History and Literature: A Synthetic Dicipline

History and Literature is a synthesis presupposing a valid cultural unity--rather vague terms, which no one on the Committee (H & L is not a department) is eager to define.

The idea of presuming to teach History and Lit as a synthesis--and not as a combination--necessitates a meeting-ground. Someplace, literature must be taught as history and vice versa. There is some consensus as to when this is valid--as, for example, that the art of a Shakespeare can be studied as craftsmanship whereas it is more profitable to approach Herman Wouk as a statement of group adjustment; but the dividing line never really becomes clear.

Often considered a compromise between a major in English and a major in History, History and Lit is in fact an older field of concentration than either of its would-be parents. When the field was established in 1906, the College was under President Eliot's free elective system. A student might take 16 totally unrelated courses and, after passing each one, would never again be asked to remember what he had learned.

According to Elliott Perkins, the quasi-official "historian" of History and Lit, a group of professors led led by Barrett Wendell and Abbott Lawrence Lowell (then professor of government) considered the free elective system "educational anarchy" and secured faculty authorization for a committee "to administer degrees with distinction in History and Literature." Thus History and Lit became Harvard's first field of concentration; when Lowell became President in 1909, he began to push the idea of concentration and general examinations, but not until the Class of 1921 did every student have a field of concentration.

The first History and Lit majors graduated in 1909. During their upperclass years, in addition to taking regular courses, they had done special reading under the direction of Committee members--perhaps the first example of tutorial at Harvard. With no formal courses of its own, History and Lit through the years has remained essentially a tutorial field.

Barrett Wendell chose History and Lit as the discipline with which to start the concentration system because, according to Perkins, he saw a "natural intellectual union" between history and literature. History was then taught mainly in terms of institutions--politics, battles and dates--and Wendell and his colleagues felt that a study of literature would make history come alive and that history would make literature more meaningful.

Idealogues of History and Lit have since expanded or amended Wendell's views, but for most the "natural intellectual union" of the disciplines has remained the chief justification for the existence of History and Lit. Perkins, for example, "cannot see how Shakespeare could have written as he did at any other time or place." The writings of Swift, he says, are "redolent of the eighteenth century."

History and Lit underwent a slow growth for about twenty-five years. In 1923, in addition to the Committee, there was a two-man board of tutors; enrollment began to build up in the Twenties and by 1929 there were six tutors and 60 to 70 students. The Depression brought about severe budget limitations, and History and Lit was unable to hire additional tutors. As a result, concentration in the field, hitherto unrestricted, was limited to 50 Harvard and 15 Radcliffe students.

The Thirties were, in many ways, the "Golden Age" of History and Lit. The new limitation on enrollment had just taken effect, and F.O. Matthiessen, chairman of the board of tutors, began to emphasize the honors character of the field. History and Lit became, Perkins says, "insensibly, by circumstance, not by original plan" an honors field. A mystique grew up around the field; there was a tendency for History and Lit people to talk in terms of "we happy few;" they felt, as one observer put it, that "everybody from T. S. Eliot to Marx can be understood in terms of History and Lit."

History and Lit was now thought of as a field for an elite--a reputation that many concentrators and tutors have since tried to live down--but more important was the esprit de corps of the tutorial staff. It was a small, brilliant group, led by Matthiessen and Perry Miller; there was a feeling that they were doing something unique and important in the Harvard curriculum. There were disagreements, to be sure--some tutorial meetings ended in fistfights--but enough agreement existed on central principles and objectives to make History and Lit a great, cohesive field.

The History and Literature that the tutors of the Thirties taught and at which some current tutors aim went beyond Barrett Wendell's original aims. It was a synthesis of the disciplines rather than a combination; it sought an understanding of an entire period or country through the study of history and literature. "An insight into a country or period as a cultural entity" is still a prime goal of History and Lit, William R. Taylor, current chairman of the board of tutors says.

But there were dissidents even in the Thirties, and the personalities of Matthiessen ("History and Literature incarnate," according to Prof. Robert Wolff, a concentrator of the period) and of the rest of the tutors were the main cohesive force. "It was, more than anything, a meeting of a few minds," says Professor Reuben A. Brower, "and who knows how something like that happens?"

The extraordinary tutorial group of the Thirties did not stick together long. Only two--Matthiessen and Miller--were promoted by Harvard, and the rest drifted away to other schools. The "synthesis" became more and more difficult, and some even questioned its value. Now it is mentioned more as an idealistic goal than as something normally and readily achieved.

Most people now connected with the field agree that it is not the same now as it was twenty years ago. Yet there is little agreement as to how this has come about and what, if anything, to do about it.

Professor Walter Bate, formerly chairman of the Committee on History and Literature and now head of the English department, feels that the increased size of the tutorial staff is the main factor. As recently as 1947-48 there were only nine tutors; there are now twenty-nine. It is difficult for twenty-nine people to get around a table at the weekly tutorial luncheons to work out something of a common point-of-view.