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Old Main Circa 1885
Old Main, c. 1885

English at Minnesota is as old as the University itself. The first University president, educational reformer Williams Watts Folwell, taught grammar and elocution and hired the first professors of Rhetoric and English Literature. The second president, Cyrus Northrop, arrived in 1884 from Yale where he was a professor of Rhetoric and English Literature. In 1885, the same year that the Modern Language Association formed, the Department of English was formally established with three faculty members: President Northrop, Assistant Professor Matilda J. Wilkin, and Northrop’s Yale colleague George E. MacLean, the latter as chair (Right, Old Main in 1885). English awarded its first PhD in 1897, at a time when English was not yet a modern departmentalized and professionalized discipline nationwide.

Prestigious faculty

English faculty have always been in the vanguard, setting new directions in literary scholarship, criticism, and theory as well as founding or building new interdisciplinary fields. Frederick Klaeber brought German philology to the University in 1893 and produced what is still the standard edition of Beowulf. Other early leading professors include Shakespeare scholar Elmer Edgar Stoll and medievalist Martin Ruud.

Joseph Warren Beach, hired in 1907, assembled one of the finest English departments in the United States and pioneered the study of American literature. Later, several of his colleagues founded and led the American Studies program, one of the first in the nation. In the 1940s, English became a major hub of the New Criticism, attracting such movement leaders as Robert Penn Warren, Leonard Unger, and Allen Tate.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, four Pulitzer Prize winners regularly taught English courses at Minnesota: poet and novelist Penn Warren, poets John Berryman and James Wright, and novelist Saul Bellow. “I wrote a poem about hockey and took it to a writers’ club meeting,” BA alumnus Garrison Keillor has written. “Wright said something encouraging about it and my face burned with pleasure.”

English professors such as Toni McNaron were active in the founding and development of Women’s Studies in the early 1970s; she and John Wright, later to be an English professor, also helped to start African American Studies. In 1985, the department established a three-year MFA program in creative writing, which quickly became ranked among the top ten in the nation.

Modern Legacies

Today, the faculty do research and teaching on an array of topics in Medieval, Early Modern, 18th-19th century, and 20th-21st century literature, culture, and theory as well as in such interdisciplinary fields as environmental, feminist, LGBT, media, and postcolonial studies. The department publishes two literary magazines: the undergraduate Ivory Tower and the faculty-graduate student Great River Review. We host dozens of free public events annually, including the Esther Freier Lectures in Literature and the Edelstein-Keller Visiting Writer Series, which have presented such award-winning writers as Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Claudia Rankine, Nuruddin Farah, J. M. Coetzee, and Louise Glück.

History, innovation, and excellence: English at Minnesota.