Department History

III: The English Department since the 1970s

As the methods and courses of the Department grew and diversified over time, so did its faculty.  The 1950s saw the arrival, to an all-male department, of Helen White and Rosemond Tuve as visiting professors.  In the early 1970s a University committee led by Morton Bloomfield, then Chair of the Department, urged the inclusion of more women across the university in professional and administrative ranks (the integration of women undergraduates to Harvard College began in 1972; women had taken classes with men since 1943).  Shortly thereafter Isabel MacCaffrey of Bryn Mawr was invited to the Department and then appointed to the Chair of History and Literature.  Prof. MacCaffrey is remembered by many as the author of two substantial works on Milton and Spenser, but in the Department she was remembered for her quick wit, her love of banter, and her “salty sense of humor.”  Her career was cut short by her death in 1978, but over the next few years the Department made a series of new appointments of women that included such eminent figures as Marjorie Garber, Barbara Lewalski, and Helen Vendler (with Barbara Johnson arriving later from the French Department; Elaine Scarry was appointed in 1989). In the early 1990s the University again made a push for greater diversity in its hiring and admissions process, and justified its approach with a passage from Milton’s Areopagitica, which Child had taught over a century before in English 1: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.”  The inclusion of new voices in the Department ensured that Harvard’s legacy of original scholarship and vigorous debate would continue into the twenty-first century.

Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Helen White, Amy Townsend and Carol Smith, Radcliffe College, Class of 1917. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

In recent years one such topic of debate focused on how best to present canonical works in the classroom.  The idea of a Major British Writers course had been present, in some sense, from the days when Child offered English 1 and 2.  As the course offerings grew, the Department decided to create a more extensive survey.  True to the Harvard tradition, the faculty in fact developed two rival courses.  English 28, first team-taught by Child and his colleagues in 1894, was a year-long course moving from Anglo-Saxon poetry to the modern novel.  English 41, which originated a decade later, had a slightly shorter range but exhibited a broader sense of historical context and attention to less strictly “literary” figures (so that together with Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Wordsworth students read Foxe, Hooker, Hobbes, Burke, and Darwin).  In the middle of the twentieth century English 41 disappeared while English 28 was reincarnated first as English 1 and finally as English 10—a year-long course surveying the Major British Writers that remained a requirement for English concentrators for more than a half-century.

In 2009 the Department, conscious of disciplinary controversy concerning the nature and teaching of a literary canon, replaced English 10 with a set of three Common Ground Courses.  Two of these, “Arrivals” and “Migrations,” emphasize cultural and literary mobility across space and time.  “Arrivals” concerns the period between 700 and 1700, when the British Isles could be seen as a literary and cultural importer; “Migrations” brings us forward towards the present, exploring the globalization of English writing with special emphasis on American literature.  The third, “Poets,” aims to acquaint students with a range of poets and teach the close textual analysis of poetry.  This change in departmental requirements was made primarily to remedy two weaknesses of the old survey course—its large size and its fairly rigid shape.  The new system leaves instructors more freedom to design their courses according to their own individual themes and structures, while class sizes are capped at 27 to encourage greater contact between professors and students.

In many ways this new deployment of literature in English illustrates what has been a significant strength of the Department since its inception—its ability to accommodate various approaches to literature and pedagogy.  Along with philological and critical methods, Harvard students in the early twenty-first century encounter a wide range of more recent ones, including but not limited to New Historicism, American Studies, Post-Colonialism, Cognitive Psychology and Literature, Trans-Reformation Studies, Ecocriticism, and the History of the Book.  For students committed to the marriage of interpretive and creative endeavor,courses in creative writing have been offered over the years by such writers as John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, William Alfred, Robert Hillyer, Archibald MacLeish, Monroe Engel, Robert Fitzgerald, Witter Bynner, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney and Jorie Graham, among others.  The list of Harvard undergraduates who went on to become well-known writers is equally distinguished and includes T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Conrad Aiken, Norman Mailer, John Updike, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Howard Nemerov, and Adrienne Rich.  While small compared to other major universities, the Department of English at Harvard has always been distinguished by the work of its diverse collection of critics, poets, playwrights, and novelists.

It is remarkable that in all its years the Harvard English Department has never been identified with a single dominant form of literary study.  Its various methods and personalities never solidified into a “Harvard School” of any kind.  In the first years of the Department Germanic philology was much in vogue, but while it had champions such as Child and Kittredge it also found detractors in Wendell and Neilson.  By the early twentieth century literary history had attained a kind of preeminence, but there were always critical rivals.  By the 1930s and 40s the history of ideas was in its ascendancy, but even then courses based on intellectual history never amounted to more than perhaps a quarter of the curriculum.  Nor was Harvard a bastion of either the New Criticism or Critical Theory, though it had renowned practitioners of both.  Kittredge and Wendell had very different ideas of Shakespeare, just as Miller and Matthiessen had formidably different approaches to teaching American literature.  At times, such differences could and did make it difficult to reach consensus.  (Bliss Perry once said of a Department meeting what an elderly woman had said of a lecture by Emerson—that “it had no connection except in God.”)  But more often than not the Department has thrived on this very tension, drawing original work and illuminating pedagogy from the interaction of different ideas, methods, and temperaments.



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