Gauss, Christian

Gauss, Christian (1878-1951), one of Woodrow Wilson's original preceptors, first Class of 1900 professor of modern languages, and third dean of the college, had, in Edmund Wilson's phrase, ``an imaginative gift of entering into other people s points of view.'' It was this quality that made him a great teacher of literature and an illuminating critic. It had much to do as well with his becoming, in his time, one of Princeton's most beloved figures and perhaps the best known college dean in America.

Gauss was born and brought up in a community of South German immigrants in Ann Arbor, Michigan, ``the lovely little town,'' in his words ``with the name like the title of a song.'' His father had come there from Wüaut;rttemberg in the late 1860s to escape Prussian domination, and when he had saved enough money to buy a house, had chosen one on Liberty Street instead of a more desirable one on Main Street, so that all their lives ``his children would have the satisfaction of knowing that they had been born in die Freiheitsstrasse.'' Growing up in Ann Arbor, then a quiet village, Christian Gauss developed ``a deep sense of belonging'' to his community, which stayed with him all his life.

Gauss worked his way through the University of Michigan in three years. He had begun working after school early in life, and when he graduated from college at the age of twenty, he could already look back on a versatile career -- as baker's boy, grocery clerk, farm hand, drug clerk, bill collector, bank clerk, tutor, and barkeeper at county fairs.

After college Gauss worked for a time as a newspaper correspondent in Paris (where he wrote about the Dreyfus case and talked in cafés with Oscar Wilde), taught at Michigan and at Lehigh, and was called to Princeton in 1905 as one of the youngest of the University's first preceptors. Two years later, at the age of twenty-nine, he was promoted to full professor. He became chairman of the Department of Modern Languages in 1912 and served until 1936. In 1925 he was appointed dean of the college and in 1929 was named first incumbent of a chair in modern languages endowed by his friends in the Class of 1900. He occupied both positions until his retirement in 1946.

Along the way he also served as literary editor of the Alumni Weekly, reorganizer and adviser of the Press Club, guide and friend of the Nassau Literary Magazine, trustee and vice president of Princeton University Press, chairman of the University Council on Athletics, and founder and first chairman of the Creative Arts Program. He was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor by the French Republic and received honorary degrees from half a dozen universities.


Christian Gauss was a great teacher whose courses on Dante and on French writers of the Romantic Period profoundly influenced many Princeton students of literature in the first half of this century.

His memory was remarkable, and he brimmed over with literary allusions. Two of his favorite quotations were Ernest Renan's La verité est dans la nuance, which he translated: ``The truth lies in fine distinctions,'' and Dostoevsky's ``We were all born on purpose to be together.''

The eminent federal judge Harold R. Medina '09 said it was Gauss who first taught him to think. ``He led and guided with so gentle a touch that one began to think almost despite oneself,'' Medina recalled. In a similar vein, Edmund Wilson '16, the literary critic, spoke of ``how the lightly dropped seeds from his lectures could take root and unfold in another's mind.''

Wilson also described the influence Gauss exerted on him, John Peale Bishop '17, F. Scott Fitzgerald '17, and other undergraduate writers for the Nassau Literary Magazine through the reading of Dante and Flaubert: ``He made us all want to write something in which every word, every cadence, every detail, should perform a definite function in producing an intense effect.''

~Gauss brought to his teaching a breadth of learning that was matched by a wide interest in the affairs of the world, both historical and contemporary. This quality was celebrated in a verse of the Faculty Song sung by the seniors in 1915:

``Here's to Gauss, called Chris-ti-an
A most encyclopedic man.
He jokes and lectures, rhymes and teaches,
And raves about the Kaiser's speeches.''

(This last line referred to Gauss's anti-Prussianism, inherited from his father, which led him to champion the Allied cause before the United States entered the First World War.)

Wilson, who dedicated one of his books of literary criticism (Axel's Castle, 1931) to his old Princeton teacher, thought Gauss himself a brilliant criti~c -- ``by far the best,'' so far as he knew, ``in our academic world of that period.'' ``Gauss's special understanding of the techniques of art,'' Wilson wrote, ``was combined, as is not always the case, with a highly developed sense of history, as well as a sense of morality.''

Donald A. Stauffer '23, who while an undergraduate was Gauss's secretary, and was later chairman of the Department of English, described Gauss's essential quality as a teacher in this way:

``He had respect for mind wherever he found it. He supported alike the specialized research of scholars and the wildest outbursts of nineteen-year-old aesthetes. He was as good with grandchildren as with dignitaries. In the exchange of opinions, in the inquiry into values, he practiced liberty, equality, and fraternity.''


The announcement of Gauss's appointment as dean of the college in the spring of 1925 elicited a new verse in the Faculty Song:

``Oh, here's to Gauss, who knows his stuff
We liked him though his course was tough.
But when he's Dean we shall delight
In hating him with all our might.''

Though written with tongue in cheek, these words did suggest the dire possibilities of any deanship, and especially one in an era plagued by Prohibition, the Depression, and the Second World War, but in Gauss's case the opposite came to pass. At the beginning, his determination that the eighteenth amendment (which he publicly opposed) should be strictly enforced because it was the law, brought some resentment, but most undergraduates learned to respect the integrity of his position.

There were riots, too, in the Prohibition era, to which Gauss reacted variously. One in the spring of 1926, which involved a good deal of noise and jostling and some jeering of volunteer firemen, but no violence to any person or property, he played down when called by the newspapers. ``It was nothing but a Poler's Recess,'' he said, ``complicated by a false alarm.'' But when, in the fall of 1930 after a football rally, excited students tore down the statue of the Christian Student and rushed out onto Nassau Street and rocked an interurban bus with women and children in it, he invoked the language of Swift's Gulliver's Travels and publicly castigated them for their ``Yahooism.'' (The ringleaders were subsequently suspended for a year.)

It was particularly as dean that Gauss came to be appreciated for his sympathy and human understanding. ``Through many trying meetings of the discipline committee,'' Nelson P. Rose '31, who was chairman of the Princetonian and of the Undergraduate Council, recalled, ``you could not fail to sense his own pain at having to cause pain. . . . On campus issues you could not fail to realize that he was looking for a helpful middle ground.''

Some of his most ardent admirers were those who had frequented the mourner's bench outside the dean's office. Archie Murray '34, later a sports writer for the New York Evening Post, who had ``practically made a career of getting into trouble'' when he was an undergraduate, said he nevertheless looked up to Dean Gauss as a father -- ``he was so eminently fair and his sense of humor never deserted him.''

Dean Gauss, for his part, showed his regard for those he had had to discipline in the early years of his deanship by dedicating his book Life in College (1930) to them. ``In nearly every case,'' he wrote, ``the frankness, honesty, generosity and sportsmanship of these undergraduate `malefactors' was such as to make me conceive a higher opinion of mankind.''

Life in College was made up of a series of articles that had appeared in the Saturday Evening Post; articles by Gauss frequently appeared also in the New York Times, the Saturday Review, and the New Republic. During the Depression, when seniors were worried about getting jobs, they sang:

``Professor Gauss he teaches French;
Dean Gauss he judges on the bench;
Mister Gauss don't write for fun;
He's got three jobs and we've got none.''

As chairman of the University Council on Athletics, Gauss was impressed by the wholesome influence of football, ``properly coached and conducted,'' and was a concerned follower of all the games. ``We thrived on his love of victory,'' said Gilbert Lea '36, an end on the championship team of 1935, ``but we were gratified most by his loyalty in defeat.''

In the latter years of his deanship, Gauss commanded the same respect and admiration he had won at the beginning. ``As a dean he was still in the best sense a teacher,'' John N. Brooks, Jr. '42, the writer, who in college was chairman of the Princetonian and a member of the Discipline Committee, recalled:

``An argument with him [at a meeting about extracurricular activities] was a profoundly educational thing. . . . Dean Gauss always took us and our point of view seriously, entering into every debate as vigorously as if the issues were all new to him. . . . For his disciplinary role . . . he might conveniently have become the gentle sentimentalist or the martinet, but Dean Gauss did not choose easy roles. He did not even exude an air of infallibility, which must be the easiest and safest of all airs for a dean to exude. . . . He somehow succeeded in making his office at 205 Nassau Hall, by its nature the most formidable precinct in all Princeton, into a place that even many of those who came there under duress remember with real affection.''

Dean Gauss was a courageous champion of freedom, both within and without the University. ``The first obligation of the undergraduate is to think without let or hindrance,'' he declared in reply to charges of radical tendencies at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard by Colonel McCormick in the Chicago Tribune, ``and the first obligation of the professor is to make him do so.'' He was a member of the National Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union and an outspoken critic of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. After the Second World War he frequently spoke to black audiences in the South, and took quiet satisfaction in having been responsible for assembling for the first time a mixed black and white audience in a white church in Richmond.

In retirement Gauss worked on two projects for philanthropic foundations, one on religion in higher education, the other on promotion of the study of the humanities. He also served as president of Phi Beta Kappa. One autumn day in his seventy-fourth year he went to New York to deliver the manuscript of his introduction to a new edition of Machiavelli's The Prince and to attend a memorial service for the Austrian novelist, Herman Brock. That evening while he was waiting in the Pennsylvania station for the train to take him back to Princeton, his heart failed and he fell dead.

``One had always still expected something further from Christian, had hoped that his character and talents would arrive at some final solution,'' Edmund Wilson wrote in his memoir of Dean Gauss and then concluded:

``But . . . one sees now that the career was complete, the achievement is all there. He has left no solid body of writing; he did not remake Princeton . . . he was not really a public man. He was a spiritual and intellectual force. . . . His great work in his generation was unorganized and unobtrusive: and Who's Who will tell you nothing about it; but his influence was vital for those who felt it.''

``Ché in la mente me'è fitta, ed or m'accora,
La cara e buona imagine paterna
Di voi, quando nel mondo ad ora ad ora
M'insegnavate come l'uom s'eterna. . . .'' *

*From lines 82-85 Canto XV of the Inferno in which Dante addresses his teacher Brunetto Latini: ``For in my mind is fixed, and now fills my heart, the dear, good, paternal image of you, when in the world hour by hour you taught me how man makes himself eternal.'' (Charles Eliot Norton's translation, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919)

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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