The best thing about English 28 is that the subject matter was not written by college professors. No matter how dull the lectures, no matter how deadening the interpretations of section men, one cannot read a selection of the greatest examples of prose and poetry in the English language without a deal of pleasure and profit. For the man who has no pronounced literary interests, for the man who does not know what has been written that is good, or for the man who will not read unless he has been forced into doing it, English 28 is worth taking. For others, it is decidedly not.
The reading, mostly culled from the familiar "From Beowulf to Thomas Hardy," covers more or less completely the whole of English literature to the end of the nineteenth century. The emphasis is on the recognized great names, and the most of minor writers are disregarded. Little historical knowledge of the periods beyond a rough approximation of dates is required. The two section meetings each week are devoted mostly to elucidation of the meaning and significance of the selections read; they vary, as in all such courses, with the quality of the section men. On the whole, the English 28 staff is anything but inspiring. The two 1500-word papers required each term may be made irksome tasks or pleasant experiments, as the individual wills.
The weekly lectures, which are given by an imposing roster of all the shining lights of the department, are lamentably disappointing. The course has been aptly called a revue; it should be added that the songs and dances of the professorial chorines are in the main dusty and dull. Instead of creating vivid pictures of the great English men of letters and their work, most of the lecturers, through sloth or indifference, confine themselves to a leisurely recounting of when an author lived, where he went to school, what he wrote, and what critics have said about him since; and all of that can be read in more lucid form in Moody and Lovett. There are exceptions, Professor Murray on Shakespeare and Professor Lowes on the Romantic Poets being the most notable. But it is true in general, that Harvard's best scholars talking about England's best writers give the world's worst lectures.
The obstacles of the survey course are met and conquered with unusual ease in this history of American literature from its youthful beginning to what some still feel is its equally young position in modern times. But few obstacles may be surmounted without some application, and in a course of this nature it takes the pleasant shape of reading in the authors who make up our literature.
The first half-year deals with American writers up through Poe and Cooper, the majority of whom fall into the Colonial period. While such men as Mather, Edwards, and Bradford are looked upon today as boring chroniclers of a forgotten age, the enthusiastic reader can readily find much of worth and even enjoyment in these old pages. True, in this early stage of American Literature there is more than enough of the much feared religious tract or dismal "ideas on the mind," but these may be reconciled by an hour with Franklin and the Gout or Trumbull and his "Tory Squire."
What most people think of as the true American literature is dealt with in the second half year, starting with Hawthorne and continuing through to T. S. Eliot. This section of the course obviously requires more extensive reading, but it is reading of an enjoyable nature, including much of Hawthorne, a novel of Twain and Henry James, and selections from all the lesser men of the day.
The lectures, seldom more than two a week, ably amplify and analyse the reading, casting ample light upon the eccentricities of the writers. Made the more enjoyable by the reading of short pieces of prose interspersed among the more facts of the work these talks illustrate the authors in a way that may easily form for one a real love for the American writers.
For the student of American history or literature this course is essential, and for the harassed scientist looking for some easy, though enjoyable manner by which he may pass off his literature requirement it may be taken without the fear of spending one's time in the drudgery of uninteresting reading.
This is a course refreshingly free from the many academic blights to which courses in literature are subject. Strictly speaking, it is more than a course in literature, though it deals with one of the masterpieces of the language, since Professor Lake succeeds in examining, with superb balance, all the aspects of the Bible, historical, linguistic, sociological, economic, literary, which can properly be taken up in one half-course. By the time of the final exam, the student has explored a masterpiece of two nations along many levels, most of which he had not before suspected, and he may flatter himself that he knows one work, if not thoroughly, at least whole. There will be less temptation for him to cut meetings of this course, incidentally, than almost any other he can take; the prospect of a reading from the professor is enough to draw even the most reluctant student. English 35a is an admirable course for men who are not concentrating in English; it opens to anyone the agreeable opportunity of learning one of the four or five greatest books in the world, with almost none of the usual scholarly paraphernalia, and with great chances of getting very close indeed to the heart of it.
For those wishing to study English literature without having too much stress placed on its history and chronological development, English 79 provides a good means of escape. Little attention is paid to the lives of the writers, except where they throw considerable light on the work, and dates may be forgotten almost entirely. The first half year is devoted to poetry, the second to prose. The elementary principles of literary criticism are taken up.
Although some of the reading is new, there is much that has already become quite familiar in the upper grades of school work, but if one has not had a thorough grounding in English literature before entering college, and desires to learn to appreciate the great authors of the mother language, English 79 is a highly satisfactory course.