Ernest Hemingway’s remarkable first novel, 'The Sun Also Rises’, published in 1926, opens with an account of a character called Robert Cohn. Jake Barnes, the novel’s narrator, an American newspaperman living and working in Paris, tells us that Cohn is a Jew and goes on to describe – in an account that teeters on the edge of anti-Semitism – how Cohn had been embittered by his treatment as a Jew on the campus of Princeton University. Cohn, we learn, had survived at Princeton by becoming a pretty accomplished boxer – a skill he will use to considerable effect at a later point in the novel.
Cohn felt himself an outsider at Princeton, and he remains an outsider in Hemingway’s novel. 'The Sun Also Rises’ is an iconic work in its modernist evocation of the damaged world brought into being by the pain and suffering of the first world war. All of its main characters (except Cohn) have been shattered by the war. A war wound leaves Jake Barnes himself impotent. Lady Brett Ashley, the novel’s only important female character, losing a husband and lover – and unable to consummate her relationship with Jake – has become promiscuous. Mike Campbell, the bankrupt Scottish toff she has agreed to marry, is an alcoholic. Like Bill Gorton, a successful American novelist who drinks almost as much, Campbell too is a veteran of the war.
All of these characters have been left by the war believing in more or less nothing: all of them are representatives of what Gertrude Stein famously called 'the lost generation’. Here is how Jake describes their situation: 'I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about'.
Yet Hemingway’s typical characters do have something in common. They share a way of living – admirers call it a code – even if in Hemingway’s laconic prose it remains largely unspoken. It involves the simple pleasures of eating and drinking; it involves responding to the positive aspects of nature and the natural world; it involves personal loyalty and friendship. And in this novel it involves the arts of trout fishing and bull-fighting. The universe may be a meaningless one, but what can be enjoyed, however fleeting, should be accepted and appreciated on its own terms.
But 'The Sun Also Rises’ has one character unable to share this code: Robert Cohn. Cohn turns out to be an old-fashioned, hopeless romantic. (Perhaps it is a flaw in the novel that Hemingway fails to link his character’s weakness to anything recognisably Jewish.) Having met Lady Brett in Paris through his friend Jake, we learn that Cohn and she have spent a weekend together in San Sebastian. For Brett this is just another casual encounter, for Cohn it is an enduring romance. Thus he insists on following her around, joining Jake and the others on a trip to Spain that culminates in the bull-fighting fiesta in Pamplona. Cohn inevitably fails to fit in, remaining an uncomfortable presence, still believing that Brett will come back to him. Her sexual interest has moved on to Pedro Romero, the new, 19-year-old star of the bullring.
Fuelled by the constant drinking, which marks the days of the fiesta, the violence that has always potentially existed in the relationship between Cohn and the other men finally explodes. The language of outright anti-Semitism is used in vicious exchanges. In the resulting brawl, Cohn uses his Princeton-learned boxing skills to devastating effect and his name-callers are knocked down – just as soon afterwards is the young bull-fighter. But it is all to no avail. Cohn cannot win. The world is not the way he would like it to be. Jake Barnes has had to accept this truth. There is no other way to live in it.
'The Sun Also Rises’, in its evocation of the post-war world of the 1920s, has often been seen as the prose equivalent of T S Eliot’s even more iconic poem 'The Waste Land’ (1922). Interestingly the presence of anti-Semitism in Eliot’s poem – and in his work in general – has been widely debated. In Hemingway’s case, to be fair, anti-Semitism and its language exist only in the voices of his characters – such a defence cannot be made so successfully in the case of Eliot.
Anti-Semitism has been much in the news in recent times. Traditionally seen as characteristic of the extreme right in politics, it is supporters of the left who have been forced to admit today that a strain of anti-Semitism has been emerging with uncomfortable frequency in their debate over Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. However, it is not this unwelcome development that has been reminding me of Robert Cohn and Hemingway’s classic novel. Rather it is something closer to home – and it involves Cohn’s alma mater.
In the late 1950s I was a graduate student at Princeton University. Unlike most American universities, Princeton has never allowed fraternities to operate on its campus. The Princeton alternative was – and remains – a group of eating clubs to which sophomores may choose to apply to join through a system called 'bicker’. In 1958 a major scandal broke over what became known as that year’s 'dirty bicker’ – when it emerged that 23 sophomores – 15 of whom were Jewish – were denied bids to eating clubs despite a commitment by the clubs to accept all applicants. The issue of being a Jew on the Princeton campus had surfaced once again.
Founded in 1746 by Presbyterian Synods in the colonies – with substantial financial help from the Church of Scotland – Princeton thereafter remained an all-male, all-white, and all-Protestant university. A student from South Carolina called Albert H Mordecai, who matriculated in 1859, has been identified as the university’s first Jewish student, so there may have been a handful of others in subsequent years, but it was only in 1915 that the presence of Jewish students in the student body was formally recognised. Two students from the classes of 1916 and 1917 – one of whom happened to be captain of the football team – organised the first ever Shabbat service to be held on the campus. Five years later the university recognised the first Jewish student organisation, and Jewish worship became a formal part of campus life.
How do I know all this? Because in April this year, Princeton’s office of alumni affairs organised a conference called 'L’Chaim! To Life: Celebrating 100 Years of Jewish life at Princeton'. Attended by around 900 alumni and guests, the conference was careful to recognise both the good and the bad in the experience of Jews at Princeton. Though, as we have seen, a Jewish presence was formally accepted in the early 1920s (more or less when, as it were, Robert Cohn would have been a student) the reality was that then, and for long afterwards, Jewish students faced major challenges in trying to fit in on the campus – and there was an unofficial but active rule limiting Jewish enrolment to around 3% of the student body.
At the conference Rabbi Julie Roth, director of the university’s Centre for Jewish Life, reminded her audience that Princeton was 'once infamous for its anti-Semitism'. A former president, William Bowen, noted that over the years Jewish students often 'felt like guests, not hosts’ on the campus. And the current president – Christopher Eisgruber – suggested that Jews at the university often felt like both insiders and outsiders: 'We love this place but we want to be honest about its history'. President Eisgruber went on to explain that he had only recently discovered his own Jewish roots: his refugee mother had chosen to conceal her Jewish identity. But when he told members of his extended family about this discovery, he learned that some of their friends had expressed amazement that a senior member of the faculty at Princeton University – of all places – could be Jewish.
President Eisgruber would not have been the first Jewish president of Princeton. That distinction belongs to Harold Shapiro, appointed to the position in 1988. I’ve never forgotten the idea of anti-Semitism at Princeton being dismissed by a student from a Jewish background (the son of a close colleague): how could there be, given that the university’s president himself was a Jew?
Nonetheless, commenting on the 2016 conference, President Eisgruber ended by emphasising that the proper response to 100 years of Jewish experience at Princeton should involve more than 'joyous celebration'. It should also include candour 'about exclusivity, about discrimination, about the students, faculty, and staff who struggled bravely for equality’, while 'we continue Princeton’s efforts to build a community that talented people of all groups and backgrounds can embrace as their own'. Ending on this particular note, the president was perhaps hinting at the relevance of the Jewish experience to the current situation on the Princeton campus.
The point is that in recent months Princeton has not escaped the unrest that a combination of identity politics and race issues has produced on campuses both here and in the US. Last autumn members of a group called the Black Justice League – closely related to the nation-wide Black Lives Matter movement – occupied Nassau Hall, the university’s original, 18th-century building, and still the centre of its administration. Among the group’s many demands over the sensitivities and concerns of black students and other minorities on campus, was one that Woodrow Wilson’s name should be removed from Wilson College and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Wilson, prior to becoming president of the United States, had been president of Princeton. And there is no denying that Wilson, with his southern background, was a wholly committed segregationist. When he became the nation’s president, he deliberately made a point of rolling back the limited degree of progress the government had made in allowing African-American citizens a role in Washington. Princeton, that is, was facing over Woodrow Wilson exactly the same problem that Oxford University has been over Cecil Rhodes.
Inevitably President Eisgruber set up a committee to consider what should be done over Wilson and other race-related issues. In the end some concessions have been made – I think, for example, that at Princeton, as in other Ivy League institutions, the term 'master’ will no longer be used as a head of college title. On the other hand, the attempt to write Woodrow Wilson out of Princeton’s history, which had caused a storm of controversy among students, faculty, and alumni, has not been allowed: his role as a segregationist will be acknowledged, but his name will remain in place.
Joining in the celebration of 100 years of Jewish life at Princeton, President Eisgruber must surely have had the current position of other minorities on the campus at least partially in mind. Had Robert Cohn studied at Princeton today he would have had much less to be bitter about and much more to learn than boxing skills.