Department History

II: Harvard English in the Twentieth Century

But while it grew in size and popularity, the English Department remained divided in its methods.  The disagreement between Kittredge and Neilson over the relative importance of the historical development of the language and its broader effects on contemporary readers continued to make itself felt in the life of the Department.  We might take as an example the choice of courses in Shakespeare that an undergraduate would find in looking over the departmental course offerings of the early twentieth century.  On the one hand there was English 2, begun by Child and later taken over by Kittredge.  Kittredge taught only six or seven plays over the course of the year, but what he did teach he taught thoroughly.  Students were introduced to Shakespeare not through lectures on plot and character development, nor through the perennial readerly questions (Was Brutus right to kill Caesar?  Why does Hamlet delay?) but through a patient and painstaking attention to individual words and phrases.  Kittredge employed essentially the same method as Child—even to the point of mimicking his mentor’s rapid-fire philological questions.  On the other hand there was a new course by Barrett Wendell that covered much more ground in a shorter time (often including nearly all of the plays in a year) and that touched on the kinds of larger questions—of characterization, sentiment, and the life of the dramatist—that were lost sight of in Kittredge’s attention to philological detail.  While Kittredge scrutinized the trees, Wendell loved nothing more than to make sweeping claims about the forest.


Portrait of George Lyman Kittredge. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

By the 1930s the distinction between philological and more critical approaches had created separate and often strongly opposed factions in the department.  On the philological side were figures such as Kittredge, Fred Robinson, and John Livingston Lowes, whose work might focus on the modal syntax of Chaucer’s verbs or attempt a scrupulous collection of the texts that inform such poems as “Kubla Khan” and “The Ancient Mariner.”  On the critical side we find such names as Irving Babbitt, F. O. Matthiessen, and I. A. Richards, champions of newer approaches that included the history of ideas, socially and politically oriented criticism, and what was becoming known as Practical Criticism.  Undergraduates at the time could choose for themselves among these various methods, but graduate students were required, whatever their area of focus, to spend a great deal of time mastering philological material.  Legend has it that when Douglas Bush, the learned humanist and Miltonist, passed the last of his many required courses in medieval languages he made a pyre of his Gothic and Anglo-Saxon grammars and enthusiastically set it ablaze.

As the philological approach lost ground to newer methods, one of the fields to benefit most was the study of American Literature.  In the early decades of the Department we find only the occasional mention of Longfellow and a half-course on Whitman.  But with the arrival of Bliss Perry in 1906 American literature received new emphasis.  Perry’s concerns were primarily aesthetic rather than historical or philological, and he was eager to teach the modern novel.  He gave lectures on Madame Bovary over the objections of many to its perceived lewdness, and taught Moby-Dick when it was a largely forgotten novel.  Among his most influential works were The American Mind, The American Spirit in Literature, and Walt Whitman.

The 1920s saw the debut of English 33 (“American Literature”) by Kenneth Murdock, which ranged from Puritan literature to contemporary writers such as Eugene O’Neill; and in the 1930s the Department’s title was officially changed to “The Department of the History of English and American Literature.”  The burgeoning field flourished with the arrival of Perry Miller and F. O. Matthiessen.  Miller’s seminal work on the “New England mind” drew copiously on the resources of literature, medical texts, ephemera, and broadsides, while Matthiessen’s monumental American Renaissance was said (in 2009 by the New York Times) to have “virtually created the field of American literature.”  These two pioneering scholars often taught English 33 together, and while they did not always see eye to eye their colleagues recalled decades later that “the clash of temperaments. . . generated an intense intellectual excitement which was brilliantly communicated to the students.”  After Miller’s death in 1963 students remembering him in the Harvard Crimson declared that the era of Miller, Matthiessen, and Murdock seemed to them like “an age when giants walked in Harvard Yard.”

But however impressive their intellectual achievements, the “giants” of the Harvard English Department never lost sight of their responsibilities to their students.  Murdock served as the first Master of Leverett House, and in his time there he established what his colleagues would remember as “unquestionably the intellectually preeminent Senior Common Room in the first decade of the House System.”  In the 1930s, in a bid to combat social stratification among undergraduates, President Lowell had inaugurated the House System; and from the beginning many members of the English Department served in its ranks.  Famous House Masters and tutors of those years include Murdock, Matthiessen, Robinson, James Munn, Archibald MacLeish, Theodore Spencer, and Reuben Brower.

When a number of prominent faculty members retired in the late 1940s, one of the principal agents in rebuilding the Department was Professor Harry Levin.  Along with Alfred Harbage, Levin had taken over the teaching of Shakespeare at Harvard after Kittredge—giving lectures often attended by more than 500 students.  In addition to his groundbreaking work in Renaissance literature, Levin also taught and published on such authors as Joyce, Proust, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and the French Realists.  Neil Rudenstine, once a student of Levin and later President of the University, recalled his former teacher as “one of the brilliant, protean, and responsive literary minds of this century.”  With his deep knowledge of several literary traditions, Levin was instrumental in the formation of the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard, of which he would become Irving Babbitt Professor in 1960.

Throughout the 1950s, as the New Critics were challenging the older historical and biographical emphases, and recommending close attention to form, irony, and figurative language, Reuben Brower was teaching his famous humanities course on “The Interpretation of Literature.”  “Hum 6,” as it came to be known, would be remembered by hundreds of students as an inquiry into the nature of aesthetic experience and what Brower called the “imaginative organization” of works of art. He taught a form of criticism, deriving from his Amherst colleague Theodore Baird and from the critic F. R. Leavis, which insisted at every point on close engagement with the text, and he rigorously restrained students from generalization and abstraction, asking that they say nothing about the poem that couldn’t be derived from the text.  The critic Paul de Man was on the teaching staff of Hum 6 and recalled decades later: “I have never known a course by which students were so transformed…It did not make writing easier for them for they no longer felt free to indulge in any thought that came into their head or to paraphrase any idea they happened to encounter.”

When de Man wrote this in 1982 he was responding to an essay in the Harvard Magazine by W. Jackson Bate, formerly Chair of the Department and author of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of John Keats and Samuel Johnson.  Bate was perhaps best known by Harvard undergraduates for his legendary course “The Age of Johnson,” which drew several hundred students each year and would be remembered as a formative experience by many who went on to work in fields far outside of English literature.  (In the late 1960s the student writers of the often-critical “Confidential Guide” to courses referred to him simply as “the great Bate.”)  In his teaching and scholarship Bate conceived of literature and the humanities as the record of human experience expressed by what Dryden called “comprehensive souls.”  Bate’s concept of the humanities was broad, and included not only literature but religion, philosophy, history, music, and linguistics.  He found value in formalistic approaches such as Brower’s, but believed that the study of literature should serve larger ends.  Later in life he feared that increasing specialization would make the humanities more abstruse and narrowly professional.

Walter Jackson Bate (1918-1999), 20th century Oil on canvas; 101.9 x 90.2 cm (40 1/8 x 35 1/2 in.) framed: 124.5 x 113 cm (49 x 44 1/2 in.) Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Harvard University Portrait Collection, H681 Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Walter Jackson Bate (1918-1999). Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Harvard University Portrait Collection.

In his essay in the Harvard Magazine Bate had objected to some recent developments in literary theory (specifically Deconstruction) which he saw as promoting a view of literature as empty of value and meaning.  De Man—then a leading member of a small group of Yale critics advocating a deconstructive method —defended his methods by claiming that they grew directly out of his experiences with Reuben Brower in Hum 6 back in the 1950s.  “The motives [of Deconstruction] may have been more revolutionary and the terminology was certainly more intimidating.  But, in practice, the turn to theory occurred as a return to philology, to an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces.”  As de Man saw it, the recent theoretical trends were not something novel and dangerous but merely another swing of the pendulum in the conflict between the philological and critical approaches to literature that had been going on since the days of Francis Child.

Harvard did not, as Bate notes, “surrender completely to [critical theory] as an orthodoxy” in the 1960s and 70s.  But neither had it been dominated by any orthodoxy before that. Many students from the 1950s did indeed learn from courses no less committed to formal understanding than to cultural significance, such as Brower’s Hum 6, Bate’s “Age of Johnson,” , Miller’s intellectual history of America, or Levin’s famously demanding comparative literature course “Proust, Joyce, and Mann.”  Or they might choose to hear Northrop Frye, as a visiting professor, lecturing on the material that would soon become the Anatomy of Criticism.  However prominent any particular professor, course, or critical method may have been in the Harvard English Department, there were always plenty of faculty members who, as Bate reminds us, “went merrily ahead with other approaches to literature.”

Pages: 1 2 3