Composition: History & Theory: 1865 - 1899
In Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987), Gerald Graff explains that English in the 1860s still meant elocution and rhetoric. Because students would enter the fields of politics and law where oratorical powers were essential, English classes taught elocution. In addition, writing competitions were tied to oratory. “Yale students were relieved from recitation once a week to read their compositions out loud” and engage in disputes,” Graff explains, “The president commented on students’ performance and manner of delivery (43). In 1865, the study of English literature evolved from oratory and elocution to composition. Harvard introduced a course in “reading English aloud” which later changed into a composition requirement (44). Literary Societies: English literature was first introduced by literary societies and their libraries. In these literary societies, students debated public and cultural issues of their time such as their religious doubts (45). The Waning of Oratorical Culture: One of the most famous people to revitalize elocution was Hiram Corson. He believed that “what is needed is not more talk about literature, but the literature itself” (47). In addition, Corson highlighted that the only means of capturing the spiritual essence of a poem was through reading it out loud (48). The second promoter of literary elocution was Robert Cumnock. He was, as his students described him, not interested in public issues at that time but with the literature of an earlier age (50).
Due to the fact that the teachers who taught the Classics were the same ones to teach English literature in the preprofessional era, the class routine was the same. Just like the Classics, literature was subordinate with grammar, rhetoric and logic. The recitation method remained in force. However, the surrounding literary culture provided an enlivening context for the English courses (36). In the English classes of the 1890s, students “passed through four years of a college course without once hearing from the lips of an instructor in the class-room the name of a single English author or the title of a single English classic” (37). Women were encouraged to pursue subjects such as English literature because it was considered a feminine preoccupation. They were also encouraged to avoid tackling masculine subjects such as mathematics, Greek and sciences. It was believed that “women’s minds were incapable of rigorous intellectual tasks” which explains the high number of female writers in the nineteenth century (37). An English class included: a grammar lesson, calling for the meaning of words, the connection of clauses, biography, historical facts, etc. In other words, students studied literary texts in a historical, linguistic manner. Among the first to deviate from the traditional pedagogical practices to the other extreme of impressionism was Lowell. He drew upon his knowledge and familiarity with the text in class and neglected to attend faculty meetings or read students’ papers.
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