Colleges (American History Through Literature)
The half century after 1820 was the heyday of the classical college in American higher education. It was also characterized by the proliferation of denominational colleges. Both these developments took shape in the 1820s.
Although instruction in Latin (primarily) and Greek had been the core of the curriculum for the colonial colleges, standards had deteriorated by 1800. Latin ceased to be the language of instruction, and the dominance of the ancients was vigorously challenged as undemocratic in the early Republic. However, experiments with modern languages such as French and Italian invariably failed, and the classical pedagogyhe teaching of Latin and Greekas gradually rehabilitated, with considerably greater emphasis on Greek. This refurbished course of study was emphatically defended by Yale College against proponents of more modern or practical subjects. The Yale College Reports of 1828 defined the aims and methods of the classical college, which became the standard across American colleges.
Denominational colleges also became entrenched during the 1820s, as minority religious groups reacted against existing, often state-sanctioned colleges, most often dominated by dogmatic Presbyterians. As states relaxed barriers to chartering colleges, each denomination or splinter defensively founded colleges to educate its own flocks. The classical course and denominational sponsorship, however, convey little of the nature of college education. The ancient languages were but one component of the collegiate experience. And as ministerial preparation was confined to theological seminaries, the standard classical course was basically secular, even if offered in a Christian ambiance. Moreover although denominational colleges multiplied everywhere, collegiate education developed distinct regional traditions. In the East the original colonial colleges spearheaded an academic development that introduced more subjects and more learned teachers. In the South, led by North and South Carolina and Virginia, state-sponsored universities became the dominant institutions. And beyond the Appalachianshe West for all practical purposesenominational colleges sprouted in the wake of the advancing frontier.
This pattern was altered appreciably after 1850 without dislodging the hegemony of the classical course. Now the leading institutions of the East added schools of science and graduate study to accommodate the growth of knowledge. The western colleges sought to include more kinds of instruction for a broader clientele, including women, thus becoming "multipurpose colleges." In the South, however, innovation was largely smothered by the catastrophe of the Civil War. The years from 1820 to 1870 thus form a coherent era when the classical college was the characteristic form of American higher education.
THE CLASSICAL COLLEGE
Student learning took place through recitations, lectures, written and oral exercises, and activities outside the curriculum. The classical college is best known for the first of these, the unfortunate recitations, easily the most stultifying element. Students typically "recited" on three subjects per term, five or six days per week. Latin and Greek were standard for the first three years. Mathematics was intermittently the third subject, with geography, philosophy, and science for upperclassmen interspersed as well. Students were expected to prepare the day's lesson immediately before the recitation. In class they merely recited the expected answers when called upon and were graded accordingly by the tutors. Tutors, or later instructors, conducted most recitations through the junior year, but professors taught the seniors. "Mental discipline," as extolled in the Yale Reports, may have been the only benefit of this regimen: the classical authors were read in disjointed excerpts, and the emphasis was on grammar not content; other subjects demanded chiefly rote memorization.
By the junior year not only did the recitation subjects become more interesting but students also attended lectures by the professors. Most science was taught this way during the junior and senior years. The number and variety of lectures depended on the resources of the collegehe number of professors and their areas of competencend thus varied far more than recitations across institutions.
The classical college placed considerable emphasis on writing and speaking, and here students seemed to recognize the importance of developing such skills. Writing exercises were usually based on classical subjects. Sophomores and juniors typically gave "declamations"istrionic speeches based on classical models; and juniors and seniors engaged in stylized disputations. The most adept students were rewarded with parts in the commencement ceremonieshe culmination of the college experience.
Perhaps the greatest psychological impact of the classical college resulted from its structure rather than the academic course. Each class went through the course of study as a unit, taking the same subjects and participating in the same activities for four years. This in itself engendered strong bonds, but the cumulative effect was more powerful still. The freshman year was something like boot camp, where "newies" were ridiculed and persecuted, especially by the sophomores. The latter, having learned the ropes, became for that year the most rowdy of the classes. Juniors faced the heaviest academic load and behaved somewhat more maturely, in part to distinguish themselves from the overbearing sophomores. "Dignity" is the term most often applied by contemporaries to seniors, who assumed increasing aloofness from the ruckus of campus life as they focused their efforts on elaborate preparations for commencement. Thus despite its shortcomings, the classical college instilled a deep sense of camaraderie, accomplishment, loyalty, and maturity in its graduates. This picture of the classical college best fits institutions in the Northeast and a few southern universities, but elsewhere smaller and poorer denominational colleges largely sought to emulate this model.
LITERATURE AND THE COLLEGES: FACULTY
"Literature" in the early nineteenth century was an inclusive term, not in the least confined to imaginative writings. Samuel Miller in his compendium A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century (1803) devoted a long section to the contributions to the Republic of letters by the United States, a nation "lately become Literary" (2:33010). By literary he meant virtually all types of writing for an educated audiencehilosophy, history, biography, romances and novels, poetry, drama, and the kind of essays that filled literary and political journals. He included colleges in his discussion of literary institutions, and indeed, they were often called "literary seminaries" in this era, chiefly for their association with classical literature, rhetoric, and philosophy but not for any connection with modern literature.
Efforts to secure a place in the curriculum for literature in modern languages were few and far from successful before 1870. The teaching of modern languages was a dismal failure, eventually farmed out to private instructors. In addition, the Yale Reports emphatically held that modern languages were inferior to Greek and Latin for instilling mental discipline. Hence, an underlying enthusiasm for literature, broadly construed, was channeled to other outlets.
One early-nineteenth-century attempt to constitute the republic of letters in America was the Anthology Society in Boston, a group of professionals and would-be intellectuals who met regularly and published a monthly review. One Anthology stalwart, John Kirkland (1770840), became president of Harvard (1810828); a younger recruit, George Ticknor (1791871), resolved to become a man of letters. In 1815 Ticknor embarked for Germany to imbibe true scholarship, and the following year Kirkland offered him the first endowed professorship in modern languages at an American college. Ticknor's travails at Harvard illustrate the obstacles facing literature. He chafed under the rigid protocol of the classical college and sought in vain to reform it. He succeeded only in his own domain. He organized the department of modern languages on the basis of proficiency instead of classes, and himself delivered lectures on the history of Spanish literature. When Ticknor retired in 1835 to become an independent man of letters, the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages was filled first by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who held the post in 1835854) and then by James Russell Lowell (1855886), making it a distinguished but isolated outpost for literature in the colleges.
Pioneering attempts to teach English literature lacked such continuity. James Marsh (1794842), one of the boldest reformers of the 1820s as president of the University of Vermont (1826833), attempted to include English in a new-model curriculum. Only
If a single theme links Ticknor, Marsh, and Reed it would be Romantic nationalism. These doctrines gave literature a special significance of manifesting the unconscious mind of a people or race. Reed was particularly aggressive in his interpretation of Anglo-Saxonism, and Ticknor leaned heavily on national character to explain French and Spanish literature. Due to such racial roots, Marsh and Reed saw the study of English literature as a fundamentally moral subject that should be taught to collegians in order to connect them with their heritage.
This Romantic impulse seems to have waned after Reed's ship sunk on a return voyage from England in 1854. Instead, the next generation found in philologyistorical and comparative linguisticshe justification for studying English in the college course. Philology traces its roots to Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744803) and German Romanticism, but it found its way into the college classroom by imitating the classical languages. Francis A. March (1825911), who began teaching English at Lafayette College in 1855, set an example by teaching his subject as Greek was taught; that is, giving minute attention to grammar, etymology, and linguistic history but neglecting the meaning of literary works themselves. The transposing of the philological approach to English literature implied a historical focus that seldom advanced beyond William Shakespeare or John Donne. It only reached college classrooms at the end of this era in the teaching of Moses Coit Tyler (1835900) at Michigan and Francis Child (1825896) at Harvard. Philology better characterizes the professionalization of the discipline after 1870.
LITERATURE AND THE COLLEGE: STUDENTS
In relation to questions of literature, students were left to pursue the interests and activities that most appealed to them on their own initiative. The image that students had of themselves was that of budding gentlemen, a role that implied the capacity to speak eloquently and knowingly on issues of the day and to be conversant with literaturegain, broadly understood. But such things were only touched upon obliquely in junior or senior studies. Students needed to cultivate these qualities among themselves.
Their chief means for such self-improvement were the literary societies. These institutions were begun in the colonial colleges and persisted on some campuses into the twentieth century. However, the years of their greatest influence stretched from about 1815 to the Civil War, with the zenith for the Northeast in the 1830s. Although arrangements at each campus were unique, literary societies were a staple of the classical college, officially sanctioned by the institution. Most colleges had two societies, and often every student would belong to one or the other. Competition between the societies was fierce, but largely indirect. Each sought to outperform the other in recruitment, campus recognition, and awards. But the societies focused internally on the intellectual interests of their member students. Before the 1830s, literary societies were virtually the only approved outlet for extracurricular activities; but after that decade, the growth of other outlets, especially fraternities, eroded the campus influence of the societies, at least in the Northeast.
Literary societies were entirely run by students. Besides conducting long business meetings according to parliamentary procedures, their chief activities were to provide a forum for public speaking and to maintain a library. Public speaking included the delivery of orations and the reading of essays, all written by the students themselves, but greatest interest was on conducting formal debates. The debates were heavily focused on current affairs. They gave students the opportunity to express views on the pressing issues of the day, including slavery, tariffs, foreign policy, or preserving the Union. Literary or philosophical questions seem to have been addressed less frequently. However, literary interests were fulfilled instead through the libraries.
The building of library collections was a major effort of most literary societies from 1820 onward. Book purchases often accounted for a substantial part of their expenditures, and they also sought donations. The 1830s and 1840s were the peak for this endeavor in the Northeast, but activity in southern and western societies was unabated until the Civil War. By 1840 society libraries at the older colleges contained more books than the college librariesnd far more useful books as well. College libraries consisted largely of antiquated Latin or theological tomes, and they tended to be open only a few hours per week. The society libraries owned canonical authors and eighteenth-century English writers, but they also purchased contemporary literature. The most popular volumes were the Waverly Scottish border romance novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771832). The historian Thomas Harding notes that one society even debated "is the moral and literary influence of the Waverly novels beneficial?" (p. 77). James Fenimore Cooper (1789851) and Washington Irving (1783859) were the American writers most read, and Lord Byron (1788824) captured the imagination of collegians for some time. Overall, novels were the largest holding, although the libraries also had substantial collections of drama, poetry, biography, history, essays, and travel books. The more affluent societies maintained subscriptions to the major liter-ary journals of the United States and Great Britain (North American Review, Knickerbocker, Blackwood's Magazine, Edinburgh Review). Without doubt, the libraries were heavily used by studentsor leisure reading and to gather material for writings and debates.
The literary societies filled a large lacuna in collegiate education and were so recognized by the colleges. A mirror image of the classroom, the societies were entirely student run, engaged with current affairs, and connected as well with contemporary literature. The societies thus tended to be linked with students' own literary enterprises.
The Yale Literary Magazine, founded in 1836, was the first continuous student publication. Previously at Yale and elsewhere, student attempts at literary publications appeared and disappeared, seldom achieving more than a few successive volumes. At Union College in Schenectady, New York, for example, some eleven publications were launched from 1807 to 1854 before the Unionian achieved some continuity (1854871). The second oldest college literary magazine, the Nassau Literary Magazine at Princeton, was begun in 1842. Most of the successful magazines were cooperative efforts between the rival literary societies, a model set by Yale. Their contributions seemed to oscillate between the aspirations of collegians to emulate popular essayists and the attraction of portraying aspects of college life. Since they were independently financed, reader interest seems to have pulled them toward the latter subjects.
The popularity of student literary magazines spread rapidly after 1850 and was only dampened temporarily by the Civil War. One of the most ambitious undertakings, however, was a casualty of the war. In 1859 the University Quarterly (originally called the Undergraduate) was organized at Yale as a compendium of writings by collegians and professional students throughout the country, and a few studying in Europe. By 1861 it was receiving contributions from "associations" at twenty-eight colleges, mostly in New England, but at least five from the Midwest. The Quarterly published four fat issues of essays and campus news reports in 1860 and in 1861 before contributions evaporated with the war. In even so brief a history, the Quarterly is testimony to the widespread literary impulse of collegians. Not surprisingly, the impulse revived all the stronger after the war. The 1869 Yale graduate Lyman Bagg estimated that by 1870 more than fifty colleges had regular student publications.
LITERATURE AND THE COLLEGES: AUTHORS
Given the intense student enthusiasm for literature in the classical colleges, how did the colleges affect American literature? The question might be answered in different ways. If one were able to chart the careers of collegiate literati, many would be found who became men of letters in nineteenth-century terms and were recognized as such by contemporaries. For example, consider the three young men most responsible for sustaining the Nassau Lit in the 1840s: Theodore L. Cuyler, George H. Boker, and Charles G. Leland. Unknown and unread in the early twenty-first century, Cuyler was a prolific author of books and articles on spiritual themes; Boker wrote two volumes of poems and eleven plays; and Leland wrote widely in a number of areas but became best known for German-dialect ballads. For these writers, and no doubt many others, there was continuity between literary activities in college and subsequent literary pursuits.
The picture changes, however, if one considers the most widely read and enduring American authors. For these figures two patterns stand out: either college had little or no apparent effect on their writings or they are associated with the Harvard-Cambridge milieu. In the first group, Herman Melville, John Greenleaf Whittier, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and (much earlier) Washington Irving never attended college. William Cullen Bryant spent one year at Williams, and a young James Fenimore Cooper lasted almost two at Yale before being expelled. In the South, Henry Timrod attended the University of Georgia for a single year, and Edgar Allan Poe did the same at the University of Virginia. Timrod and Poe apparently valued their studies and would have attended longer but for financial constraints. One might add Emily Dickinson, who endured one year of evangelical pressure with the founder Mary Lyon at Mount Holyoke. It would be difficult to generalize from these idiosyncratic talents; but the remarkable fact is the absence of literary talents graduating from all the other classical colleges. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne are only partial exceptions. They graduated from Bowdoin in the same class (1828), but both fell into the Harvard-Cambridge orbitongfellow as a professor and Hawthorne as a resident of nearby Concord.
In contrast, Harvard graduates form a literary pantheon. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau promoted transcendentalism from Concord. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and later Henry Adams first distinguished themselves as students. Horatio Alger Jr. was a Harvard graduate (1852), although he wrote his famous rags-to-riches novels after the Civil War. If one lowers the bar somewhat, there are more literary Harvardians like Richard Henry Dana Jr. and Edward Everett Hale. Moreover, judging from their biographies, all these writers seem to have been shaped to some extent by their Harvard experiences, despite its faults. The rigorous writing instruction of longtime rhetoric professor Edward Tyrell Channing has been widely noted. Lowell, although rusticated (sent to the country) his senior year, edited a student literary magazine and was elected class poet. Henry Adams, who claimed in his 1918 The Education of Henry Adams that his Harvard education had been worthless, made an exception for his interaction with Professor Lowell; furthermore, he was elected class oratorhe highest honor a class could bestow. Clearly Harvard sustained an elevated and sophisticated literary culture. The ambient culture of Boston-Cambridge-Concord was certainly one factor. Another might well be the prevalence of Unitarianism rather than the evangelical Protestantism that prevailed at most other colleges. Also, the presence of Ticknor, Longfellow, and Lowell as Smith Professors of Modern Languages at Harvard recurs as a vital influence.
As a tentative conclusion, it seems that the literary activities of classical colleges tended for the most part to promote the kind of superficial eloquence that flourished in mid- and late-nineteenth-century America. Students, for all their enthusiasm, seldom transcended the conventional taste and thinking of their contemporaries. Harvard did somewhat better through closer contact with European thought, by harboring the nation's largest faculty and by mixing with a rich local culture; that is, Harvard promoted enduring contributions to American literature in spite of clinging to the conventions of a classical college until the end of this era.
See also Classical Literature; Curricula; Education; English Literature; Fireside Poets; Religion; Rhetoric
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Roger L. Geiger