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.
Moreover, the increased size of the board of tutors has been accompanied, not by a proportional rise in the number of concentrators, but by a decrease in the time each tutor devotes to History and Lit. As a result, the tutors are to an extent less interested in History and Lit and have, some critics charge, very little idea of the field as a "synthetic" discipline. Taylor and Sterling Dow, Chairman of the Committee, have tried to alleviate the size of the problem by breaking the tutorial lunches up into fields, with the tutors in England, America and the other fields meeting in smaller groups. It is probably too early to tell how this system will work out.
One observer who doubts the efficacy of breaking down the tutorial luncheons into smaller units is Oscar Handlin, professor of history and a former chairman of the Committee on History and Literature. Handlin feels that the trouble with History and Lit is something much more basic than size.
Before the Second World War, he says, there was a "common point-of-view" in both the history and the literature departments. A potentiality for synthesis" existed; and this, according to Handlin, was the reason why the field was successful. Since the War, he argues, that common point-of-view has been lacking; the literature and history departments have moved away from each other and from the ideal of History and Lit. The dominant recent trend in the literature departments, he says, is non-historical. "This may be all to the good," he adds, "but it does undermine History and Lit."
These views on the trend of the literature departments are accepted by most history people and rejected by representatives of the English department. Bate feels that the explanation of History and Lit's difficulties is "far more complex" than Handlin would indicate. He points out that most of the courses offered by the English department are based on periods of time and that there are very few that are really unhistorical.
Brower, probably the chief spokesman at Harvard for the so-called "New Criticism" seconds Bate's point and adds that in general the adherents of a non-historical approach are "on the defensive" in the Harvard English department. Brower regards his approach to literature--"to have as full an experience as possible without thinking of time and place"--as one step away from History and Lit in order to move two steps closer.
A student should know how to read literature (and, incidentally, historical sources) before he can begin to synthesize. The problem is whether both goals--reading and synthesis--can be accomplished within a three-year period of undergraduate concentration. The departure from an historical approach, Brower feels, has been much exaggerated.
Professor Myron P. Gilmore, chairman of the history department, says that, while the Literature departments may have been moving away from the idea of History and Lit, his field has been coming closer. The emphasis is no longer on institutions, on political and military history, but rather on intellectual, social and cultural history. With History now doing some of the work of History and Lit, Gilmore and others believe, the synthetic aspect of the latter has been undermined.
Gilmore, Brower and Perry Miller feel that another important reason for History and Lit's present difficulties lies back in the Thirties themselves. The brilliant tutorial group of that period broke up rapidly because only Matthiessen and Miller were given tenure by the University; of these two, Matthiessen was a Professor of History and Literature, but Miller went into the English department and is now able to give very little time to History and Lit, his "first love." Work by senior faculty members in History and Lit is, incidently, unpaid ("purely a labor of love," says Professor Bate).
Thus, there is no avenue of advancement for young tutors interested in History and Lit; if they wish to survive, they must devote their time to a department. Under the present system, there can be no such thing as a full-time History and Lit man; the tutors are almost all quite young; there is a rapid turn-over; and senior professors, no matter how sincere their interest and concern for History and Lit, have too many departmental demands on their time to take even one or two tutees in the field. If History and Lit is to survive as a genuine synthetic disciplne, it must, Gilmore and Brower feel, have a system of permanent appointments.
The problem is, Wolff feels, that there are very few people who are "top-notch ttuors in both fields." He himself moved into History and Lit, not for an insight into a cultural entity, but "in order not to specialize too soon in either history or literature." Wolff's viewpoint is echoed by a senior concentrator who says, "I chose History and Lit, because I didn't want to spend the rest of my undergraduate life analysing poetry or learning names and dates."
Gilmore too is a bit wary of the synthesis. It is not, he says, "the entire reason" for History and Lit. The advantages of History and Lit, in his view, are that it is less comprehensive than history--it does not require a spread over a broad area of time or place--and provides a combination of historical and literary analysis. In some cases, he feels, the synthesis may even be "a little forced," and the fact that the synthesis is less evident now than in the past should not be considered a complete condemnation."
Thought he admires the synthesis as "an ideal goal," Professor Handlin questions whether it is worth recapturing. The successful synthesis of the Thirties, he says, rested on a "genuine point-of-view." It would not be worthwhile, he feels, to use such devices as breaking up the tutorial lunches to achieve an "artificial unity."
The present chairman of the Committee on History and Literature, Sterling Dow, does not talk of the field in terms of the synthesis. He predicts that "a new, non-mystical view of History and Lit will lead to more emphasis on the integrity of history and of literature." The value of History and Lit, Dow comments, is the value of knowing both disciplines, of "having two kinds of training, learning about creative art and social study."
The views of Wolff, Gilmore and Dow on this question may be, as Taylor puts it, "idiosyncratic." But the non-believers in the synthesis, if a minority, are a significant one, and there is remarkably little feeling for the fusion among the undergraduate concentrators. Students go into History and Lit, it would seem, in order to get some amount of experience with both disciplines; and most of them probably get nothing more than that out of the field, for the confu-