Department History

The Harvard English Department: A Brief History

This text was written by Stephen Hequembourg in 2012-13, with counsel and advice from many members of the department.

I. The Rise of the Study of English at Harvard

The Harvard English Department was created on June 20, 1876.  On this day Francis James Child was officially appointed “Professor of English”—a title that had previously not existed in the University.  But while the title was new to Harvard, Child himself was not.  He had served as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric since 1851, during which time he had supervised the publication of a 130-volume series on the great British poets, done seminal work on the language of Chaucer, and begun his monumental collection of English and Scottish Ballads.  He had also, less happily, spent vast amounts of time and energy correcting the endless themes of undergraduate composition.  So in 1876, when Child was tempted by an offer from another university, President Charles Eliot created the new title and position in a bid to retain the eminent scholar, freeing him from rhetoric and composition and allowing him to focus solely on the teaching of English literature.


Francis James Child (1825-1896). Courtesy of Special Collections, Fine Arts Library.

Before his promotion, Child had done much to lay the groundwork for the new concentration.  His courses in Composition had always included readings in the masters of English prose, and in the years before 1876 he had been in the habit of giving evening readings at which those attending could hear “a large part of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and seven plays of Shakespeare.”  Undergraduates who had long been trained in Homer and Sophocles, Virgil and Cicero, were now able to view the poetry and prose of their native language as an object of study in its own right.  In that first year Child offered four courses in the new discipline.  English 1 covered Chaucer, Bacon, Milton, and Dryden; English 2 was the University’s first Shakespeare course; English 3 and 4 were courses in Anglo-Saxon and the History of the English language.  From the beginning, then, the Department offered a program divided between its teaching of major British writers and its pursuit of more philological scholarship.”.

These two aims would prove central to the development of English at Harvard.  Among the legends of those early years one hears of a class Child taught in his favorite subject, the English and Scottish ballads, attended by two future professors in the department: George Lyman Kittredge and William Allen Neilson.  Child, as the story goes, would occasionally become so moved by what he was reading that, to disguise his emotion, he would shoot off a philological question to the students, composing himself while they supplied the etymology of a given word.  Kittredge, who would become Child’s successor, was convinced that the philological question was the important thing, and that it offered the real ground of the study of English literature.  Neilson, on the other hand, was more intrigued by the emotion that Child was attempting to hide (what Neilson once called “the sensuous thrill obtained from…imaginative description”), and perhaps in a larger sense by the active responses prompted by literature.  This tension between the philological and the more psychological or critical dimensions of the written word would appear in a variety of forms over the next several decades, as the Department struggled to articulate the central methods of this young discipline.

It soon became apparent that methodology wasn’t the only disputed question.  The faculty of English at Harvard would also have to decide which authors and texts, which periods and countries would be represented in their course offerings.  In its first years these offerings didn’t extend much further than the early eighteenth century.  Professor A.S. Hill, also a recruit from Composition, began teaching semester-long courses in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, but undergraduates remained dissatisfied.  An article appeared in the Harvard Advocate in the Fall of 1886 asking for more classes in contemporary literature.  This desire on the part of the students to read Browning, Tennyson, Austen and Dickens had previously been dismissed as “the vague and not at all scholarly discontent of lax students.”  But the intrepid students made their voices heard, asking why it should be the case that in the study of French or German one could follow the course of its literature down to the present day, while the study of English seemed reluctant to assign anything later than Dryden.  The author of the article writes that while he and other students have no wish to be “found guilty of the high crimes of ‘laxity’ and ‘discontent’…yet we cannot but feel that something fundamentally important is lacking.”

The Department, with the encouragement of President Eliot, soon answered the demand.  The next decade saw the expansion of course offerings to include classes such as English 9, which gave De Quincey, Lamb, Carlyle, Dickens, Trollope, and the Brontës a stable position in the Harvard curriculum.  In 1888 a half-course on Walt Whitman was added, the first course devoted solely to what would later be the field of American Literature.  Throughout the 1890s the Department began to take a more historically-oriented approach to its material, and by the turn of the century a curriculum was in place that allowed students to move successively from the Norman Conquest to Chaucer, from Chaucer to the early Tudors, and from there to the death of Tennyson in a series of classes, each covering around 50 years of English Literature.  This commitment to wide historical coverage would remain a characteristic of the Department over the next century and beyond.

With Child, the study of English had begun as an offshoot of rhetoric and composition, and remained for a time as a kind of unruly young rival to the study of Classical Languages and Literature.  In 1876, when the Department was formed, the Annual Report of the University notes that out of 1,000 hours of undergraduate study Latin and Greek occupy a total of 272 hours—compared to a mere 22 for English.  But by the early twentieth century undergraduates were choosing modern languages over classical languages at a ratio of about 5 to 1.  In 1896 a writer for the Harvard Monthly remarked that while other colleges were beginning to follow Harvard’s lead in the teaching of English, the University remained unique in the prominence it accorded to the young discipline: “Even at the colleges which are most penitently alive to their long neglect of it, the English department is far from being regarded, as it is at Harvard, as of at least equal importance with other leading departments.”  And by the early 1920s, English was the leading department—drawing almost twice as many students as the runner-up, Economics.  Half a century after its inception, English had unquestionably made a home for itself at Harvard.

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