Part 2: The Indiana University School of Letters and the Mid-Century Transformation of Literary Studies

This is a continuation of a post on the history of the IU School of Letters by guest blogger Dr. James E. Dobson of Dartmouth College. 

Students and Teachers: The School’s Impact on Literary Studies

The impact of the School of Letters on the study of literature is hard to overstate. The School encouraged and promoted the work of scholars, poets, and critics including Richard Chase, Northrop Frye, Monroe Beardsley, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe. Perhaps one of the most influential scholars teaching at the School for many summers was Leslie Fiedler.

School of Letters annual report, 1951. IU Archives Collection C211
School of Letters annual report, 1951. IU Archives Collection C211

At the time of his first appointment to the School, Fiedler was working on what would become the manuscript for Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), a book of literary criticism that was one of the first to discuss certain recurring American social-psychological compulsions such as male homo-social bonding expressed in many American literary works. The preface to this famous volume notes the importance of his teaching and his students at the School of Letters in 1952 and 1954 for helping him to develop his ideas.

One of the students who encountered Fiedler’s radical critically transformative ideas at Indiana was James M. Cox, PhD ‘55, who would go one to become a significant American-literary scholar in his own right. In 1951 Cox was a graduate student at the University of Michigan and came to Bloomington for the summer to attend the School. It was his second year at the School; his first was spent in Ohio at the School of English. His experiences in the classroom with Fiedler led Cox to apply for admission to Indiana University. Quickly working through the course requirements for the Ph.D., Cox added the School of Letters as a minor and continued to take classes in the School of Letters. Cox would eventually himself become a fellow at the School of Letters, and after receiving his first permanent teaching job at Dartmouth College, he would return several times to teach classics of American literature including Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Martha Banta, PhD ’64 took a course on American literature under Cox in the summer of 1962 through the School of Letters while also obtaining a PhD minor in the School of Letters. She would write her dissertation on Henry James and author many important works of literary criticism. Both Banta and Cox would eventually receive lifetime achievement awards from the Modern Language Association and in their responses to the award they cite their time at the School of Letters as a major influential experience.

The poet and literary critic John Hollander PhD ’59 took his studies under School of Letters Senior Fellow Lionel Trilling at Columbia University to the English Department and the School of Letters, completing a PhD minor alongside James M. Cox. Hollander would go on to teach at City University of New York and Yale University. In 1961 Steven Marcus, a professor of Victorian literature at Columbia University came to Bloomington as a fellow of the School of Letters during which a chance encounter on campus launched him into a fundamental rethinking of Victorian culture and literature. Marcus describes this encounter in the preface to his highly influential critical work The Other Victorians (1966):

In the summer of 1961 I was teaching at the Indiana University School of Letters. It is a tradition at the School of Letters that each summer its several Fellows, or instructors, be conducted on a tour of the Institute for Sex Research. I was impressed by and interested in what I saw on this tour…I was invited to return to the Institute to conduct researches in its library and archives. These had largely been amassed by the prodigious energies of the Institute’s founder, the late Alfred C. Kinsey. They had also, I was told, gone largely unused and unexplored. It was the opinion of the Directors that the time had now come to begin to exploit this material, as it was also their belief that the time had now come to begin to open up the heretofore locked doors of the Institute, and to extend the use of its immense resources to scholars from other fields of study.

Marcus returned in to Bloomington in 1962 to teach for another summer session and continued the research that exposed a completely new account of the Victorian era’s concern with the centrality of sex. Prior to his groundbreaking book, this topic had been just as locked as the doors of the Kinsey archives.

The philosopher Stanley Cavell would come to lecture as part of the faculty in 1969 while researching a topic that would soon after be published as the well-received The Senses of Walden (1972), a radically new look at Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Other important students of the School included Ihab Hassan, a theorist of what was then termed avant-garde literature, who was a summer student in the School and came back to teach during the summer of 1964; Mark Spilka M.A. ’53, who would later become chair of the English Department at Brown University and author of books on Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and D. H. Lawrence. Among the School’s important critical participants, one must also cite Geoffrey Hartman. He attended the School in 1951 in its first year at Bloomington, and distinguished theorist of literature as well as member of the Department of English at Yale University.

Irving Howe, American literary and social critic, served as a member of the School of Letters faculty. (Photo source: 1968 Michiganensian, p. 82)
Irving Howe, American literary and social critic, served as a member of the School of Letters faculty. (Photo source: 1968 Michiganensian, p. 82)

The End of the School

Indiana University announced the end of its formal relationship with the School of Letters on July 28, 1972. The Director for almost the entirety of its twenty-year existence, Newton Stallknecht, gave as his reason the same budgetary difficulties that initially necessitated the move of the School from Kenyon to Indiana: “This action has been taken owing to grave budgetary problems which the University faces, along with many other schools of higher education.” With Stallknecht also eager to retire, Dean of the Graduate School George W. Wilson proposed closing the School of Letters. The other major reason given was that the program had become less popular—it granted only two or three M.A.’s per year in the last few years—ironically due to its success: the School, along with its students and faculty fellows, was ultimately instrumental in carrying out its goal to transform literary studies. Literature departments had come to embrace, in turn, both the New Criticism that was the founding raison d’être of the School and the catholic approach to literature that subsequently became the School’s enduring trademark. Despite its historical eclipse, this Indiana University-sponsored program constitutes a lurking precedent for the various kinds of institutionally concentrated literary-critical study that still take place to this day.

The Archives has a number of collections containing information on the School of Letters, including the Director’s records spanning 1947-1979. Contact the Archives for access or further information! 

The Indiana University School of Letters and the Mid-Century Transformation of Literary Studies

James E. Dobson, PhD ’14 recently defended his dissertation “The Awkward Age of Autobiography: Modernization, Temporality, and American Self-Representation, 1865-1914” in IU’s English Department. He teaches at Dartmouth College and works on intellectual history and American literature. He would like to thank the archivists and staff at the Indiana University Archives for their assistance in locating materials on the School of Letters.

The School of Letters

In 1951 a group of distinguished scholars gathered in the heat of the Bloomington summer for the first year of the School of Letters at Indiana University. These scholars were among the very best in the nation working on literature and literary criticism. They had been invited to Bloomington at the invitation of Indiana University President Herman B Wells. As the School of English, the program had been, for the three previous years, housed at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, but financial difficulties required that another institution host the yearly summer institute. Over the next twenty years the School of Letters at Indiana University would be responsible for instituting major changes in the way that we read and talked about literature. The students and teachers participating in these annual institutes would use their time and proximity to each other and to resources like the Kinsey Institute during the summer months to conduct research and to produces theories that have utterly transformed our understanding of major literary works.

Course offerings, School of Letters, 1951. IU Archives Collection C36.
Course offerings, School of Letters, 1951. IU Archives Collection C36.

The School of Letters was initially organized and run by three senior fellows: John Crowe Ransom, F. O. Matthiessen, and Lionel Trilling. Some of these scholars participated in various degrees in a scholarly movement called “The New Criticism” and referred to themselves as the “new critics.” New Criticism was a revolt, begun almost a decade before the creation of the School of Letters, against the dominant reading methodology at the time that worked to place literary texts in their historical context, the historical time of authorship. The New Critics sought to shift the emphasis away from the biography and social circumstances of the author to an examination of literary aesthetics, the structural and formal features of a particular text. The famous literary journal run out of Kenyon College, The Kenyon Review, provided a platform for the articulation of the new critical credo and the School of Letters, a training ground for the dissemination of their views of the proper way to read and teach literary works to a new generation of scholars. The School was announced under the following description that made explicit the focus on the New Criticism: “The school is devoted to the critical analysis and evaluation of literature in the belief that such study has as much validity as a graduate discipline as the more frequently recognized historical scholarship, with its equally valid emphasis on textual, bibliographical, biographical sociological, and philological studies.”

Indiana Innovations

The first summer session at Indiana ran from June 25 to August 3, 1951 and enrolled fifty-three students. The university decided to expand the program inherited from Kenyon by offering a graduate degree, a Master of Arts in literary criticism. This new and innovative degree program would bring students back to Bloomington for a second summer, provide a sense of continuity, and enable people with teaching appointments elsewhere to gain a graduate degree during the summer months. In addition to the M.A., the Graduate School made the School of Letters available to students as a Ph.D. minor, enabling those studying within a wide range of graduate departments at IU to have intimate contact with some of the best scholars working in literary studies. The innovation of the Ph.D. minor in literary criticism rendered the otherwise traditional departments cutting edge and attracted a great number of students to take up graduate study at Indiana University. In addition to course work, the Ph.D. Minor required taking an extemporaneous exam. The exam asked questions that required students to think in terms of the ideals of criticism taught at the School. In the early years, when formalist and aesthetic questions dominated the scene, students would be asked if a work of literature can adequately be “judged on purely literary (aesthetic) grounds” or if it was possible to give an allegorical reading of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In addition to the courses that were available to registered students, the School of Letters also sponsored a series of public lectures—known as the “Evening Forum”—to be given by the visiting faculty fellows. These lectures proved to be very popular to the university community; some lecturers, such as Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks, were able to attract nearly two hundred audience members.

John C. Ransom, one of the School of Letters organizers and among the first fellows.
John C. Ransom, one of the School of Letters organizers and among the first fellows.

After implementing these academic innovations, the School of Letters began to revise the content of the courses taught and issued an updated new mission statement. The announcement for the 1955 session revised and “corrected” the original mission statement inherited from the Kenyon days. While the School maintained its insistence that “the usual college and university courses in English have not discharged their responsibility for the art which is in their keeping,” the School recognized it could not be too dedicated to “some particular doctrine of criticism.” It now dedicated itself to representing “various modes of contemporary theory and practice” as applied to an increasingly diverse body of world literature. The School’s primary adherence to New Critical ideas helped continue the quiet revolution begun in these early summer sessions. Faculty and students came to Bloomington over the following two decades to learn and develop new theories and methodologies for the reading of literature.

Stay tuned for Part 2!