Department of English History

By Jie He


In the 1950s, Rutgers University faced many challenges. The United States was experiencing economic prosperity, but the Communist hysteria of the early part of the decade penetrated into higher education. All sorts of anxieties over new cultural and political ideas seeped into the Rutgers community, reshaping it.

Rutgers started 1951 with a new president, Dr. Lewis Webster Jones. An economist by profession, Jones had served on the founding faculty and been president of the progressive Bennington College. He had later been president of the University of Arkansas, distinguishing himself there as a member of the President’s Commission on Higher Education. When he took office, Jones advocated academic freedom but also made it clear that Rutgers would not harbor any Communists. A dilemma arose in 1952 when the Board of Trustees dismissed Newark Professors Moses Finley and Simon Heimlich for invoking the Fifth Amendment when questioned about their Communist affiliations. President Jones stood by the Trustees’ decision, despite a committee of faculty, staff, and students who urged him to reconsider. In response, national higher education associations censured Rutgers.

With the University embroiled in a heated debate over academic freedom, the Department of English struggled to deal with a theoretical dilemma of its own. Emerging in response to biographical criticism that defined art in relation to the artist’s life, an approach called the New Criticism had become the leading trend in literary studies. In its purest form, the New Criticism treated literature as an expression independent of the author’s intent or of the historical period of its inception. The New Critics emphasized “close reading,” paying careful attention to the interrelated structure, style, and imagery of a work. In contrast, scholars like J. Milton French, Chair of the Department, had devoted their life’s work to more historical and biographical approaches.

For the better part of the decade, the Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences did not embrace the New Criticism. Instead, English majors continued to take courses that focused on the social and political backgrounds of literary writers, and their periods. Nationwide, similar tensions were visible. Advocates of the New Criticism argued that focusing on the text itself was the only proper starting point for any literary understanding, while detractors noted that the New Criticism’s often vehement rejection of extra-textual sources overlooked the brilliant scholarship of its non-adherents.

Even while the Department of English remained hesitant about the merits of the New Criticism, it staunchly supported undergraduate research. Beginning in the academic year 1950-1951, the College of Arts and Sciences introduced the Henry Rutgers Scholars Program to prepare graduate-school bound students. Academically successful English majors could now complete honors theses, allowing them to explore their literary interests at greater length and with greater sophistication. Even this undergraduate work displayed the wide range of approaches at the time: George Zirnite completed his thesis on “Shifting Patterns of Literary Patronage in Eighteenth Century England and Germany” in 1951, while two years later, Edward Hufschmid received honors for “Poetry and Its Techniques: A Psychoanalytic Approach.”

The focus on research was part of a wider trend in English studies, and had an impact even on departments traditionally focused on teaching. The renaming of the New Jersey College for Women marked a new stage of cooperation with the College of Arts and Sciences, including greater collaboration between the separate Departments of English. In 1955, NJC officially became Douglass College in honor of its first dean, Mabel Smith Douglass. That same year, it also gained a new dean, Mary I. Bunting, who encouraged female enrollment in post-graduate studies and thus initiated greater faculty interaction with the graduate studies division at the men’s college.

With growing graduate programs in several fields, the need for a better humanities research library became clear. Between 1948 and 1950, French had vigorously lobbied the administration for a new facility. The construction of University Library (later dedicated as the Archibald Stevens Alexander Library) began in 1953 and was completed in 1956. French noted that “the voice of the Department was undoubtedly one of the forces bringing about success in this effort.”

Another notable tension was around developing the field of creative writing, which most professors felt was not a proper part of the English Department. However, French advocated sponsoring the University’s first Poet in Residence, famed poet and critic John Ciardi, who joined the faculty in 1953. Ciardi breathed new life into the curriculum. Starting as mentor for students, Ciardi made a meteoric rise to full professorship and built a creative writing program. In the early fifties, the Department had offered only one creative writing course, vaguely titled “Literary Practice.” Starting in 1954, Ciardi introduced eight creative writing classes, including a writing seminar and three writing workshops, all to promote creative prose and poetry “as a form for speaking of human experience.” He also represented the Department at the Graduate School of Education, where he imparted his reading and writing methods to future teachers. In 1961, Ciardi left both Rutgers and academia to pursue a more lucrative career in radio and television. Nevertheless, he left a lasting mark by nurturing creative writing here.

While Ciardi was proving that student demand could reshape the English curriculum in successful ways, student interest in the New Criticism finally had its effect. As Department Chair, French secured a grant from the Fund for the Advancement of Education to develop two new courses in 1957: “Readings in the Novel” and “Readings in Drama.” These courses focused on literary devices such as setting, symbolism, and point of view, important parts of a close-reading method. Moreover, it was the first time that the Department of English experimented with a new class structure, where one professor lectured to a large audience that also separated into smaller discussion sections taught by graduate assistants. French’s report to the Fund admitted that these courses were not immediately successful, but they were an important first attempt.

At that point, a young Assistant Professor named Paul Fussell, Jr., best known for his later studies of the poetry of the Great War, started introducing New Critical approaches to the English curriculum in more advanced forms. Fussell wrote that his course on “Metaphysical Poets” would focus on “a close reading of the poetry for its own sake, and also as the occasion of modern critical controversy.” By the end of the decade, the Department had added three new upper-level seminars on contemporary trends in literary criticism, and descriptions of existing courses began to place less emphasis on history and biography and more on literary techniques and themes.

The governing structure of the University was undergoing a major overhaul as well. In the aftermath of the Fifth Amendment controversy and censure, New Jersey state law instituted a Board of Governors as the controlling body in 1956, putting the Board of Trustees in an advisory role. Reflecting this change, Rutgers officially became “Rutgers, The State University.” One of the Governors’ first tasks was to clarify the provisions on academic freedom, making it illegal for the University to dismiss professors solely for their political affiliations. Although they did not reverse the dismissals of 1952, the Board of Governors condemned them, signaling their intention to move forward.

As the decade ended, Rutgers was poised for change and hopeful about the future. In 1959, Mason Welch Gross replaced Jones as the President of the University. Gross, who held philosophy degrees from Harvard and Cambridge University, had come to Rutgers in 1946 after having served in World War II. With his experience as University Provost (the chief academic administrator) throughout the 1950s, he was both familiar with Rutgers and respected university-wide.

Also at the end of the decade, the Department of English bid goodbye to J. Milton French, who retired after having been Chair for twenty years. In a book celebrating his career, one colleague called him the “best listener and the least assertive talker,” praising both his leadership and his modesty. French’s quiet assertiveness had transformed the Department into a top-ranked research faculty, and English stood ready to benefit when Rutgers entered an era of unprecedented expansion in the sixties. As President Gross wrote to a vacationing French in 1961: “When you return this summer, you had better bring a tranquilizer with you because, as they say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’”


List of Works Consulted:

Cifelli, Edward M. John Ciardi: A Biography. Fayetteville, AK: The University of Arkansas Press, 1997.

“Definition of New Criticism.” Critical Approaches. Bedford St. Martin’s virtuaLit Interactive Poetry Tutorial. 1998.

Hedges, Warren. “New Criticism Explained.” Southern Oregon University. 1997.

McCormick, Richard P. Rutgers: A Bicentennial History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1966.

Wolfe, Don M. “J. Milton French” in Essays in Literary History: presented to J. Milton French. Ed. Rudolf Kirk and C. F. Main. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1960.

Correspondence from the Office of the Dean, Douglass College, 1950-1961

Douglass College Course Catalogs: 1950-1960

French, J. Milton. “The Department of English 1940 – 1960.” May 12, 1960.

French, J. Milton. “Final report to the Fund for the Advancement of Education: on a grant for better utilization of teaching resources.” New Brunswick: 1958.

The Papers of Mason W. Gross, 1950-1961

The Papers of Lewis W. Jones, 1952-1959

Rutgers College Course Catalogs: 1950-1960

Rutgers College Department of English Files 1950-1960

Many thanks to the staff of the Archives for their help in researching this series, with special thanks for this installment to Erika Gorder and Thomas Frusciano.