F R E S H M A N   S E M I N A R S

Exploring the 'shifty' side of American literature

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- Prowling a Blair Arch seminar room like a lawyer performing a dramatic cross-examination, Clayton Marsh challenged 15 freshmen seated around the table to identify the "true crime" in the Mark Twain novel "Pudd'nhead Wilson."

Clayton Marsh leading a freshman seminar  

University Counsel Clayton Marsh, who holds a Ph.D. in English and is a former teacher, is enjoying his time back in the classroom leading a freshman seminar.


Teaching his first freshman seminar at Princeton on top of his day job as University counsel, Marsh -- who holds a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature -- smoothly combined legal and literary approaches to Twain's satire of racial stereotypes. Set in Missouri in the 1830s, the tale's title character, David Wilson, is an oddball lawyer who becomes a local hero by solving a murder and revealing that two men -- one the son of a slave, the other the son of a slaveowner -- had been switched at birth.

But in uncovering these facts, Marsh noted, Wilson fails to expose the larger crime in the story: the institution of slavery, which drives the corrupt behavior of many characters in the book. Wilson's failure to denounce the "legal fiction" of slavery appears to stem from his fear of risking his newly exalted status and again being denigrated as a "pudd'nhead" by the townspeople, Marsh argued.

The tendency of people to fabricate, enhance and protect their social image and standing -- exemplified by Wilson and many other characters in American literature -- is the focus of Marsh's seminar, titled "Good to be Shifty: American Swindlers and Impostors."

"In many respects, the confidence man and the self-made man are two sides of the same coin," said Marsh, a member of Princeton's class of 1985. "The seminar examines in large part how the American dream can be seen as sort of a confidence game on a grand scale -- how 'success in the marketplace' often involves elements of self-invention and self-promotion that take us into the realm of fraudulence."

In addition to Twain's works, students are reading novels such as Herman Melville's "The Confidence Man," F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," James Weldon Johnson's "The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man" and Paul Auster's "City of Glass." They also are studying films, articles and legal opinions related to impostors and fraud.

"The topic of the class was just too good to pass up," said freshman Andy Hoover, who has enjoyed the depth Marsh brings to the seminar. "He's incredibly gifted at seeing little things in the text that make the works we study so much richer. He always seems incredibly excited about teaching the class, and his enthusiasm is infectious."

Marsh focused on the topic of tricksters in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and other American writers in his dissertation at Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1995. After obtaining a law degree at the University of Michigan in 1997, he spent five years in private legal practice before coming last fall to Princeton, where he concentrates on intellectual property, technology law and privacy issues in the Office of the General Counsel. The possibility of teaching at his alma mater was a draw for Marsh, who spent seven years on the English faculty at the awrenceville School after graduating from Princeton.

One overarching goal of the seminar, Marsh said, is to help his students develop critical reading and thinking skills. But the topic of "shape-shifting" is particularly germane to freshmen, he added, pointing out that the course's title is based on the main character in Johnson Jones Hooper's "The Adventures of Simon Suggs," a frontier swindler who says "it is good to be shifty in a new country."

"For freshmen, Princeton is their new country," Marsh said. "They face opportunities to create new personas, like Fitzgerald when he came to Princeton or Gatsby when he heads back East. This is a moment of self-invention in many respects for freshmen when they arrive here -- something we try to explore in class."