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Department of English History

History: The Department's Rebirth

By Karen Heinbach

Charles Hart

After the resignation of John Forsyth, the first Professor of English Language and Literature, the department foundered. In 1864, the Reverend Theodore Stanford Doolittle was appointed “Professor of Rhetoric, Logic, and Mental Philosophy,” and charged with filling in the curricular gap in English. A small portion of his time went toward literature, but his main academic emphasis was on what would later become the fields of psychology and philosophy.

Student interest clearly demonstrated a demand for the study of literature, however. “Literary societies” had become popular in the late nineteenth century, encouraging students to read, discuss, and write about books outside of class. The Athenian Society, the earliest society at Rutgers, had been founded in 1776 and met weekly to discuss Addison, Milton, Pope, and Shakespeare. But it was the Philoclean Society that became Rutgers’ most enduring literary discussion group. Established in 1825, it was a “secret” society, and members identified themselves by wearing a small blue ribbon. Their dues built a private library equal in size to that of Rutgers College. Meetings were forum-oriented, and current periodicals and plays were common topics of discussion, establishing literary criticism as an extracurricular activity.

In 1880, Reverend Charles E. Hart took over the professorship of English Language and Literature, and began to design courses for those interested in studying books for themselves. At this time, the academic importance of studying modern writing was just beginning to be recognized nationwide. The first meeting of the Modern Language Association in 1883 heralded the decline of the classical languages and a movement away from rhetoric toward the study of English poetry, drama, and prose; three Rutgers faculty members were there. In addition, universities were beginning to create strongly distinct departments for their academic fields. Under Hart’s guidance, a series of courses were introduced to the curriculum, emphasizing the history of the English language, readings from major authors, and essays in literary criticism. Hart’s curriculum marked a significant shift away from the sense of English studies as preparation for clergymen, and toward making it a discipline in itself. His project was in keeping with the ideals of Rutgers College too: in the 1879-1880 course catalogue, a new notation had been added noting that through their education, students should be imbued with an appropriate, cultivated literary taste.

Eventually, Hart became the “Chair of Ethics, Evidences of Christianity, and the English Bible” in 1897, but he left behind a growing department. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Rutgers English was able to expand, and formalize its standing. In the 1904-1905 catalogue, the English faculty had increased to two, and English elective courses were made available to juniors and seniors. These courses studied poetry, the history and phases of the language, and extended readings of the “great writers”: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Browning, and Tennyson. The department even encouraged the assessment of modern prose writers in these new elective courses, incorporating some of the discussion topics familiar from literary society meetings. The Philoclean Society, which had became defunct in 1890, reappeared in 1908.

The 1906 course catalogue gave full descriptions of English courses, and assigned them their own disciplinary number for the first time. The status of English had reached a turning point: not only had the faculty increased to an all-time high (three professors), but students could now earn a bachelor of arts degree in English Language and Literature. The Rutgers Department of English had finally achieved formal and independent status. The first Rutgers English majors followed soon after.

 


Works Consulted: Alan Bacon, The Nineteenth-Century History of English Studies; William H.S. Demarest, A History of Rutgers College, 1766-1924; Helmut Gneuss, English Language Scholarship: A Survey and Bibliography From the Beginning to End of the Nineteenth Century; Richard P. McCormick, Rutgers: A Bicentennial History; David R. Shumway and Craig Dionne, Disciplining English: Alternative Histories, Critical Perspectives.

Many thanks to the staff at the Rutgers University Archives for their help in researching this article. The Archives preserve the records of the Philoclean Society, course catalogues, and many other documents from the history of Rutgers. Photo credit: Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries