We Tell Ourselves Stories to Live: Joan Didion, Storytelling and our National Narrative

In the words of the widow of John Gregory Dunne (Princeton Class of 1954), that stoic scrivener of race, religion, politics, popular culture and economic class named Joan Didion: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

Storytelling, which is an art I cherish and encourage executives to adopt and refine, as it is an act of verbal sculpture involving the fountain pen, the drafting pencil or even the writing instrument of digital tablature (for the tablet of the Web), Apple Pencil; with each advance on behalf of the clarity of each sentence and phrase, the stories we tell ourselves— the nonfiction accounts we report and archive — shape the character of our national narrative.

Nowhere is storytelling supposed to be more sacred, and nowhere is the pursuit of those stories purported to be more sacrosanct, than in the one place where the life of the mind meets the mind of life: The academy, with its libraries and volumes about antiquity and the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and with its laboratories and observatories dedicated, respectively, to the exploration of the science of the body and the mapping of so many celestial bodies; that Collegiate Gothic sanctuary of residential housing, dining clubs, literary societies and international renown, the alma mater of a Jordanian queen, a regal diplomat and a commander in chief of the Progressive cause and the Presbyterian faith, the 28th President of the United States; all of them graduates of Princeton University.

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For Thomas Woodrow Wilson (Princeton Class of 1879), the 13th President of Princeton University, is an inseparable part of the story of his university — and your university — making this story a critical chapter in America’s story, too.

To remove any visible trace of Wilson’s legacy from Princeton’s campus is to efface the very purpose of education by a gross breach of intellectual vandalism as ironic as it is disgraceful; because, for good or ill, the story of a man raised in the Confederate South, and twice elected to serve as the governor of a state from the Unionist North — and then, chosen to lead the nation entire — is alive in the words and deeds of Wilson’s sixteen successors to the Oval Office.

Millions may not know his name, but tens of millions — slain and slaughtered in France and Flanders, and expelled and absorbed throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East — are the casualties and beneficiaries of his Fourteen Points, the descendants of a punitive peace and the survivors of a map redrawn with the same hubris that infects the hearts of those who seek to redraw the map at Princeton.

A man of enormous vanity and convenient piety, a man simultaneously at home with the racism of his time and free of the anti-Semitism of the times, Woodrow Wilson’s past is not even past.

Should we not smash the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles, the birthplace of Wilsonian foreign policy, before we remove the lettering on the facade of a school at Princeton because we can connect the consequences of his narcissism to the shattered glass of Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) and the rise of Hitler?

Should we not bulldoze a building as grand as Wilson’s ego because, in his war to end all wars, we read of a continent later consumed by the most monstrous tyranny in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime?

Should we not accept his antipathy to blacks, while acknowledging his incalculably worse offenses waged under the banner of good intentions?

We may try to imagine a world free of Wilson’s existence, but we cannot ignore the world of his creation.

We live in it.

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