QOTD (2009-11-18)

From Paul Venable Turner, Campus: An American Planning Tradition:

Upon assuming the presidency of Princeton in 1902, Woodrow Wilson praised the new buildings by Cope [Blair and Little Halls and Dillon Gym], saying that they were the first stage in the formation of “a sort of circle and quadrangle,… girt about with buildings in the style that is historic,” and creating “a little town” unto itself. The specific style of Cope’s buildings, a picturesque interpretation of Tudor or Jacobean collegiate architecture, appealed for several reasons. It was consummately English, and thus, according to Ralph Adams Cram, it evoked “racial memories.” And it had aristocratic connotations, which were emphasized by the carving of heraldic shields on the facades of the new structures, in line with Princeton’s adoption of a coat of arms in 1896. Wilson praised this Tudor architecture with the observation that

by the very simple device of building our new buildings in the Tudor Gothic Style we seem to have added to Princeton the age of Oxford and Cambridge; we have added a thousand years to the history of Princeton by merely putting those lines in our buildings which point every man’s imagination to the historic traditions of learning in the English-speaking race.

So yeah, the reason why I am sitting in one of Princeton’s fin-de-siècle neo-Gothic dormitories writing about Princeton’s fin-de-siècle neo-Gothic dormitories is because Woodrow Wilson was a racist Anglophile. Great.

I read in another one of these Princeton architecture books that the Holder tower is meant to be a copy of the Magdalen College, Oxford tower. The two don’t actually look like each other at all (the Princeton Grad College tower is probably a bit closer), but it does sort of explain why I was looking at pictures of Oxford the other day and thinking there was something familiar about the Magdalen tower.

I have to confess, though, that while I’ve always known about how American Ivy League colleges like to imitate Oxbridge (there’s this museum in the British Cambridge somewhere that has a whole display on John Harvard and how he wanted to bring Cambridge to America—which, obviously, he quite literally did), I hadn’t really considered the racialized element of this situation. It makes me feel kind of uncomfortable, suddenly, about my enthusiasm for the Princeton-Oxford exchange-student program, and for American gothic architecture, and other aspects of the distinctly American brand of Anglophilia. I like to think that my own Anglophilia is a lot more realistic than many Americans’; I know that Britain is much more than Monty Python and the Royal Family and I try to keep abreast of the realities of modern Britain. But is it possible to achieve that “realism” when you’re still, at the end of the day, an American Anglophile? Can you be an American Anglophile without in some way associating yourself with this horrible Wilsonian version of academic Anglophilia?

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One thought on “QOTD (2009-11-18)

  1. Alex

    If it makes you feel any better, I learned yesterday that the architectural forms of Oxford – particularly the quad design – were originally implemented to prevent Oxford students from being attacked and killed by irate townspeople (in the 14th century, of course). So, in a sense, you can look at Princeton’s architecture as a copy of an Oxford architecture that was itself a monument to the violent stupidity of English speaking peoples!

    Probably doesn’t make Anglophilia any less racially charged, but at least gives us another reason to laugh at anyone who believes in Western cultural superiority: our greatest monuments to our own civilization originated as attempts to prevent our “civilization” from self-destructing.

    Right, back to reading about colonized peoples.

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