History of the Department

A Very Brief History of the Yale English Department, Excluding the Present

by Paul H. Fry

This very brief history of the Yale English Department takes the story from the department’s origins up to the recent past. It is focused on notable faculty, especially faculty who held appointments for many years and affected the course and character of the department. For a sense of the department today, the reader should explore the rest of our website.

During the nineteenth century, when Baron von Humboldt’s curricular ideas started to affect English and American universities, here at Yale the teaching of vernacular and even recent literatures was first taken up along lines that Anglophones were learning to call “philological.” Even though there was no “department” with tiered professorial ranks and no real notion of specialization until near the end of the century, there were professors whose approach and interests reflected the tension between the theocentric curriculum still firmly in place during the Presidency of Connecticut Wit Timothy Dwight (1795-1817: poet, belle-lettrist, and theological reactionary) and emerging interests in rhetoric, modern letters, and philology. Chauncey Allen Goodrich (fl. 1818-38), a minister and Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature, was the son-in-law of Noah Webster and edited his dictionary, but turned to the department of theology in 1839. (That a “department” in that field needed to be formed at all was a sure sign of weakening theocracy in the New England colleges.) Goodrich was succeeded by William Augustus Larned, who stressed rhetoric and eloquence, wrote an unpublished work on Demosthenes, and held the chair until his death in 1862. Larned in turn was succeeded in this chair by Cyrus Northrop (1863-83), again a minister.

Joining Northrop in 1871 were two outstanding philologists. Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury, who wrote multi-volume studies of Chaucer and Shakespeare (in some ways anticipating modern reception history), an important History of the English Language (1879), and even appreciations of Tennyson and Browning. An admiring monograph on Cooper earned the ridicule of Mark Twain in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Henry Augustin Beers started as an Instructor and made Full in 1880 (the pattern becomes more familiar). An eclectic and a sometime poet, Beers was known at the time for an Outline of English Literature (1886), but his lasting contribution was the first important delineation of “preromanticism” in English, History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century (1899)—which is arguably the earliest ancestor of the “Yale School” of romanticism.

In 1884, a number of appointments were made at various ranks, and something like the structure of a modern department emerged. Nathan Perkins Seymour and Donald Grant Mitchell (a noted essayist and novelist) lasted only a year, but Edward Tompkins McLaughlin, the Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, stayed around to write a book on medieval life and a primer on “Literary Criticism for Students” (1893)–marking the first moment of Yale’s famous and persisting interest in the arts of criticism. Other figures of modest prominence appointed before the turn of the century were: Charlton Miner Lewis, our first expert on the Gawain poet; Charles Sears Baldwin, a medievalist who seems to have taken—like McLaughlin—a lively interest in critical method; and George Henry Nettleton (appointed 1898), our first historian of the drama from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.

The nineties also witnessed the appointment of three giants. Arriving in 1889, A(lbert) S(tansburrough) Cook, our first specialist in Old English, was a legendary polymath who taught “comparative literature” long before its time, was said by one of his last students, Austin Warren, to have been a “theorist of poetry,” and is best known today for his edition of Sievers’s Old English Grammar. William Lyon (Billy) Phelps (1892-1933) was the English Department’s first charismatic lecturer, holding his students spellbound with his recitations of Tennyson—still a daringly recent author—and powerfully representing “appreciation” in the early twentieth-century conflict between appreciation and philology that is described by Gerald Graff in Professing Literature. Phelps, who wrote mainly on the novel, played the same role at Yale that was played contemporaneously by the famous “Q” (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) at the University of Cambridge, pioneering the Mr. Chips style of teaching that is still celebrated in the Robin Williams film, Dead Poets Society. Wilbur Cross, who taught from 1894 until he became Governor of Connecticut in 1930, was one of the first editors of the Yale Shakespeare (founded 1918), but primarily an eighteenth century scholar who worked on Sterne and wrote Yale’s first great literary biography, The History of Henry Fielding (1918). 

Henry Seidel Canby, who started in 1905, was our first specialized Americanist, writing much in the manner of Van Wyck Brooks on every topic later to be associated with “the American Renaissance.” In 1922 Canby turned full-time to literary journalism and was the longtime editor of the Saturday Review of Literature. Edward Bliss Reed (1900-29) was a poet and historian of poetry (English Lyrical Poetry). John Chester Adams (1900-42), an eccentric Adams who was something of a throwback, headed the debate society and promoted the arts of rhetoric in his teaching. Frederick Erastus Pierce (1906-35) edited Shakespeare, wrote verse, and collaborated frequently with Canby (e.  g., English Composition in Theory and Practice).  Willard Higley Durham, another who worked on Shakespeare and the eighteenth century (its critical essays), was unique among his colleagues in those days for taking a teaching job elsewhere, heading off to the University of California, Berkeley, as an associate professor in 1921. Henry Noble McCracken, who studied the English Chaucerians, was appointed in 1908 and left in 1914 to become President of Vassar. Samuel Burdett Hemingway (1908-50) worked on medieval drama and romance, together with the Yale Shakespeare. Others on the faculty associated with that great edition (founded and inspired by C. F. Tucker Brooke, of whom a word more below), were Alexander McLaren Witherspoon (1923-63), Jack Randall Crawford (1909-46), George van Santvoord (who edited Merry Wives in 1922), Robert Dudley French (1915-53), also a medievalist who wrote A Chaucer Handbook, and Stanley Thomas Williams (1915-50), who also wrote a book about the literature of Connecticut.

As we turn again in a moment from a roster of worthies to figures of greater renown, a pause to evoke the flavor of the teens, twenties and early thirties is in order to prepare for what is to come. If this generation did not mark the most notable (or notorious) epoch in the history of Yale’s fabled department, other English departments were likewise populated by a few stars and many attendant figures whose books today grow musty in the stacks and storerooms of only the very largest libraries—always waiting to be rediscovered, of course, by today’s authors of reception histories, sociological histories of the profession­­–and histories of English departments. The first of the New Critics (including those who were never at Yale, like John Crowe Ransom) wrote in the 1930’s with undisguised distaste for the wandering and unfocused practices of their colleagues. The first great wave of philological effort appeared to have spent itself (the business of creating editions, compiling lore and information, tracing the development of languages), leaving the conflict Graff speaks of between philology and appreciation in a state of exhaustion, soon to become a rearguard alliance against the capricious novelty of “close reading.” Like the earlier Russian Formalists viewing with contempt the desultory historical labors of Potebnya and his colleagues in the Russian academy, the New Critics inherited what they considered to be a vacuum of idle rumination with no scientific or hermeneutic mandate—no paradigm, as we would now say. There were other conflicts to come, needless to say. Well into the forties, perhaps at Yale even more than at many other schools (certainly more than at Chicago, Columbia, or Johns Hopkins), this was still the age of the WASP male, nearly always of independent means (the “dollar a year man”), and what anecdote tells us of some of these figures is not for today’s socially sensitized ears.
The most outspoken opponent of the rising New Critics was the redoubtable Chauncey Brewster Tinker (1903-45), who accused his new rivals of “whoring after I. A. Richards,” and waged pitched intellectual battles with the young Maynard Mack (never a whole-hearted New Critic but much too interested in “patterns of imagery” for Tinker’s taste) on the floor of the Davenport Senior Common Room. “Tink” was a great scholar and also a charismatic teacher in the tradition of Phelps. Among his students are numbered some of the greatest names in the next Yale generation and elsewhere. He began his career working on Old English with A. S. Cook, then moved to the eighteenth century. Dr. Johnson and Fanny Burney was succeeded by his most lasting accomplishment, Nature’s Simple Plan (1922), a history of the eighteenth century literary themes that is interesting to read alongside that of H. A. Beers. Tinker’s colleague Tucker Brooke (1909-46) was Yale’s first great Shakespearean, founder of the Yale Shakespeare and revered as a mentor. Brooke also taught at Cornell and the University of London.

Also best placed here are: Robert James Menner (1919-50), a medievalist and Old English scholar who is considered the bridge figure at Yale between Cook and John C. Pope (appointed 1928); Karl Young (1923-43), another distinguished medievalist; Roswell Gray Ham (1920-37), a specialist in eighteenth-century theatre who wrote distinguished work on Dryden, Otway, and Lee, then left Yale to become President of Mount Holyoke College; Joseph Toy Curtiss (1926-66), the longtime Dean of Jonathan Edwards College who founded Yale’s Humanities Program;  and finally a legendary figure whose floruit is a little later, William Clyde DeVane. DeVane (appointed 1922) was primarily a Browning scholar, and is remembered by Harold Bloom as one of three formative influences on his early studies. DeVane was lost to the English department in 1938, however, when he became one of the most illustrious Deans in the history of Yale College, a post he held until 1963. It seems somehow right to add here another, distinctly later figure, Helge Køkeritz (1944-64), the Danish scholar who wrote a gigantic book on Shakespeare (later with an introduction by Charles Prouty–appointed 1948, a Gascoigne scholar and author of a proto-historicist work called Studies in the Elizabethan Theatre [1961]), but is best known by far for his work as an historian of pronunciation, most notably A Guide to Chaucer’s Pronunciation. His phonograph recordings of Chaucer and Shakespeare are still listened to in some introductory courses. Though revered, he was not exempt from ridicule in those still-xenophobic times, and much was often made in memoirs of the presumption of “a man of non-English birth” to teach us how our language was once pronounced. One may also mention Davis Harding (appointed 1943), Yale’s first specialist in Milton, whose Milton and the Renaissance Ovid and The Club of Hercules begin to define a classicist and romance language-oriented bent in Yale Early Modern studies to which we shall return in discussing the work and influence of Thomas Greene.

As we begin to approach the period that many here can still remember (if only in the accounts of their elders and teachers), and which saw the publication of works of scholarship and criticism that still appear on recommended reading short-lists, space dictates that a sketch of this kind become at least intermittently something of a roll call, a muster of well-remembered and still-present names with mention of their most influential work. This then in advance of what remains, which in addition to its record of hallowed names requires a word or two about the department’s two moments of greatest distinction and notoriety (considered continuous with each other by some, such as Frank Lentricchia in After the New Criticism): the New Criticism (forties to early sixties) and the “Yale School of Criticism” (late sixties to early eighties).

Setting aside the diverse influences of T. S. Eliot, Richards, and William Empson (and Robert Graves and Laura Riding before any of these), it must still be said that the New Criticism got its start elsewhere in the American academy. It is rightly linked in a variety of ways with Southern (formerly Sewanee) University, Vanderbilt, and Kenyon College as well as Yale. Its first great manifesto was Ransom’s The World’s Body (1938), followed by his The New Criticism (from which the movement takes its name) in 1941. Understanding Poetry (1939), the truly revolutionary work that galvanized this movement and transformed both the secondary school and college teaching of literature throughout the country, was written in collaboration by Cleanth Brooks (appointed 1947) and Robert Penn Warren (appointed 1961) when they were colleagues at Louisiana State. Brooks had already written Modern Poetry and the Tradition and had finished the New Critics’ best-known book, The Well-Wrought Urn (1947) before he arrived at Yale. What remained for him to do in this vein (later in his career he became a Faulkner scholar of a regional and historicist bent) was to write, in collaboration with W(illiam) K(urtz) Wimsatt, a two-volume Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957), in which the New Criticism is quietly positioned as the culmination of an “Aristotelian” tradition of criticism (focused on form, proper affect, and internal coherence) in opposition to the Platonic-Longinian tradition (focused on expression). This massive effort may have had among its motives the wish to respond to the most important attack on the New Critics at the time, the “Chicago Critic” R. S. Crane’s “The Critical Monism of Cleanth Brooks” (1948), which commandeered Aristotle for a viewpoint thought to be lacking in the New Critical method: an overarching generic premise guiding the critic’s approach to any given work of literature.

Wimsatt (appointed 1939), an ungainly and socially reserved man six feet eight in height, became the most philosophically-oriented spokesperson for the movement (in this respect succeeding Ransom), and the reigning intellectual (together with comparatist and critical ally René Wellek) in the Humanities at Yale during that era, with something like the guru status that the stars of the Yale School exerted in later years–although he was the only one of them who “towered over” anyone. This measure of authority arose from the three great position papers of the late forties written with the philosopher Monroe Beardsley of Temple and published in his first book of essays, The Verbal Icon (1954): “The Intentional Fallacy” (at bottom an attack on romanticism and the romantic–Longinian–tradition in criticism), “The Affective Fallacy” (distancing the movement from the psychological orientation of Richards), and “The Concrete Universal,” adapting an expression from Hegel to explain (covertly) the relation of new-critical autotelism to Kant’s aesthetics. Two other very lively books of essays followed, together with his “what, me a theorist?” late work (this move being a signature of many great careers), The Portraits of Pope; but none of that should obscure his important early work in his field, especially The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson (1941), written under the mentorship of none other than C. B. Tinker.

One must insist immediately that although the New Criticism influenced the whole country profoundly, many of Brooks’s and Wimsatt’s and Wellek’s colleagues (and R. P. Warren’s—but despite his critical skill he was most sought after as a poet and novelist) quietly went about their business, as was also the case during the floruit of the “Yale School”—although in both historical moments one could probably show some measure of influence, and certainly sympathy, in work that was not ostensibly very similar to the most visible current. Not all non-participants were opponents. The majority have always hovered somewhere between the trailblazers and the revanchistes, preserving the integrity of their own projects, deferring in a measure to their most forceful colleagues at both extremes, and hoping to discern merit—and demerit–not just in one form but in many.

Henceforth best perhaps to move from period to period, starting here with Old English and the Medieval period. John Pope was the best Old English scholar in the country (known for The Rhythm of “Beowulf,” but at least as much as a mentor), until he handed the baton to the succeeding best Old English scholar in the country, Fred C. Robinson. E. Talbot Donaldson (appointed 1942) is thought by many to have introduced New Critical principles into medieval studies, but no one ever sold his philological credentials short, and his benchmark work on Chaucer is still indispensable reading for any teacher. Marie Borroff arrived at Yale in 1959 as the first woman ever to receive a tenured appointment in the department. A skilled poet, translator, and pioneer in the art of computer poetry (she first tried it by feeding cards to Univac), she is best known for her studies and translations of the Gawain Poet. Louis Martz (appointed 1938) was by way of being a close reader, but is best known for his rethinking of the “metaphysical poets” idea–taken over from Johnson by H. J. C. Grierson and Eliot–in his book, The Meditative Poem, which argues that the poems made famous by Eliot follow the formula for meditation published by St. Ignatius. Maynard Mack (appointed 1936) was a colossus in the department for many decades, and is best known now for his King Lear in Our Time and his magisterial biography of Pope. Eugene Waith (appointed 1939) edited Macbeth in the revised Yale Shakespeare, wrote The Herculean Hero (1962), a book that with its classical and epic leanings again (like Harding’s work) bears a certain stamp that marks “Yale” Early Modern studies, helped found the present Theatre Studies Major, and introduced a course in the history of drama that is still taught when possible and constitutes an optional Orals topic for graduate students. Richard Sylvester was a learned sixteenth century scholar specializing in Thomas More whose work on More’s History of Richard III spoils the fun for any reader of Josephine Tey’s The Daughters of Time.

Alvin Kernan, since departed for Princeton and retired, whose autobiographical books and warnings against the “death of literature” published since his Yale days have attracted much public attention, was a Shakespearean and eighteenth-century scholar (this pattern, recurrent at Yale in the past, has now become quite rare) best known while here for his successful close readings in a genre resistant to that approach, published as The Plot of Satire. His most recent scholarly book is on Johnson and the rise of print technology, a cutting-edge topic for its time that is undercut for those who welcome all media revolutions by his belief that literature is doomed by the electronic age. Frederick Pottle (1925-66),was in many ways the backbone and mediator of the department during the epoch of the New Criticism. A splendidly open-minded man, interested as an undergraduate in chemistry, he turned to literature after reading Shelley in his senior year. After spending part of the First World War as an army ambulanceman in France, he came to Yale for postgraduate study with an interest in nineteenth-century British poets, but was turned to James Boswell by Tinker, and eventually became the world’s leading Boswell scholar, presiding over Yale’s massive Boswell project.   “Tink”, who had published /Young Boswell/ and was at work on his /Letters of James Boswell/, placed an ad in the /Times Literary Supplement/ seeking information, and received replies suggesting that he try Malahide Castle, in Ireland – an intriguing suggestion given that earlier scholarly approaches to Boswell’s descendants in Scotland had been fruitless. “Tink” traveled to Ireland in 1925, visited Malahide, and confirmed for the scholarly world that rumors of masses of Boswell manuscripts there were true. These papers, and others in a second great discovery at Fettercairn House in Scotland,  were eventually acquired by the collector Lt.-Col. Ralph Heyward Isham, who sold the collections (since that time much augmented) to Yale. All now safely repose in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and are edited for publication, volume after volume, by the Yale Boswell Editions, first set up in 1949. Pottle presided over this project, modeled in part on the edition of Horace Walpole’s /Correspondence/ established by Wilmarth “Lefty” Lewis (founder of the Lewis-Walpole Library in Farmington) in the early years, and the project remains to this day a valuable training ground for Yale graduate students in documentary and archival research work. Pottle also wrote insightful and influential essays on Browning, Shelley, and Wordsworth (as did Brooks, be it said, along with Wimsatt on Coleridge)–which was just as well because during this period, such was the lasting influence of the taste of T. S. Eliot and its defense by the New Critics, Yale had no influential scholar in romanticism. Martin Price, appointed 1945, was for much of his career a scholar of Beers’s and Tinker’s post-Augustan eighteenth century, best known for work on Blake and for Yale’s then most recent major book on preromanticism, To the Palace of Wisdom; but he has latterly parlayed his interest in Wittgenstein and the history of the novel into an important work on fiction, Forms of Life.

Gordon Haight, appointed 1933, was the leading George Eliot scholar in the country and the author of her still-standard biography. A. Dwight Culler (1946-85), appointed after a grueling wartime spent in and out of camps as a conscientious objector, was author of important work on Newman, Arnold, and Tennyson, and finally of The Victorian Mirror of History (1986), anticipating the wave of historicist interest in literary studies that was then about to sweep the country but never rooted itself deeply at Yale. With his gentle and fair-minded demeanor, Culler in the early seventies (a volatile period) was one of the department’s best chairs. Richard Purdy was a noted Hardy scholar.

English faculty 1967


Norman Holmes Pearson, appointed 1941 but after that among the most colorful of Yale’s counter-espionage agents recruited by James Angleton during the war (his codename was “Puritan”), was then Yale’s only specialist in twentieth-century poetry, aided informally in this regard as time passed by Marie Borroff, who wrote brilliantly on Stevens and taught modern poetry courses, and Louis Martz, who moonlighted with Williams, Stevens, and HD, a specialty of his. Pearson, who knew everybody, left the Beinecke Library his fascinating collection of drawings and paintings by modern authors, together with the papers of HD, Pound, Williams, and Stein that made Yale’s Beinecke library a major archive for the study of modernism. As to Americanists, Yale was fortunate to have two of the best: Charles Feidelson, appointed 1946 as the first Jewish professor in the humanities (Lionel Trilling came to talk at Yale and the very young Feidelson was sent to meet him at the train because “they would understand each other”), was Yale’s answer to Harvard’s F. O. Matthiessen, and matched that giant stride by stride in covering the nineteenth-century topics that were then canonical. He also had a strong trans-national interest in modernism. To that end, he co-edited with Richard Ellmann–during the two years Ellmann was here before decamping to Oxford (1968-70)–an influential anthology, The Modern Tradition, and started a short-lived undergraduate major called Modern Studies. R. W. B Lewis, who came to Yale in 1960, had written a seminal book, The American Adam, comparable in its time perhaps only to the work of Perry Miller and to Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, and he followed that book while at Yale with a definitive biography of Edith Wharton and a study of the James family. Richard Sewall, finally (appointed 1934), was known chiefly as author of a popular book on tragedy until he wrote his prize-winning biography of Emily Dickinson. Sewall was also a memorable lecturer and Yale personality in the tradition of Phelps and Tinker, much loved by alumni and responsible, like Phelps, Tinker, and DeVane before him, for untold contributions to the endowment.

It is hard to place the work of Thomas Greene between the generations, but he needs to be lingered over here both as a scholar and a teacher. The classicist and romance language flavor of Yale’s teaching in Early Modern studies was further shaped by this scholar, whose two central works, Descent from Heaven and Light in Troy, point the way to broad vistas of research for his many prominent students and other scholars. The Yale scholar of renown who is closest to his work is A. Bartlett (Bart) Giamatti, together with others who are still active. Giamatti, who after a stint as department chair became President of Yale and subsequently the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, inaugurated upon his return from Princeton one of the department’s most important introductory courses, English 129. Although he introduced both terms of the course with Homer, as we still do (Iliad in the Fall, Odyssey in the Spring), the Fall term carries the drama from Homer to Brecht and beyond, while the Spring term follows narrative forms from Homer to Joyce and Woolf. A word here too about the department’s prerequisite to the major, English 125: this course has been on the books since the ‘20’s, and features close readings of poets from Chaucer to Spenser and other Renaissance poets in the Fall, and from Milton to Yeats, Eliot, or Stevens and others in the Spring. 125 (25 in the old days) had ended with Eliot since the early 1960s, but Bloom successfully challenged the New Critical canon and insisted that the options of Yeats and Stevens be allowed, which opened the gates for the likes of Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, and James Merrill.

Belonging essentially to Greene’s generation also are Yale’s first literary scholars (and tenured professors of color) working in the field of African-American Literature, Charles Davis, long the Master of Calhoun College, and Michael Cooke, an important member of Yale’s first great generation of romanticists who turned his attention late in a career sadly cut short to the materials that inform a ground-breaking book, Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy (1984). Vera Kutzinski, a more recent appointment now teaching at Vanderbilt, introduced the teaching of Caribbean literature and American literature in a hemispheric frame.

Other important figures during the interval just preceding the present were the leading Hogarth scholar and general eighteenth-century specialist Ronald Paulson, departed many years ago for Johns Hopkins, and sometime Chair Patricia Meyer Spacks, since departed for the University of Virginia, a gifted scholar of the eighteenth century and an elegant writer whose books on gossip, boredom, and other well-chosen topics succeeded beyond academic circles. Arriving from Warwick during this period at the peak of his career was one of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars, G. K. Hunter, who was to play a role in opposition to the Yale School similar to that played by Tinker in opposition to the New Critics. Not long after Hunter, we appointed the whirlwind polymath Annabel Patterson, also a Shakespearean whose varied interests, looking forward to Wordsworth, Mill, and beyond, continuously crisscross the tradition of political Liberalism.

Turning now to the “Yale School”: It is always tempting to argue that the Yale School (aka “the Hermeneutical Mafia,” “ the Gang of Four,” or five, or more) was primarily a phenomenon of Yale’s French and Comparative Literature Departments (where Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Peter Brooks held their appointments); or to argue more polemically that there is no such thing as a Yale School, as there is only limited overlap between the varieties of deconstruction shading into “rhetorical reading” (Derrida, de Man, J. Hillis Miller), on the one hand, and the psychoanalytically-inflected speculative theorists, on the other, of a visionary or apocalyptic romanticism, Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman. But these eminences denominated themselves as a group in being willing to appear together in a book entitled Deconstruction and Criticism (1979), edited by Bloom– whose affiliation with the group was loosest and only temporary. The first claim (“don’t blame the English Department”) is only partly valid in any case: The astonishingly productive and dazzling Bloom had already withdrawn from the English Department and become Professor of Humanities when he wrote the theoretical tetrad beginning with The Anxiety of Influence (1973) that of all his books most fully reflect the intellectual ferment of that time; but the permanent influence of his work in theory on many English Department colleagues is unquestionable. So too is that of Hartman, author of what is deservedly the most celebrated book ever written on Wordsworth and two incomparable books of essays published during that same period, Beyond Formalism and The Fate of Reading, one purpose of which was to outline Yale’s culminating theory of preromanticism. Hartman held a joint appointment in English and Comparative Literature, as did Miller (known for the range of his nineteenth-century scholarship and his lucid prose as much as for his interpretive approach) until he departed in the late eighties for the University of California, Irvine. The perfect successor to “Red” Warren and a close reader (indeed a micro-reader) of dazzling virtuosity in that tradition, but also linked to many of the persons mentioned in this paragraph–especially Bloom–by friendship and the affinity of talent, has been the poet John Hollander, whose work spanning the Renaissance (The Untuning of the Sky), romanticism, and all English and American poetry since then is supplemented by the study of figures of speech and thought (The Figure of Echo) and constant learned attention to the neighboring arts of music and painting. These scholars undeniably left their mark on successors, especially the romanticists.
To conclude with the next-to-latest chapter in what has been one of Yale’s notable strengths ever since Canby, American Literature and the kindred department that is known as American Studies: Feidelson and R. W. B. Lewis were joined by an already distinguished scholar from the University of Minnesota, Alan Trachtenberg, one of the founders of Yale’s American Studies program, whose The Incorporation of America (1982) was followed by several works on photography and a recent book on the representation of Native Americans. He in turn was soon joined by two leading younger scholars. One of them was Richard Brodhead, the department’s most recent charismatic lecturer and public speaker, who was too soon lost—after much-admired work on Melville, Hawthorne, Charles Chesnutt and James, with completed portions of a book on such “American prophets” as Joseph Smith—to the Deanship of Yale College, a fabled administrative success that can only be compared with that of DeVane; and lost subsequently to Yale when he became President of Duke. The other was Bryan Wolf, a friend and Yale contemporary of Brodhead’s who was almost his equal as a lecturer and developed from the beginning of his career a special gift for the interpretation of paintings that led in the long run to his departure from Yale for a position held jointly with art history at Stanford. When those two taught the two-semester lecture course in American literature, as they did for some years, hundreds of students were hanging from the chandeliers.

Creative Writing has long been taught at Yale, by many persons already mentioned among others. In addition to Warren and Hollander, our important teachers in this field have been John Hersey (who could as easily be listed among our expository writing pioneers), Maureen Howard  and Ved Mehta (of whom the same could be said), and Robert Stone. In recent years the department has made a more concerted effort to encourage creative writing as an option for undergraduate majors, and to that end has introduced a Writing Concentration allowing students to take four such courses toward the major. A focus on prose composition, which is not unique with us but has always flourished here, can be traced back to some of the department’s earliest professors (some of their books on this topic have been cited), but it emerged in the years following the War as an acknowledged specialty. John Milton Berdan (1903-41) was the inventor of a course that was abandoned for a while but flourishes again today, “Daily Themes.” This course assigns writing in every imaginable mode several days a week, and has allowed generations of students to discover a voice. Pioneers in Composition teaching were Edward Gordon and longtime Silliman College Dean John Palmer. Other memorable precursors to today’s flourishing program were William Zinsser, author of the celebrated On Writing Well, and Paula Hunter, who was the first administrator of a systematic writing program.

To stop short of those teaching at present feels in many cases like producing Hamlet with the role of the prince left out by request, but it has seemed best. We repeat again that the accomplishments and departmental contributions of our active colleagues can be reviewed elsewhere in this website.  

September 2019