English as a department of instruction was preceded by rhetoric, one of the most important subjects in the early years of the College. The Laws of 1774 required that each evening two students would “pronounce on the Stage,” and the seniors and juniors would write a weekly “Dispute” on assigned topics. Although early compositions showed a certain disregard for spelling and grammar, the College gained recognition for its orators, particularly under President Jonathan Maxcy. When Nicholas Brown contributed the $5,000 which changed the name of the College in 1804, he specified that the money should be used to establish a Professorship of Oratory and Belles Letters (sic), a hope which his uncle John Brown had expressed in a letter the previous year. Tristam Burges 1796 was named to the professorship in 1815. In 1821 he began a course of lectures. Before that time the weekly composition had been corrected by the other professors. After that, as Burges complained in a letter written in 1826, the whole of the work had been assigned to him and had become a burden, although “The young men are, some times, considerate; & do not all write; & the two present Classes relieve me, in a more creditable manner; that is by writing very correctly.” Burges was soon relieved of his burden, after the arrival of Francis Wayland as president in 1827. When Wayland decreed that all professors should occupy rooms in the college, Burges, who had been elected a member of the United States House of Representatives, had to resign his professorship. William Giles Goddard was professor of belles lettres from 1834 until his resignation in 1842. William Gammell, assistant professor of belles lettres from 1835, was named professor of rhetoric in 1837. Gammell switched to teaching history in 1850, and Robinson P. Dunn took over instruction in rhetoric and English literature until 1867. Timothy Whiting Bancroft became professor of rhetoric and English literature in 1868.
Instruction in logic was part of the responsibility of the professor of rhetoric and English literature until 1874 when it was removed to the Department of Mathematics. In 1873-74 Bancroft introduced the reading of Chaucer with early English pronunciation and recommended the establishment of a professorship of Anglo-Saxon and early English, “a department now generally maintained in our leading colleges.” An editorial in the Brunonian of February 24, 1883 complained of the poor provision for instruction in the English Department, “One sadly overworked mortal is compelled to give instruction in composition and rhetoric, including argumentation, Anglo-Saxon language and literature, with the development of the English language, English literature, Chaucer and Shakspere, to say nothing of being obliged to wade through four hundred sophomore essays, and to writhe beneath an indefinite number of junior orations.” The burden was too much for Professor Bancroft, who suffered a breakdown that year. President Robinson, recommending in his 1883 report that the duties of the department should be divided between a professor of rhetoric and a professor of English literature, wrote, “the most radical defect to-day in our American colleges is a want of due attention to rhetorical studies, understanding by these studies not only practice in the arts of composition and of speech ... but also that correctness of literary taste, that knowledge of English literature and that appreciation of its riches, without which facility and skill in the use of our tongue are never attainable.”
After the tragic death of Bancroft the department was divided. Lorenzo Sears became associate professor of rhetoric in 1890, associate professor of rhetoric and oratory in 1892, and associate professor of American literature in 1895, at which time Hammond Lamont took over rhetoric and oratory. Students in Sears’s American literature course made weekly reports on six hours of outside reading of American authors. He also gave a course on “The Occasional Oration as a Type of Literature and Composition,” designed “to qualify the student to meet a demand which is frequently made upon educated men to deliver an unprofessional address on an occasion of public interest.” In 1891 Louis F. Snow, instructor in elocution, was allowed to offer a special elective in Shakespeare for seniors. John Matthews Manly was associate professor of English language and literature in 1891-92, and changed his position to associate professor of English language in 1892, when Walter C. Bronson began to teach English literature. In 1895-96 the English Department under Professor Bronson offered a new Introductory Course in English Literature, taught by three faculty members. The course was elected by one hundred students at the University and about forty at the Women’s College. Of these, Bronson was disappointed to observe, “The year’s experience has strongly confirmed our belief that such a course was much needed. We have found nine-tenths of the class quite untrained in habits of intelligent and appreciative reading. ... Next year we shall make the instruction even more elementary and practical.”
Thomas Crosby succeeded Lamont in 1901, with the title of assistant professor of English and public speaking. Albert K. Potter joined the department in 1898, George W. Benedict in 1899, Lindsay Todd Damon in 1901, and Henry B. Huntington in 1902. William T. Hastings became an assistant in English after his graduation in 1903 and, except for two years of graduate study at Harvard, was a member of the department until 1952. Benjamin C. Clough, better known as a professor of classics, first taught in the English Department from 1913 to 1924. Ralph L. Blanchard arrived in 1915, and Benjamin W. Brown was appointed in 1921 to teach drama, public speaking, and playwriting.
Major changes in the English Department took place in 1927. Professor Walter C. Bronson retired after 35 years at Brown and his administrative duties were assumed by Lindsay Todd Damon. Ten new appointments that year included associate professors Dean S. Fansler and Howard Bristol Grose, and assistant professors S. Foster Damon, George K. Anderson and Sharon Brown. Courses were divided into two groups, undergraduate courses and courses intended for both undergraduates and graduate students. This change differentiated between elementary and advanced work, and also allowed access to advanced courses earlier in a student’s college career. The three assistant professors remained at Brown, and until they retired, Damon taught courses in Blake and Milton, Anderson in Chaucer, Beowulf, and Old and Middle English, and Sharon Brown in Victorian literature and poetry. Other additions to the faculty of the English Department in the 1920s and their specialties were Robert W. Kenny (18th century), Leicester Bradner (16th century and Elizabethan drama) in 1926, and I. J. Kapstein (novel, composition, the romantic movement) in 1927.
In the 1930s and 40s the faculty was increased by the arrival of Clarence M. Webster (17th century) in 1936, Robert Gale Noyes (English novel) in 1937, Randall Stewart (American literature) in 1938, Janice O. Van De Water (play writing and production) in 1940, Andrew J. Sabol (Renaissance literature) in 1941, Leslie Allen Jones (play production) in 1942, Charles H. Philbrick (poetry) and Elmer Blistein (Shakespeare and comedy) in 1946, and Edward Bloom (18th century and literary criticism) in 1947. Jay Saunders Redding came as visiting professor in 1949-50 and gave the first course in Afro-American literature.
The English Department of the 1940s was recalled by Mark Spilka ’49 in his address to Phi Beta Kappa in 1974:
“Chairman Hastings, a disciple of the famous Harvard scholar, George Lyman Kittredge, had apparently followed his master in refusing to take the Ph.D. degree on the ground that no one was learned enough to examine him. Hastings and his famous colleague, Foster Damon, had stopped with M.A. degrees; Sharon Brown, like H. B. Huntington before him, had stopped with the B.A. ... Sharon Brown read poetry to us beautifully ... Conveying his intelligent love for it through his fine interpretative performance ... I. J. Kapstein read aloud a great deal from novels, worked from elementary charts ... warned us not to read Joyce’s Ulysses. ... Robert Kenny was noted for biographical anecdotes and solid background study, as was the great Hawthorne biographer, Randall Stewart.”Later additions to the faculty were Albert D. Van Nostrand in 1951, James O. Barnhill in 1953, Hyatt H. Waggoner and Barbara K. Lewalski in 1956, R. Verlin Cassill, John C. B. Hawkes, and David Krause in 1958, Charles H. Nichols in 1960, David H. Hirsch in 1961, James E. Schevill and John Shroeder in 1968, Michael S. Harper and Robert E. Scholes in 1970.
Courses in film criticism were initiated by Mark Spilka about 1968, and in the fall semester of 1970-71 Maurice Rapf, New York film writer and director was a visiting instructor in the art of film making. In November 1991 a festival of contemporary African writing organized by Professor Robert Coover and the Program in Creative Writing brought eighteen African writers from eleven countries to Brown.
The English Department offers courses in English and American literature and languages, in criticism and theory, and in creative and expository writing. For first year students there are a number of introductory courses, and the department reviews the admissions material of the incoming students to assist them in the selection of courses. Chairpersons of the department after Bronson were Lindsay Todd Damon, William T. Hastings, Randall Stewart, George K. Anderson, Edward A. Bloom, Mark Spilka, Albert D. Van Nostrand, David H. Hirsch, Roger B. Henkle, Robert E. Scholes, Walter R. Davis, and Elizabeth Kirk.