Editor’s note: This piece was reported and written almost two years ago, and AH has since left this campus. The physical person, at least—the online persona still haunts the comments section, though more sporadically these days. So to protect the identity of that increasingly faint specter, we offer only a pseudonym.

To be a columnist for the Daily Princetonian is to commit oneself to a frightening kind of vulnerability. You write sincere words that people are bound to disagree with. Those words are splayed out on breakfast tables throughout campus right next to the omelets and coffee mugs of groggy and cynical readers. On a campus of this size, many of those readers will be able to pick out familiar faces in the tiny grayscale portraits that appear above every column, so things can quickly turn personal. And anyone who feels strongly enough to etch their opinion semi-permanently into cyberspace can easily do so: they go online and peddle their wisdom on the comments section of the website.

Scroll to the bottom of the article, click “View comments” and you enter one of the stranger realms of Princeton, shot through with venom and humor and cold rationality in varying proportion. The comment section remains the single most compelling reason to visit the newspaper’s website, arguably containing livelier writing and more provocative opinions than the articles they follow. It is a plain white space where personal attacks sidle up against rigorous critique of logic, where decades-old alums squabble with freshmen under anonymous monikers. Where the inane, self-righteous, inquisitive, irrelevant, irreverent, and hyper-articulate all swap insights without any imposed order. The newspaper staff has the power to redact distasteful comments—like ones that incriminate specific people by name—but it is a power they only rarely exercise, and even then they are generally greeted by an outcry about censorship. So for the most part the commenters are left to gawk and howl uninhibited. The less impassioned among us will read through all the comments and not contribute their own. Many Prince writers confess that they check their comments section obsessively, sifting through the unintelligible and the all-too-intelligible, hoping to bask in a stray beam of praise, glean some writing advice, or just gauge the overall critical reception.

Any loyal reader of the comments section would recognize AH, one stinging bee in the faceless swarm. He is one of the most prominent commenters on the site by virtue of both his consistency and his trademark musty wit. He deconstructs arguments in magisterial tones and maddeningly clear prose. He has a taste for the classics, alluding to Horace and Ovid with conspicuous ease, as though he were just rounding out his comically pretentious persona. His best comments tend to lay bare all of a writer’s faults over the course of five or six sentences. Monica Greco’s columns, for example, were criticized for their tropes: referring (sometimes obtrusively) to her hometown of Brooklyn, exploring stale topics at length, and arriving at some profound reinterpretation of those stale topics. Acutely aware of all her tendencies, AH stook them and synthesized them into a brutal satire. He produced a general template for Greco’s articles, parodying the quasi-Latin filler text that graphic designers use during layout:

Lorem ipsum [radically altered my mindset] dolor sit. [No, the] insulsa [added a new dimension to the process: the dimension being] stultitia, [a thing which I am clearly being original in pointing out here in a most tiresome style].

[The] insulsus res [was not at all a surprise, thanks to] re inrita. [When I was younger] donec non molestiam dolor. [I’m most excited about] de coitu [and other extremely banal things at Princeton].

Vos fatigabo [as I continue to write extremely dull and banal slice of life columns as a freshman with no new insights even though CDM probably “pats me on the back” for my terrible work.]

Greco cites this as her personal favorite AH comment. As a classicist, she can appreciate the subtle Latin jokes, and a year after the fact, she can appreciate the criticisms. She is somewhat bemused by him. He is too incisive to dismiss, but just funny enough to be unthreatening. Though he has at times veered very close to threatening: some of his comments betray an unsettling attunement to Greco’s personal life. One referred specifically to her high school and her residential college. And AH has made a habit of (crudely) mentioning her romantic relationship with another Prince columnist, addressing him with the mocking initials “CDM.”

Greco insisted that his comments, even the strange personal ones, had little effect on her because she is basically a “callous person.” She went on to dismiss his writing style as “cute,” and his “pretentious speech” as an overdone trick that he doesn’t even execute particularly well (though I disagree on all counts). And yet she is desperate to learn who he is—exactly four (4) exclamation points dribbled off the “Yes” she text messaged me when I asked her, hypothetically, if she’d like to meet him. Four guileless exclamation points’ worth of delirious curiosity—that is the kind of lingering impact AH has on his victims. She came close to denying this interview because I refused to disclose his identity. (I appealed to journalistic integrity, thinking she would understand, but it seems her personal stakes trumped all else in this case.) Withholding the name, I asked her to at least speculate what he might look like, what he might study. She said he would major in “history, or something equally innocuous” and that he would have “questionable footwear.” And also that he would be very tall.

She wasn’t far off base, though I didn’t get a good look at footwear. The author of AH is a history major, and he too envisions AH as tall. I am careful to distinguish the “author” because the AH we know is a fiction, a persona very clearly divorced from the guy that actually types out the comments. Randall is a unintimidating kid with a meek smile stretched taut across his pale face. As he slid noiselessly into the seat in front of me, I was taken aback. Like Monica, I expected someone with a physical presence, someone of imposing height (or at least of a gawky height that might be plausibly mistaken for an imposing one), someone who moved with all the pedantic swagger of his prose. Someone easier to hate. But his slight 5’ 6” frame was unassuming, and his predominant emotion was bashfulness. Whenever I made him laugh, by cracking a joke or posing an awkward question, his deep-set eyes flicked downward, evading contact. The corners of his mouth, too, curled downward in a crumple of a grin, his smile wilting as a petal would. An angular chin contributes to this directional tug: it acts like an arrow pointing down, guiding your eyes again along that same trajectory. During these nervous chuckles, every feature of his face seems carefully aligned to deflect your attention away.

He chuckled hardest when I asked him to describe his own mental image of AH. “The guy in precept who would criticize you immediately. He’d get immense pleasure from doing it—he’d have some kind of smug grin the whole time. He’d be a classics major with a Woody Woo certificate. He’d be a lot taller than I am,” he said, issuing the same timid giggle. He radiates gentleness, a quality that his comments do not share.

“I am definitely not such a mean person in real life,” he assures me. The origins of AH are innocuous enough. He needed a name to start commenting, so in a characteristic touch of bookishness, the history major chose the initials of Roman general Aulus Hirtius. (This has the added benefit of deceiving anyone who tries to determine his identity by name; AH is actually an R_.) His comments were not immediately brutal. AH’s critical cackle is a voice you have to grow into over time—and Randall did, as he grew increasingly frustrated by the quality of journalism in the newspaper. He describes himself as a mild insomniac who learned to unwind through a half-hour nightly routine: reading the newspaper cover-to-cover, and deploying a soul-crushing critique or two wherever he saw fit. Though he originally started commenting for his own amusement, readers picked up on his constant presence and singular wit, and eventually realized he was writing “for the sake of other people” as well. Soon other commenters began to refer to AH by name, the hallmark of complete integration into that odd community. He even inspired the occasional imposter.

AH had little to do any Roman general, and it took on an immediately recognizable identity of its own, magnifying and caricaturing the arrogant critic that lies dormant in Randall. He says that part of him does dislike the Prince a great deal, and to summon AH all he has to do is exaggerate that part of his self. As AH he consciously adopts on a pompous writing style—one that hearkens back to his earlier academic work, before teachers began to complain. (A former professor likened his writing to that of a certain Roman historian, and though Randall can’t remember who it was, he remembers that the comparison was unfavorable.) An AH critique is carefully calibrated slew of ad hominems and legitimate counterarguments; he said the ideal ratio of the two is about 50/50. Pith is of the essence, and given that this kind of concentrated assault can only be sustained for so long, he tends to max out at 10 sentences. He is at the peak of his acerbic abilities when taking on a Prince writer he’s crucified a dozen times before. “It’s fun to latch onto a particular author who you see coming up again and again. It gives you a base of criticism: nicknames, things you can reuse yourself,” he said. Were it not for those familiar recurring bylines, he said he wouldn’t keep coming back to comment. There is something to be said for the long-term relationship between author and tormentor. “I think we work in parallel,” he added, only half-joking. Monica said she doesn’t miss AH’s comments (he has eased off the site as of late), but did concede that she would still cherish a compliment from him.

With a style that distinct, Randall’s anonymous romp through the comments section was fated to end. At some point his roommate identified him just based on the prose style. Now he estimates around 30 people are aware of his alter ego. He is at his most bashful when discussing how people react when they discover he is behind AH. It is a polarizing revelation: “Either it’s ‘that’s really funny’ and they start reading it a lot and find amusement in it, or people see it as an unusual side of me … they think it’s very awful of me.” He insists that he feels bad about offending the writers, and doesn’t mean anything personal. Nor is this a crusade to improve the quality of journalism—he claims he is motivated only be the desire to entertain others. “I don’t try to infuriate them, I hope they get some pleasure out of it,” he says of his victims. Greco cannot mention AH without smiling (maybe involuntarily), so he is at least succeeding on that front.

Others are less pleased by AH’s exploits—most notably, the former editor of opinion at the Prince. Last year, after establishing himself as the scourge of the comments section, Randall decided to apply to be a Prince columnist under the guise of AH. He filled out an application entirely in character. One prompt: “Discuss two ‘Prince’ columns from the past semester; one you liked and one you didn’t” His answer: “ There were no Daily Princetonian columns from the spring semester of the 2009-2010 academic year that I remember “liking.” At best, I found some of the columns to not be entirely disagreeable. I shall therefore discuss two columns that I have found disagreeable of late. “ He proceeded to eviscerate a piece by Greco and a piece by Brendan Carroll, another longtime adversary. To complete the application, Randall included a sample column. It was quintessential AH, a slandering tirade with a predictably subversive thesis: the Prince should be abolished.

Though he had made an anonymous email account for that express purpose of submitting the application, he forgot to use it—in a staggering feat of self-incrimination, the email was sent instead from his personal Princeton account. Due to that faux pas, a few staffers at the Prince now know his identity. (Only by contacting one of them was I able to secure an interview.) The response email, which began “Hi Randal[sic],” still makes Randall laugh. He eagerly forwarded it to me. In the email, the editor, apparently thrilled to put a name to those ominous initials, aimed three passive-aggressive questions at his newly identified foe. He wanted to know why AH reads the Prince if he hates it so much, how he finds so much time to comment on the articles, and whether he would like to contribute a real column so he could sympathize with the risks that a columnist takes. I imagine the scenario was not unlike being pestered by a thirsty and unbearably intelligent mosquito for an entire summer, and finally snagging him by the wing, sitting him down, and asking him to account for his behavior. Randall did not reply to that email. His AH comments continued as per usual.

Managing this entire other persona can be an existentially troubling task. Once, while writing a comment, he became very angry at the article, until he realized how absurd and unwarranted that emotion was. Somewhere along the way he had blurred the line between Randall and AH. “I personally did not care about the article. I could just as well not read it,” he said. Only AH could sniff out the blood trickling out of a weak article, actively hunt it down, and pounce with requisite zeal. Randall is passive, and doesn’t care enough. But the fictional seeps into the real person sometimes, and Randall thinks it is impossible to ever fully separate himself from the character. “Even though it isn’t your full personality, it does represent a very particular part of your personality,” he said, biting his lip, eyes cast in their favorite direction. Though I now have a vivid mental picture of some AH, I find it almost impossible to imagine Randall sitting down to skewer someone’s honest work. He seems too benign.

Listening to him talk about the “twinges of guilt” he feels, I feel as though I am watching AH repent for all his sins of cynicism. In general he seems almost embarrassed by his past—a façade that holds up until you spot through the cracks one of those bright searing flashes of pride, of genuine glee. When I ask him to recount his favorite moments in the comments section, he is at first reluctant, and then, radiant. He smiles and recalls the way he once gave Carroll painstaking, condescending instructions to restructure his piece. And the time he referred to Kelsey Zimmerman, perhaps his single favorite target, as a “peon amongst peasants.” At some point, right in the middle of explaining one of his old jokes, his sentences disintegrated into laughs, the soft collapse of his own remembered wit.

For a quiet person like Randall, it must be gratifying to wield the written word as fluidly and as cavalierly as he does. This is the conduit for all the caustic wit simmering inside his politely combed head. It needs to come out in some form, and it may as well be public. I got the impression that he wasn’t quite devastated when people figured it out it was him. There is a certain glory in being AH, something gladiatorial about prodding at a hapless writer for the sake of public amusement. And I think Randall would approve of that metaphor, not just because of his ancient tastes but because he prizes the outside admiration—the obscure brand of celebrity—that his work has earned. While browsing the website Princeton FML, a social website for Princeton students, he noticed one anonymous commenter trying to figure out the identity of AH, describing him as “at once a magnificent asshole and undeniable wit.” Randall recalled the quote from memory, and with palpable relish. It sounded familiar. I paused to decide whether or not I was going to tell him that I was the one who wrote it.