Visit to Princeton

From the unique black squirrels chasing across campus to stupendous buildings by Frank Gehry and I.M.Pei; from the number of Nobel prize winners on the academic staff to the dozen or so libraries and a world class art gallery – Princeton is impressive in every respect, and it’s particularly striking to see just how many of the resources and buildings have been endowed by alumni and benefactors.

I’d been invited to participate in a Princeton Community Collaboration, ‘Memory and the Work of Art’ to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Two questions underpinned the entire programme: How do the arts shape our collective memory of the past? And how does art inform our experience of global events?  As part of this programme, curator of Princeton’s Cotsen Children’s Library Andrea Immel and Lee Talley of Rowan University co-organised an imaginative event with a focus on childhood,  ‘Transforming Childhood Memories of War and Displacement into Art’. I seized the chance to spend a couple of extra days in the Cotsen, a library that combines a lively space for story reading and play. Push-chairs were lined up at the entrance every day as children explored the houses, tree-like structures, cosy corners, book boxes and displays that make the space irresistible. It’s great, too, that much of the research collection of historical children’s literature is visible to all, encased in a high wall of glass-fronted shelves. I spent several hours in the reading room discovering an abundance of treasures, from a peep-show toy theatre of the Great Exhibition of 1851, (a current research interest) to an account of the same by Oliver Ormerod in well-nigh indecipherable Rochdale dialect. (For all you Lancashire folk out there, the details are: O ful, Tru, Un Pertikler Okeawnt o bwoth wat aw seed un war aw yerd, we gooin too th’ Greyt Eggshibishun, e Lundun be O Felley fro Rachde, Routledge 1851).

Now for a thumbnail sketch of the event itself. Michael Jennings, Professor of German at Princeton, opened proceedings with a talk on Walter Benjamin’s retrospective memoir of a Berlin childhood, calling it a twentieth century masterpiece in its complex reworking of childhood memory as seen through the distorting lens of late capitalism. Much food for thought there, especially with the newspapers full of Manhatten’s ‘Occupy Wall Street’ camp in Zuccotti Park .Uli Knoepfelmacher, Emeritus Professor of English – who was the first to teach children’s literature at any US Ivy League university – gave a delightfully positive account of his family’s exile in Bolivia, pointing out, however, the luxury of embarking together with his parents on what seemed like a great adventure – as compared to the family separation that Kindertransport children suffered. Lee Talley has discovered a wealth of letters at the Imperial War Museum documenting children’s and their parents’ responses to the British evacuation programme during the Second World War, which she examined alongside children’s literature on the subject. My own paper on the hiatus in childhood reading of German and Austrian exiles in the 1930s dovetailed well with Adrienne Kertzer’s comparison of adult and children’s fiction arising from the Kindertransport programme.  It was indeed a memorable afternoon.

I left the US wishing – just for a wild moment – that I were 18 again and able to apply for Princeton…….Students who make the grade enjoy a wealth of resources that are, in my experience, second to none.

Gillian Lathey

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