Nassau Lit, The,

Nassau Lit, The, the country's second oldest college literary magazine, first appeared in 1842 as the Nassau Monthly.* In 1847 it changed its name to the Nassau Literary Magazine and in 1930 adopted its briefer title.

Its primary object, the first editor said, was ``to afford a medium through which young writers might publish incognito their first lucubrations to the world.'' Since manuscripts were submitted under assumed names or initials, they were not returned, and rejections were often publicly announced in ``Notices to Correspondents'' -- sometimes scornfully: ``The `Parting,' by D.L.D.,'' the editors asserted about one poem, ``is between the writer and common sense.'' Dissecting another ``effusion,'' they thought ``Philo's'' request of his ``Dulcinea'' toward the end of the poem -- ``O, deem me not a fool'' -- absolutely indispensable, ``for the natural inference from the preceding verses,'' they said, ``would be that their maker was rather leaning that way.''


During the first few years, a large part of the Lit's contents was the work of three writers -- Theodore L. Cuyler 1841, George H. Boker 1842, and Charles G. Leland 1845.

Cuyler, who contributed frequent essays on European and American culture, also wrote ``A Chapter on College Writing'' that would have evoked an affirmative nod from many latter-day Lit editors:

``A college student should write often [he counseled]. . . . In order to produce the highest effect, he must use short, simple, pointed words. . . . Nor let him be content to write a composition once, but rewrite, and rewrite it again, until he is well assured that there is not a word in it which is not the very word, in the very place.''

Cuyler became a minister in Brooklyn, and wrote eleven books and many articles for the religious press. The Westminster, a Presbyterian periodical, called him ``the greatest writer of spiritual English since John Bunyan.''

George H. Boker, the first editor, contributed numerous poems and essays to its early issues, and in later life published two volumes of poetry and wrote eleven plays, besides serving as United States Minister to Turkey and to Russia.

Charles G. Leland was the Lit's most prolific contributor during the first four years. One piece of his that did not appear was his Educatio Diaboli, a ballad about Satan's admission to Princeton, his involvement in student escapades, and his suspension by the faculty. In this work the poet's allusions to members of the faculty are less complimentary than his references to the Devil, which may explain why the Lit denied itself the pleasure of its publication. All his life Leland published widely in a variety of fields, including gypsy lore and language, German literature, industrial arts, and sexual psychology, but he became best known for the many editions of his German-dialect Hans Breitmann's Ballads.

THE 1890s

The Lit carried brief reports of campus happenings until the Princetonian was founded in 1876. About this time some authors began signing their names to their contributions, and by the 1890s the use of pseudonyms and initials had disappeared.

In the early 1890s an informal literary club called the Coffee House provided a focal point for writers such as Jesse Lynch Williams 1892, Booth Tarkington 1893, and McCready Sykes 1894, during what was one of the Lit's strongest periods. Williams was their leader, and Robert Bridges, who had been managing editor of the Lit in 1879, was a valuable older friend; as editor of Scribner's Magazine he helped them and later generations of young Princeton writers break into print. Tarkington and Williams became Pulitzer Prize winners; Sykes won the affection of his Princeton contemporaries with his accounts -- in which he mimicked Chaucerian styl~e -- of Princeton football exploits in Poe's Run and Other Poems (1904).


A remarkable group of writers made the years 1912 to 1917 one of the most fruitful periods in the Lit's history. Its leader was Edmund Wilson '16, around whom campus writers gathered ``by a law [Dean Christian Gauss said] of literary gravitation.'' Other talented members included John Peale Bishop '17, Scott Fitzgerald '17, and John Biggs '18.

The members of this inner circle exhibited qualities reminiscent of those of the original founders. Bishop was the same patrician poet in his day that Boker had been in his, both drawing much of their inspiration from European culture. Like Leland, Fitzgerald was an enfant terrible, although he was less well-read than Leland as an undergraduate and more successful as a writer in later life. Although their views and ultimate vocations were very different, Wilson shared Cuyler's interest in having the right word in the right place, and went even further, desiring that ``every word, every cadence, every detail should perform a definite function in producing an intense effect.''


Usually an unobtrusive member of the campus community, the Lit has on occasion been made conspicuous by alleged lapses in taste. Early in the 1930s the Undergraduate Council suspended the editor of the Lit for publishing a poem which the Council deemed ``obscene and un-Princeton.'' This mlprecedented action brought a flood of student protests to the Daily Princetonian. One undergraduate, who had read the poem more carefully than most, reported that its meaning was rather obscure and that the poem was not therefore completely successful, but that far from being obscene, its object was highly moral and indeed didactic. Another student expressed the hope that the Undergraduate Council would not rest on its laurels, but would now seek out other ``un-Princeton'' matters with which the University abounded, citing certain authors taught to freshmen by the classics and English departments and referring darkly to many ``un-Princeton'' books in the library, including one by a writer, named Shakespeare, ``which is full of bastards.'' The Undergraduate Council relented and changed its suspension to a reprimand. The unhappiness that prevailed during this episode was shared by almost everyone except the circulation manager of the Lit.

On another occasion in the 1950s, the dean of the college felt obliged to place the editor and the author of a story on probation because of the author's use of pithy Saxonisms in the dialogue. The Prince condemned this action, too, but this time there was no flood of letters, and the author reacted tolerantly: ``I m not completely unsympathetic with the Dean,'' he said, ``but, on the other hand, I'm also sympathetic with myself.''


In February 1942, the Lit brought out a 196-page centennial issue, reprinting specimens of poetry and prose from the previous century together with new articles by President Dodds, Jacques Maritain, Booth Tarkington 1893, Norman Thomas '05, and others. For that issue Frederick Morgan '43 and Richard M. Morse '43 were cochairmen, Joseph D. Bennett '43, managing editor. A few years later, Morgan, Bennett, and William Arrowsmith '45 founded The Hudson Review, which became one of the best known and most respected American literary reviews.

In 1976 the Nassau Lit published another retrospective issue, featuring contributions from past Lit notables like Tarkington and Fitzgerald, as well as from more recent contributors, among them, poets William Meredith '40, Galway M. Kinnell '48, and W. S. Merwin '48, authors George Garrett '52 and John McPhee '53, and artist Frank Stella '58.

*The Yale Literary Magazine was started in 1836.

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

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