Created in 2001, the Department of French and Italian is one of the youngest academic departments at Princeton. Its origins, however, go back to 1769, when President John Witherspoon himself offered, free of charge, extracurricular instruction in French, as did also outside teachers who were engaged by the students for a fee. Not until 1830 did the College of New Jersey – as Princeton was then known – appoint a regular instructor of French and Spanish, Louis Hargous, who taught these languages until 1836. He was followed by Benedict Jaeger, an Austrian who, along with being Curator of the Zoological Museum and Lecturer on Natural History, became a one-man language “department,” offering German, Italian, French, and Spanish, all as Professor of Modern Languages.
Although Hargous, Jaeger, and their followers had faculty standing, no academic credit was given for their offerings. A century after Witherspoon’s early efforts, President James McCosh made instruction in modern languages a regular part of the curriculum for which credit was given. In 1870, a gift from John N. Woodhull, Class of 1828, established the Woodhull Professorship of Modern Languages. Typical of this era, though much more colorful than most of his colleagues, was the swashbuckling first incumbent of the Woodhull chair, General Joseph Kargé, a native of Prussia who had twice been jailed as a Polish freedom fighter and who, upon fleeing to the United States, served with distinction in our Civil War. Not only did he teach French and German, he also accompanied students on summer field trips in the then only partly explored American West.
The University was not organized into modern academic departments until 1904, during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. In that year the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures came into existence, with Professor of French, William U. Vreeland, as its first Chair. The “modern languages” were at that time confined to the major languages of Western Europe: French, German, Spanish, and, to some extent, Italian. The Department occupied a disciplinary terrain complementing Classics and English; like many other tone-setting American universities at the time, it adopted the model imported from Germany by Johns Hopkins University, with, however, greater emphasis on undergraduate teaching. Indeed, one of the young “preceptor guys” called to Princeton by President Wilson, Christian Gauss, succeeded Vreeland as Chair; he also, for a period of almost twenty years, served concomitantly as Dean of the College.
A dozen years after the first preceptors, two outstanding medievalists were called from Johns Hopkins: Charles C. Marden, first Emory L. Ford Professor of Spanish, and Edward C. Armstrong. Under Armstrong’s guidance, graduate studies prospered greatly, attracting students such as Alfred L. Foulet, who stayed on to become a distinguished member of the faculty.
For the first two decades, the department was staffed primarily by Americans, but in 1923 it imported Augusto Centeno from Spain and Maurice Coindreau from France. The internationalization of the department was reinforced by the creation of the Pyne Professorship of French Literature, endowed in 1930 by the family of Meredith Howard Pyne, Jr., ’21, who died of injuries sustained during World War I. Originally designed to bring to Princeton on one-year appointments illustrious French men of letters and scholars – one counts among the early incumbents of the chair André Maurois, Paul Laumonier, and Fernand Baldensperger –, the Pyne chair strengthened links between Princeton and France. Later occupants accepted long-term appointment to Princeton; they have included Gilbert Chinard, Armand Hoog, and François Rigolot.
The Cold War period impressed upon Ira O. Wade, then the Chair of Modern Languages and Literatures, to devise new undergraduate programs that sought to integrate the teaching of language and literature experientially into wider frameworks of history, politics, and cultural studies. Among the ideas brought to fruition by Wade was the Princeton Summer Work Abroad program, which arranged for Princeton undergraduates to spend a summer in either France or Germany working at a great variety of jobs in these countries. Now known as “Princeton in France,” the French program has accumulated close to two thousand “alumni” since its inception. Wade also provided the major intellectual force behind the creation of the Special Program in European Civilization, which encouraged the exploration of other than purely literary topics and subsequently evolved into the present-day Program in European Cultural Studies.
In 1957 it was decided to replace the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures by splitting it in two. The following year the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (RLL) came into existence, with Edward D. Sullivan as Chair. During 1958 and 1959 a rather extraordinary number of new appointments were made, including Albert Sonnenfeld *58, Léon-François Hoffmann *59, André Maman, James E. Irby, and Karl D. Uitti. The Dante scholar Robert Hollander was hired to teach in the burgeoning “European lit” section of the department. In the sixties, the retirements of Maurice Coindreau, Ira O. Wade, and Alfred Foulet, as well as the premature death of E.B.O. Borgerhoff, took their toll on the French section, and matters of recruitment again became the highest priority. By the mid-1970s, the distinguished scholars François Rigolot, Victor Brombert, and J. Lionel Gossman had accepted to join the department and went on to play roles of University-wide importance.
During the 1980s, a very significant strengthening of the department occurred, namely the building up of a vital section in Italian. On the other hand, the Spanish section encountered growing difficulties, which eventually (in 2001) led to the split of “RLL” into two separate units: the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures, and the Department of French and Italian.
[Adapted from: Raymond S. Willis, “The Department of Romance Languages and Literatures,” (in Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, Princeton University Press, 1978), with additions by Karl D. Uitti.]