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History of the Department

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A. D. White Shifts the Literary Focus

When Cornell University was founded in 1865, the study of modern literature was by no means an established part of college curricula.

Greek and Latin classical authors still formed the mainstay of literary education; writings in English and other modern languages were felt to be readily accessible without the guidance of professors. Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, was determined to change this attitude. In keeping with Cornell’s inclusive and pluralistic ethos, White promoted the study of English language and literature, as well as a pedagogy that emphasized interpretation and aesthetics over rote recitation. Cornell also pioneered the development of small discussion classes, or “seminaries,” as they were then called.

Literature Becomes Seen and Heard

The study of English at Cornell came into its own with the arrival in 1870 of Hiram Corson (1828-1911), one of the more colorful figures of Cornell’s early history. Corson soon gained notoriety for his insistence that the only proper way to teach literature was by reading it aloud, with all the “vocal cultivation” at one’s command. Accordingly, Corson’s classes consisted mainly of his own recitations to an audience that, by varying accounts, was sometimes rapt and sometimes rowdy. Corson was joined in 1890 by James Morgan Hart (1839-1916), a German-trained philologist.

Philology at the time represented the most rigorously “scientific” mode of literary scholarship, emphasizing the historical evolution of language and style. Philologists tended to produce highly specialized research of interest mainly to other scholars rather than general readers. Hart promoted the German philological system of higher education, and his perspective was influential in shaping American graduate programs, which were just beginning to form at universities like Johns Hopkins. With Hart’s arrival, Cornell soon joined the elite ranks of American institutions offering advanced degrees in the study of English literature.

In many ways Hart and Corson, who were colleagues at Cornell for twelve years, personify a basic division in the field of English that has persisted in various forms up to the present day. Corson’s insistence on a direct aesthetic and spiritual connection to literature through vocal performance contrasts sharply with Hart’s emphasis on the value of specialized training and research. Their coexistence at Cornell represented a mutually agreed-upon division of labor — one that set the pattern for the department’s future development.

Expansion, Emergence, and the Elements of Style

In the early 20th century, the Cornell English Department began to expand rapidly, though it remained small by today’s standards. Among the more notable faculty members of this period are William Strunk Jr. (1869-1946), whose short composition text, The Elements of Style, was revised and expanded in 1959 by his student E.B. White, to become the classic handbook familiarly known as Strunk and White; Joseph Quincy Adams (1881-1946), a popular lecturer who left Cornell to become the first director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.; and Arthur Lynn Andrews, who offered the first creative writing class at Cornell, and one of the first at any university.

Especially noteworthy is Frederick Clark Prescott (1871-1957), who continued to teach at Cornell for the next forty years. Though his name is not widely remembered today, Prescott was the first critic to adapt the theories of Freud to the study of literature, in a remarkably sophisticated book called The Poetic Mind (1922). M.H. Abrams has recently suggested that a direct line of descent can be traced from Prescott to the New Critics of the '30s and '40s, whose work in turn set the stage for the emergence of contemporary literary theory. A key transitional figure in Abrams’s genealogy is the poet and critic Laura Riding, who studied with Prescott at Cornell and later applied his theories of poetic meaning in an influential book called A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927).

In 1909, Hart retired. His replacement as department chair was Martin Sampson (1866-1930), a much beloved teacher who followed in Hiram Corson’s footsteps, emphasizing literary appreciation and giving impassioned readings of poetry, on occasion with musical accompaniment. Sampson also helped to foster creative writing at Cornell by founding the Manuscript Club, a group that met at his house on Saturday evenings to discuss students’ poems and stories. Sampson’s main opposite at Cornell was Lane Cooper (1875-1959), a formidable scholar who insisted on the highest standards of rigor and learning.

Eclecticism and the Golden Age of Letters

Many faculty departed during the war years, and after World War II the department was rebuilt under the leadership of acting chair George Sabine of the philosophy department. Two of the first new faculty hired were M.H. Abrams and Baxter Hathaway, who arguably did more to shape the department in the second half of the 20th century than any others. With the publication of his seminal 1953 book The Mirror and the Lamp, Abrams established himself as the leading American critic of Romantic literature and thought, and his presence attracted several generations of Romanticists to Cornell.

A recent book by Ian Reid, Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies (2004), documents the emergence of Cornell as a world center for the study of Wordsworth and other Romantic writers. Abrams’s colleague Stephen Parrish also played a key role in that process through his editorship of the monumental Cornell edition of Wordsworth’s work, a multi-volume variorum that has since been joined by a similarly comprehensive edition of Yeats, also under Parrish’s general editorship. Abrams recalls the 1950s as a “Golden Age of letters” at Cornell, when Vladimir Nabokov trod the halls of Goldwin Smith alongside a flock of talented English Department colleagues, including the Fitzgerald biographer Arthur Mizener, the distinguished Scottish critic David Daiches, and Robert Martin Adams, an eclectic scholar best remembered by his students for transforming himself into a chicken at the end of a course on the literature of metamorphosis.

Eclectic interests and teaching methods continued to shape the tradition of the Cornell English Department, with a course on American folk songs taught by Harold Thompson (1891-1964), a respected authority on the Scottish Enlightenment who developed a keen interest in American folklore. Affectionately known as “Romp and Stomp,” this popular lecture class featured live appearances by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger. One year Peter Yarrow, later of Peter, Paul and Mary, served as a  teaching assistant. And a Medievalist, Marshall Stearns, was also a well-known jazz historian who organized concerts at Cornell by stars like Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. Unlike Thompson, Stearns never let his interest in jazz spill over into his teaching, but he did invite favored colleagues to dinner parties with visiting musicians.

Creative Writing and the Generation Gap

Though Baxter Hathaway (1909-1984) was originally hired as a scholar of the Renaissance, his main contribution to Cornell came with his nearly simultaneous founding in 1947 of the creative writing program and the literary magazine Epoch, both of which continue to be important aspects of the department today. With the hiring of the memoirist James McConkey in 1956, the poet A.R. Ammons in 1964 and the novelist Alison Lurie in 1969, Cornell assembled a core faculty of distinguished writers that would continue to expand over the next decades.

Among the significant novelists to have passed through Cornell over the years are Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Joanna Russ, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Farina and a host of younger writers who earned MFAs in creative writing, including Lorrie Moore, Melissa Bank, Paul Cody, Stewart O’Nan, Junot Diaz, Susan Choi, A. Manette Ansay, Julie Schumacher and Nina Revoyr. The flowering of the creative writing program and its full integration into the English Department over the last 30 years offers an especially striking example of the balancing of aesthetic and scholarly values that has characterized the department since its inception. Cornell is the only major American university to offer a joint MFA and PhD, a demanding program that allows a few students to work simultaneously in creative writing and criticism.

Increasing numbers of English majors and a growing need for freshman writing courses led the department to expand dramatically in the 1960s, and by the end of the decade junior faculty outnumbered senior faculty for the first time in many years. The 1960s was of course the era of the Generation Gap, and the English Department saw its share of intergenerational tensions around such issues as the Vietnam War and the takeover of Willard Straight Hall at Cornell in 1969. But the Department weathered these storms with impressive equanimity.

The same was true in the 1970s and 1980s with the influx of new, largely French-influenced modes of literary theory into American universities. With the hiring of such leading exponents of newer theories as Jonathan Culler and Mary Jacobus, the department established itself in the first rank of programs bridging traditional scholarship and theoretical investigation. Over the years it has maintained its high reputation as a center for literary theory, in part thanks to its openness to a wide range of approaches, including structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminist theory, Marxism, post-colonialism, queer theory and cultural studies, all of which are taught and practiced by members of the department.

Contemporary Trends and Diversity

Alongside the emergence of theory in the curriculum, another kind of broadening has occurred over the last thirty years. It began in the late 1960s with the hiring and promotion to tenure of several women, including Jean Blackall, Alison Lurie and Dorothy Mermin. While women had always played a role in the department, usually as instructors, for the first time they now held senior professorial positions, and their numbers have grown steadily since; today they represent fully half of the department's faculty. In 1971 the distinguished scholar, J. Saunders Redding, joined the department, becoming the first African-American professor in the College of Arts & Sciences. Other African American faculty soon followed, including the poet Kenneth McClane, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hortense Spillers.

The last two decades have seen a steady expansion in the department’s ethnic diversity, as Asian-American, American Indian, and Latino/a faculty have joined the professorial ranks. Not surprisingly, these demographic shifts have been accompanied by curricular changes as well. While canonical English and American literature continues to be taught, an increasingly prominent place in the curriculum is occupied by ethnic, indigenous, and minority literatures, post-colonial Anglophone literature, film and media studies, and queer studies.

With the proliferation of these newer areas of study, the department now covers a range of subjects undreamed of in the days of Hiram Corson and James Morgan Hart. But the spirits of Corson and Hart and their complementary commitments to aesthetic appreciation and scholarly understanding continue to animate conversations in the halls, classrooms and offices of Goldwin Smith.

By Professor Roger Gilbert