Northwestern's English department is located in University Hall, a striking limestone building styled after the Gothic Revival. The cornerstone was laid in 1868 and the building itself completed at a cost of $125,000 the following year. University Hall was originally Northwestern's main administration building, though it also housed classrooms, a library, a chemistry lab, a chapel, two rooms for campus societies, and a fourth-floor museum of natural history. Professor Daniel Bonbright, who assisted in the design of the building and taught language and literature, lived on the second floor. Eventually the building's several functions were dispersed elsewhere on the Evanston campus, leaving University Hall entirely for offices and classrooms. After a complete restoration and updating, which preserved its exterior, University Hall was rededicated in 1993 with a ceremony at which Garry Wills spoke about the devotion of Northwestern's fifth president, Erastus O. Haven, under whose administration University Hall was built, to women's issues; it was Haven who formalized the admission of women to the university.
Having served as the home of the English department for many decades, University Hall's amenable spaces have also helped foster the careers of many eminent scholars and writers, including Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners and a future Poet Laureate. Among our distinguished emeriti is Richard Ellmann, scholar of modern Irish literature, who joined the faculty in 1951, published on Yeats, Wilde, and many others, and spent seven years at work on his definitive biography of Joyce, which won the National Book Award in 1960.
Several other major scholars spent much or nearly all of their careers at Northwestern. Samuel Schoenbaum published William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life in 1975 while also editing the scholarly journal Renaissance Drama. Jean Hagstrum published many works on eighteenth-century and Romantic literature, focusing in particular on relations between poetry and painting; his approach was not only historical but also psychological. Harrison Hayford's complete edition of the works of Herman Melville, undertaken with co-editor Herschel Parker and other scholars, also went forward for many years at the slow steady pace of monumental scholarly enterprises. Ernest Samuels, who spent his entire career at Northwestern, published a definitive biography of Henry Adams in three volumes, which he wrote over a period of more than twenty years. His volume The Middle Years (1958) won the Francis Parkman Prize and the Bancroft Prize, and the final volume, Henry Adams: The Major Phase (1964), won the Pulitzer Prize; other volumes were highly honored, too. His later biography of Bernard Berenson was nominated for the National Book Award.
The fame on campus and among alumni of Bergen Evans for his "Introduction to Literature" lectures, to which as many as seven hundred students flocked to the Tech Auditorium, spread nationally when he became host of a televised quiz show in 1951. Something of an iconoclast, Evans published The Natural History of Nonsense (1946) and The Spoor of Spooks and Other Nonsense (1954), in addition to scholarly publications.
Eminent faculty teaching African American literature at Northwestern include novelists Leon Forrest and Cyrus Colter, authors of celebrated and important literary works of the 1970s through the 1990s.
Hoyt Fuller, a central figure in civil-rights era African American literary culture, taught as a visitor in 1969-70, and Margaret Walker Alexander, poet and novelist, author of For My People (poetry) and Jubilee (a novel), fundamental works of African American writing, returned to Northwestern--from which she had graduated with a BA in 1935--to teach as a visitor in 1969.
Among even earlier writers still read today, the young Bernard de Voto, later to become one of the central figures advancing a theory about literature of the American West, taught at Northwestern briefly in the 1920s. Stephen Spender, the noted English poet and writer, taught as a visitor for several years in the early 1960s; he left Northwestern to become the first foreign-born Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress (a position now called "Poet Laureate"). Spender came to Northwestern through contact with Erich Heller, for many years a professor of German, who also taught a popular course in the English Department. While Spender taught at Northwestern, his translation of Friedrich Schiller's historical drama Mary Stuart was produced by what was then Northwestern University Theater. Also through contact with Heller, W. H. Auden lectured at Northwestern in 1959. While at Northwestern, Richard Ellman brought Frank O'Connor, one of Ireland's greatest short story writers, to teach as a visitor at Northwestern in the early 1950s. Today, the department continues this tradition by hiring distinguished visiting scholars each year in Irish Studies. Among these is Maud Ellmann, Richard's daughter, who teaches at King's College, Cambridge University, and is herself the author of many highly acclaimed books on Irish and European modernism.
(See individual faculty pages for recent scholarship and writing produced by members of the English Department.)
Sources: Northwestern Observer, November 2, 2000; Jay Pridmore, Northwestern University: Celebrating 150 Years (Northwestern University Press, 2000).
Precarious: A Poetry Performance by Cecilia Vicuña
April 21, 2014 • 5:00 PM - 7:00 PM