Root, Robert Kilburn

Root, Robert Kilburn (1877-1950), Chaucer scholar and fourth dean of the faculty, first came to Princeton in the spring of 1905. President Wilson had written him about the University's plan to institute the preceptorial system and had asked whether it would be convenient for Root to come down from New Haven for an interview.

As he journeyed to Princeton on a bright day in April, Root later recalled, he had misgivings ``as to this new-fangled method of teaching and more personally as to whether a Yale man could be happy in Princeton.'' His interview lasted some forty minutes. Wilson asked Root no questions about himself but spoke ``with winning eloquence'' about his plans for Princeton.

``Before five minutes had passed,'' Root remembered, ``I knew that I was in the presence of a very great man . . . that I never before talked face to face with so compelling a person. Before the talk was over my loyalties were entirely committed to him. Had Woodrow Wilson asked me to go with him and work under him while he inaugurated a new university in Kamchatka or Senegambia I would have said `yes' without further question.''

This loyalty and devotion, Root said, were shared by the other teacher- scholars who made up the original group of preceptors; they felt that ``they were embarked upon a great educational adventure under the immediate guidance of a great and wise innovator.''

Root committed his loyalty and devotion to President Hibben after Wilson left to enter political life, and to President Dodds after Hibben retired, and when Root's turn came (in his own phrase) ``to go on the retirement shelf'' some forty years after his first interview with Wilson, the trustees declared that his life and labor here had been ``informed by a union of critical judgment and unabashed partisanship in all things Princetonian.''

Root proved adept in the use of the ``new-fangled method of teaching,'' and eventually earned the distinction of having led the longest-lived preceptorial group in Princeton's history. A group of men in the Classes of 1917, 1918, and 1919 who had enjoyed their preceptorials with him as undergraduates asked him to lead an alumni preceptorial group after graduation. Starting in the 1920s and continuing until his death in 1950 they met with him two or three times a year for dinner at one of the eating clubs, followed by a preceptorial discussion of some literary work.

Root was also a popular lecturer. Whether the subject was Chaucer, Eighteenth Century Literature, or The Elements of the English Language (``Root's Roots'' the students called it), his lectures were models of organization and lucidity. Every year in Root's Roots he analyzed the probable origin of the surname of each student in the course.

His graduate seminars were infused with rigorous intellectual discipline, and many students who were trained by him were forever grateful, as one of them put it, ``because he first sharpened'' their ``instruments of precise thought.''

Root wrote many articles and books on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Pope. His most important work was a definitive edition of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (1928). In the course of his study of this poem Root performed a notable piece of literary detective work. Scholars had long been puzzled over the date of the writing of Troilus, which they variously placed some time between 1373 and 1386. Root thought perhaps he had found a clue in the lines of the poem beginning ``The bent moone with hire hornes pale, / Saturne and Jove, in Cancro joyned were.'' He wondered if the astronomical phenomenon thus described -- the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and the crescent Moon (her horns pale from the lingering twilight) in the sign of Cancer -- was possible; and he speculated that if it were, Chaucer might have used it because it occurred when he was writing the poem. Root consulted his colleague, Professor Henry Norris Russell, the astrophysicist, who said that the conjunction of the three heavenly bodies within a single segment of the heavens was possible, but extremely infrequent. After complicated calculations Russell informed Root that the configuration described by Chaucer would have occurred in the month of May or early June of 1385, for the first time in six hundred years.

Root then carried the study a step further. In the poem the unusual heavenly configuration was followed by a violent thunderstorm, which prevented Criseyde from leaving her uncle's home after having supper with him and thus resulted in her first encounter with Troilus. From his studies of medieval astrology Root knew that the conjunction of the two planets and the Moon in the sign of Cancer would be followed by a deluge and wondered if he could find evidence of such a storm. On consulting the chronicles of the medieval historian Thomas Walsingham he discovered that a terrific thunderstorm had in fact flooded England in July 1385.

From these findings Root and Russell concluded, in a joint paper in the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (1924), that Troilus and Criseyde was not finished earlier than the spring or summer of 1385, thus establishing the fact that Troilus was a product of Chaucer's mature years, written shortly before he began the Canterbury Tales.

Among his publications, Root took pride, according to his colleagues, ``in slyly including'' a volume, Machine Gun Sights for Aircraft Use, which he wrote while serving as a major of ordnance in World War I.

Root became dean of the faculty when Harold W. Dodds assumed the presidency in 1933 and was able to help achieve economies that permitted the University to avoid salary cuts during the depression of the 1930s.

In World War II Root showed a capacity to deal with complexities as he guided the faculty and adjusted the curriculum to the sudden shifts and strains brought on by the war. At the end of the war, the trustees asked him to continue in office a year after he reached the age for retirement so that he might contribute his wisdom and experience to the initiation of the University's program for returning servicemen.

``To all of his many activities,'' his faculty colleagues said, ``he brought unfailing qualities of integrity and self-sacrifice. . . . His opinions were sharp and clear; if at times they seemed impersonal or cold, their austerity stemmed from the high value he set upon institutions and order -- whether of the law, or of the University, or of the Church.''

Dean Root was an Episcopalian and a faithful communicant of Trinity Church. One November Sunday, Father Williams, who was then rector, thanked God, in his opening prayer, for Princeton's football victory over Yale the day before. At that point Dean Root got up and walked out. Undergraduates thought it was because he was a Yale graduate but older friends knew that in Bob Root's theology, not even a Yale football victory would be worthy of notice in a service of worship.

In his seventy-fourth year, he went to St. Louis to deliver a public lecture at Washington University titled ``The Fierce Indignation of Dean Swift.'' In the midst of an animated discussion about Alexander Pope while at lunch the day before his lecture, Dean Root suddenly died of a heart attack.

Dean Root had never married. He bequeathed to the trustees his house at 25 Mercer Street and the rights to all his published books and writings, and directed that the income be used for the purchase of books in English literature for the University Library. He also left the trustees some antique furniture he had used in the Dean's House and several pieces of presentation silver. One of them was a loving cup that had been presented to him by his alumni preceptorial group.


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

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