphabetical list or a chronological list or a set of earnest chambers like named hotel rooms.
When I was an undergraduate at Princeton, one of my favorite professors was Willard Thorp. In the English Department, we did not study contemporary journalistic prose. In the conversation, nonfiction was not yet a term, let alone a literary term. Its synonyms were tainted by the fish they had wrapped. Even as late as 1973, a Harvard anthology purporting to represent all the important writing done in the United States since the Second World War did not include a single nonfiction example. As this book splendidly attests, factual writing has found its place in the regard of the academy, to the great pleasure of all of us who are represented here.
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File created: 4/15/02