English Department History

In December 1922 the Wesleyan University Bulletin (vol. 16 no. 5) sketched a history of the Department of English.  In highly circumscribed form, “English” began with the founding of the university in 1831 as a “practical subject”:  rhetoric, public speaking, debate, and composition.  English classes, some of which were offered by Wilbur Fisk, Wesleyan’s first president, “were included in the department of moral science and belles lettres.”  Junior Exhibitions, Senior Exhibitions, and Commencement exercises showcased students’ forensic skills.  In the antebellum period, the emphasis on writing and speaking in English classes did not encompass literary criticism or history. The university’s literary studies concentrated on Greek and Latin literature. 

 This orientation began to shift during the Civil War era.  In 1858-59 the catalogue announced a sophomore course in English literature.  The Department of Rhetoric and English Literature was founded in 1861-62, but, curiously, at first without a faculty.  Then in 1863 the Reverend Fales H. Newhall was appointed chair of English (and instructor of Hebrew).  From this point on the catalogue and other publications refer to “exercises in the criticism of standard authors, and lectures on the English language.”  Newhall taught William Shakespeare and John Milton.  Although literary criticism and the study of English as a language supplemented the emphasis on rhetoric, there was still no engagement with historical analysis or what we now call “periodizing.”  In 1869-70 juniors studied Daniel Webster as well as Demosthenes solely to learn more about oratory.  Geoffrey Chaucer entered the curriculum in 1872-73.  In 1869 Caleb T. Winchester, a Wesleyan graduate and university librarian, introduced a freshman course on English literary history and students also read Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, and Alexander Pope as well as Shakespeare and Milton.  “Professor Winchester used often to say in private conversation that he had never had any special training for his work.  He had read widely as his own keen interest led him, but he had largely to invent his own method of approach to literature.”  Over the course of “half a century,” Winchester added nineteenth-century to eighteenth-century British authors:  “Burns, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, De Quincey, Hazlitt, Carlyle, Browning, Ruskin.”  Winchester approached authors biographically “on the personal side” and “also in connection with [their] environment in so far as it might help to explain [their] work.”  However, he paid little attention to “historical antecedents” or “the remote sources of a writer’s product.”  Winchester achieved national prominence as a teacher and developer of the emerging field.  He gave lectures at many colleges (and prep schools) such as Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Brown, and declined an offer to chair the English Department at the newly founded University of Chicago (the college was founded in 1892).  By 1878-79 Winchester divided English literary study into courses rooted in historical periods.  He retired, because of illness, in 1919.  His wife established the Winchester Fellowship in 1938, originally awarded to worthy Wesleyan alumni to support graduate study in English. 

 In 1890 William H. Mead ’81 became an associate professor of English and the Department of Rhetoric and English literary became the Department of English Literature.  Mead, who had a Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig, extended the historical sweep of the curriculum and introduced courses on Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, and the history of the English language.  In 1921 the Department of English Literature and the Department of English Language merged and several faculty members, such as Homer E. Woodbridge, with a Ph.D. from Harvard, expanded the department.  During the 1920s the English faculty focused on the historical study of literature (based on periods), the study of the English language, and composition, and mounted courses on the genres:  “drama . . . a general survey,” “modern drama,” “the essay,’ “prose fiction,” and “poetry and criticism.”

Especially since World War II, Wesleyan’s English Department has achieved national and international eminence as a faculty of scholar-teachers.  Fred B. Millett and Alexander Cowie were two of the department’s most prolific and wide-ranging scholars in the mid-twentieth century.   Millett’s many books on literary studies and education include Contemporary American Authors (1944), Rebirth of Liberal Education (1945), Reading Poetry (1950), and Reading Drama (1970).  He was also director of the Honors College.  The annual Millett Visiting Writer Series, sponsored by the English Department, features a distinguished writer who reads from and reflects on her or his work (recent Millett writers include Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, and Edwidge Danticat) .  Cowie’s books contributed to the establishment of American literature as an important field of study within America’s English Departments.  His books include John Trumbull as Revolutionist (1931), Rise of the American Novel (1951), and American Writers Today (1956).  Rise of the American Novel took into account the nineteenth century’s women authors.  The eminent poet Richard Wilbur taught at Wesleyan during the 1950s and 1960s.  During this two-decade service, he won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Things of This World (1956), and also founded the award-winning Wesleyan University Press poetry series.  Wilbur was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1959.  George Creeger, who served as Dean of the College as well as Chair of the Faculty, joined the Wesleyan faculty in 1951 and taught American literature in the department for almost fifty years.  The prolific critic and theorist Ihab Hassan taught at Wesleyan from 1954-70.  While at Wesleyan he published Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (1961) and The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett (1967).  His pioneering work on conceptualizing postmodernism, undertaken at Wesleyan, led to The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (1971).  

The early-mid 1960s brought two hugely influential and innovative literary and cultural critics into English:  Richard Ohmann and Richard Slotkin.  They intensified the English Department’s engagements with cultural theory and history.  Ohmann became one of the leading Marxist critics in America with the publication of English in America: A Radical View of the Profession (1976) and was a co-founder of the journal Radical Teacher (1975-    ).  His other milestone books include Politics of Letters (1987) and Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century (1996).  He was also editor of College English for many years and served as Vice-President and Provost of the university.  Slotkin established Wesleyan’s American Studies Program (now a department) in the late 1960s and helped found the Film Studies Program (now a department) in the 1980s and 1990s.  He distinguished himself as one of the most admired scholars in the field of American Studies, especially with his epic trilogy:  Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Albert J. Beveridge Award, American Historical Association; Finalist for National Book Award; 1973), The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (Little Big Horn Associates Literary Award; 1985), and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Finalist for National Book Award; 1992).   His other books include three novels:  The Crater (1980), The Return of Henry Starr (1988), and Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln (2000).  Slotkin, who has won many awards for his many books, was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010.   Joseph W. Reed also helped build American Studies and Film Studies at Wesleyan and has published several books, ranging from English Biography in the Early Nineteenth Century, 1801-1838 (1966) to Three American Originals: John Ford, William Faulkner, and Charles Ives (1984) and American Scenarios: The Uses of Film Genre (1989) and Literary Revision: The Inexact Science of Getting It Right (1990).  In addition, Reed is an internationally recognized artist.  Ohmann, Slotkin, and Reed all helped make English one of the great centers for interdisciplinary and cultural study at Wesleyan.  William Stowe, a comparativist, wrote Balzac, James, and the Realistic Novel (1983) and challenged the boundaries of American literary studies with Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (1994), a provocative early effort to transnationalize the American literary field.  He is now writing on literature and environmentalism.  Joel Pfister also has contributed to the department’s forays into history, theory, and interdisciplinary projects in books such as The Production of Personal Life: Class, Gender, and the Psychological in Hawthorne’s Fiction (1991), Staging Depth: Eugene O’Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse (1995), Individuality Incorporated: Indians and the Multicultural Modern (2004), and Critique for What? Cultural Studies, American Studies, Left Studies (2006).  Much of his American literary and cultural studies work has been on the cultural formation of subjectivities.  Sean McCann is a wide-ranging scholar of modern and postmodern American literature and culture.  He has synthesized literary, cultural, and political history in Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism (2000), A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government (2008), and many essays.   Also, Sally Bachner’s The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 19620-2007 (2011) mounts a critique of the ideological confluence of trauma studies and key postmodern American literary texts.  Matthew Garrett is writing on the social, political, and ideological significance of episodic form in the American literature of the federal period. 

 Annie Dillard taught writing at Wesleyan in the 1980s and 1990s.   Among the numerous books she wrote during her two decades at Wesleyan are Living By Fiction (1982) and The Writing Life (1989).   Phyllis Rose taught writing and literary studies at Wesleyan from 1969 to 2005 and gained international prominence with her ground-breaking feminist biographies written for a large intellectual readership:  Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf (1978), Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983), and Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time (1989).  Rose expanded her scope with her book of essays, Never Say Good-bye (1991), and her memoir, The Year of Reading Proust (1997).  The prolific Kit Reed, like Dillard and Rose, taught writing at Wesleyan for decades and has published nearly three dozen novels and collections of stories, including Catholic Girls (1987).  The Wesleyan Writers Conference was founded by the President’s Office in 1955.  Anne Greene has served as its director for almost three decades and teaches courses in creative non-fiction.  Elizabeth Willis joined English in 2002 and her books of poems include Turneresque (2003), Meteoric Flowers (2006), and Address (2011), which won the Lawrence L. and Thomas Winship/Pen New England Award in 2012.  Her poetry has received national and international acclaim.  Deb Olin Unferth joined English in 2009.  She has published a collection of stories Minor Robberies (2007), a novel Vacation (2008), and a memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Joined the War (2011), which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.  Lisa Cohen’s All We Know: Three Lives (2012) is an innovative triple biography of three female modernists in several fields.  

 English has been a key resource for the development of the African American Studies Program as well as American Studies.  Robert O’Meally (now at Columbia) and Hazel Carby (now at Yale) contributed much to African American Studies in the 1980s.  Ann duCille began her career at Wesleyan in 1990.  She published The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction (1993) and Skin Trade (1996).  Shortly after, she was joined in English and African American Studies by Ashraf Rushdy.  Rushdy published Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of Literary Form (1999) and Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction (2001).  Gayle Pemberton, author of the much-celebrated memoir, The Hottest Water in Chicago: On Family, Race, Time, and American Culture (1992), arrived not long after duCille and Rushdy.  Lois Brown joined African American Studies and English in 2012.  She has published Encyclopedia of the Harlem Literary Renaissance (2006) and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution (2008), and has edited the 1835 Memoir of James Jackson: The Attentive and Obedient Scholar (2000). 

 Henry Abelove, an intellectual historian and critic of poetry, at home in modern American poetry studies as well as eighteenth-century British literary studies, is one of the founders of Queer Studies in America.  He co-edited the influential Visions of History (1983) and The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (1993), and wrote The Evangelist of Desire: John Wesley and the Methodists (1992) and Deep Gossip (2005).  Abelove originated the Queer Studies track in the American Studies Program.    

 Well before the Women’s Studies Program was established in the early 1980s, Carol Ohmann, author of Ford Madox Ford: From Apprentice to Craftsman (1964) and key articles, contributed to the making of modern feminist literary studies.  Three members of English were principal developers of the Women’s Studies Program:  Richard Ohmann, Gertrude Hughes, and Christina Crosby (joined by Natasha Korda in 1995).  A few years ago the Women’s Studies Program renamed itself the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program (FGSS). 

 Korda and Crosby, like Abelove, have been major contributors to British literary studies at Wesleyan.  Crosby published The Ends of History: Victorians and “The Woman Question” (1990).  Korda (who replaced the extremely popular teacher of Shakespeare, Sherman Hawkins), has written Shakespeare’s Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England (2002) and Labors Lost: Women’s Work and the Early Modern English Stage (2011).  Ruth Nisse’s Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England (2005) and Stephanie Weiner’s Republican Politics and English Poetry, 1789-1874 (2005) also enrich the British wing’s wide-ranging scholarship.  Harris Friedberg offers courses in Renaissance English and has published on pop culture.  Courtney Weiss Smith, who joined the department in 2011, focuses on eighteenth-century British literature, culture, the history of religion, and the history of science.  Sally Bachner teaches British modernism as well as American postmodernism.  Alfred Turco, author of Shaw’s Moral Vision: The Self and Salvation (1976), taught modern European, British, and American drama for over 40 years. 

 Khachig Tölölyan (since 2007 mainly in the College of Letters) and Indira Karamcheti (since 2013 in American Studies) spearheaded the department’s transnational turn beginning in the 1990s. Tölölyan is the founder and editor of Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies (1991-    ), which has done much to advance the field of transnational critique.  In 2009 the department hired two Asian Americanists and this too strengthened its transnational as well as race and ethnicity offerings:  Amy Tang, whose work concentrates on the form of postmodern Asian American literature, and Marguerite Nguyen, who is writing on Vietnam and modernism.   

 Numerous English scholar-teachers have won major fellowships (Guggenheim winners include Abelove, duCille, [Richard] Ohmann, Pemberton, Rose, Slotkin, and Willis; American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship winners include Friedberg, Garrett, McCann, Nisse, Pfister, and Tölölyan) and the Binswanger Family Teaching Prize, Award for Distinguished Teaching at Wesleyan (Abelove, Creeger, Crosby, Karamcheti, McCann, Pemberton, Rushdy, Slotkin [twice], Tölölyan, Weiner). 

 Wesleyan’s twenty-first century English Department invites students to explore an impressive array of courses designed to equip critical minds, inspire creative imaginations, and hone reading, writing, speaking, and research skills.  The English program of study familiarizes students with the techniques of close reading and persuasive writing, and acquaints students with the questions and concepts of literary and cultural theory.  These concerns are introduced in the Department’s diverse gateway seminars, Ways of Reading.  Since 2009 English has offered five concentrations from which each major chooses one:  American Literature; British Literature; Race and Ethnicity; Theory and Literary Forms; and Creative Writing.  In addition, each major must take four courses designated as fulfilling the “requirements”:  Literary History I (to 1670); Literary History II (1670 to 1800); Literatures of Difference; and Theory.  English majors have rich opportunities to grow as writers, readers, historical thinkers, theorists, creators, and researchers capable, like much of the literature they study, of questioning the “givens” they confront in the social world.  The ability to read carefully and write convincingly, to think critically and engage creatively with the large questions and great debates of modern society, is the DNA not only of the examined, intellectual life but also of the most meaningful professional endeavors.