John Vincent Fleming

Few figures are as recognizably “Princeton” as John V. Fleming, the Louis W. Fairchild ’24 Professor of English and Comparative Literature. For nearly 20 years John has served as Princeton’s Chief Marshall, leading the academic procession and calling the ceremony to order. He is the longest-serving college master in Princeton history, having served as master of Wilson College from 1969 to 1972, and again from 1989 to 1997. John was a founding member of Princeton’s comparative literature department, and he chaired the English department from 1981 to 1987. During his 40 years on the Princeton faculty, he has won both the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Teaching. Twice a National Endowment for the Humanities senior fellow, John has never rested on his laurels (considerable though they may be), but instead has always welcomed new challenges. At the invitation of Princeton undergraduates John has written a column for the Daily Princetonian since 1996.  Four years later he posed for a men’s fashion magazine, an altogether appropriate career move for someone colleagues have routinely dubbed, “the funniest man alive.

Born in Mountain Home, Arkansas, John graduated in 1958 from the University of the South, where years later he also received an honorary degree. A Rhodes scholar, John went on for another degree at Oxford University before entering the Princeton doctoral program and receiving his Ph.D. in medieval literature in 1963. After teaching for two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John became an assistant professor of English at Princeton, where he followed in the footsteps of the great Chaucerian D.W. Robertson, teaching generations of Princeton undergraduates about the world of the Middle Ages. In 40 years of distinguished undergraduate teaching. John has taught subjects spanning the entire breadth of literary history, from courses on the Bible and Old English to courses on the English novel and American literature. John also has taught classes on the Franciscan order and the history of the English language for Princeton’s Freshman Seminar Program – a program that he so ably directed for many years. It seems altogether fitting that the man who ushers graduating seniors through the FitzRandolph Gates is also one of the first people they meet when they enter as freshmen. His advice to undergraduates has always been sound, perhaps never more so than at Princeton’s Assembly on Integrity: “Integrity is an excellent thing. You should all have it. If perchance you lack it, you should get it as soon as possible.

John’s commitment to graduate teaching has been no less steadfast. His graduate seminars on Chaucer, Old English, and Medieval English; French; and Latin have launched many a successful academic career. Indeed, in a job market that has remained unforgiving for decades, every one of John’s dissertation students has landed a strong tenure-track job. A Princeton graduate alumnus himself, John has long been involved with alumni programs and events, given unstintingly of his time and counsel. John has been a member of the Executive Committee of the Alumni Council as well as the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni. He has lectured on Chaucer for the “Great Authors on Great Authors” series, and he has led an online Alumni Studies course on 12 centuries of English religious poetry. John’s appearance at countless alumni events from Princeton to London to Hong Kong, earned him the Alumni Council Award for Service to Princeton in 2004.

Over the years perhaps no course has been more identified with John Fleming than the undergraduate Chaucer survey, which has had a strong “cult” following. John’s wit and wisdom, in this class and others, have become the stuff of Princeton Iore, and the subject of numerous student testimonials, tributes, and articles. A recent sampler compiled by a Princeton junior highlights vintage Fleming, sharing his thoughts on human nature (“Although there’s been a large change in human nature since the 12th century, one thing that’s stayed consistent is that people don’t really want to do celibacy”), on university governance (“The Middle Ages was a lot like the University of Pennsylvania, broken up into a lot of little duchies, deans fighting against each other. Princeton – that’s like the Holy Roman Empire. They’re just two different regimes”), and on training to be a medievalist (“About five texts will tell you half of what you need to know about the Middle Ages: the Bible, Augustine’s Soliloquies, Confessions, and On Christian Doctrine; Boethius; and Gregory’s Dialogues. Unfortunately, the other half is about one thousand books”).

John may be one of the few scholars today who has actually read these one thousand books. He is certainly one of the few who have heeded Lady Philosophy’s advice to keep them in the mind rather than on the shelf. Over the years, many visiting lecturers and Princeton audiences have been treated to demonstrations of John’s instant recall of arcane details from recondite texts. The shock that these speakers doubtless feel is merely a more public version of what readers of John’s many books and articles experience. In important published studies of the Roman de la Rose, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Bellini, Christopher Columbus and Franciscan literature, and in the forthcoming studies of Ovid, the wife of Bath, and the 16th-century Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoes. John’s method is no less than to place texts in their world-historical framework. Often focusing on a single detail – a rabbit, a donkey, the word “ambages,” the figure of Reason – John uses that extraordinary library of the mind to illuminate not only the literary and historical influences, but also the intellectual and spiritual world within which these details are formed and transmitted. In doing so, he has not only transformed, and in some cases established, the study of important medieval and early modern texts, he has also demonstrated the force of the Biblical and medieval belief that the world is not made up of several, or even a thousand, books. John’s work has shown that even the deep classicism of a writer such as Chaucer is a mere reflection of deeper typology: the world itself as the single book entrusted to our care.

In concrete and practical ways, John has taught us much about the care of books. Fourteenth-century bibliophile and bishop Richard de Bury once remarked that “we exercise an office of sacred piety when we treat books carefully” – a sentiment John has taken to heart by making or repairing books on his antique home printing press. A master rebinder, John has saved many a book from the carelessness of other readers. Fans of John’s Daily Princetonian column cannot forget the great solicitude with which he approaches this old world craft, as when proudly notes that he won a bid for a purple leather miniskirt, or just the right shade and texture, to clothe a rescued book.

In his own dress and demeanor, John Fleming is the very embodiment of an Ivy League professor. Maxim thought so when they asked him to pose, in silk bow tie and wool suit, for their fashion and style magazine. Ever since, this professor-turned supermodel has been affectionately known on campus as “Tweedy.” John himself has never considered himself a snappy dresser. A former student recalls this admission from John in the early weeks of his course on the World of the Middle Ages: “In the first week of class, you saw all my ties. In the second week of class, you saw all my shirts. It’s now the third week of class, and you’ve heard all of my ideas. I don’t know what we’re going to do for the rest of the semester.” World-class scholar, distinguished teacher, tireless administrator, trusted mentor, and stand-up comedian, John Fleming will be greatly missed in the halls of McCosh and on campus.