THE DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA ON THE BERKELEY CAMPUS -or, George R. Stewart gets the last word

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, George R. Stewart found himself at the mercy of a new Head of the English Department.  Department Head Montague and Stewart did not get along; and Montague refused to give Stewart a promotion he’d earned.  In hindsight, it was a gift – Stewart turned to writing outside the traditional field of English because he needed the extra income.  (It took an underground effort by several of Stewart’s colleagues to get him his promotion; GRS did not know of their efforts until Oral Historian Suzanne Riess told him about it decades later.)

Stewart  went on to become the star of the Department, writing bestseller after bestseller, inventing new kinds of literature, teaching well, and helping with Department and Library work.  He had an independent, somewhat crotchety view of Department and University affairs; so he was surprised when the Department of English asked him to write its history,for the University’s Centennial in 1968.

The Department of English of the University of California on the Berkeley Campus is a remarkable consideration of what makes an English Department good, or not good, based in large part on a discussion of the personalities of the Berkeley Department.   It is thus part history, part biography, part educational philosophy, part poetry.  As expected, the history is beautifully written, in Stewart’s usual fine style – which itself, with its restrained tone, reflects the methods of earlier days in the Department.

He writes at some length about the curriculum which an English Department should follow.  This may have been partly inspired by ongoing attempts by the University’s upper management to insist that the job of the English Department was to teach composition, not literature.  Stewart insists that the teaching of literature is key, and core to the mission.  The deep meanings of words, for him, carry the history of the values and the experiences of Mankind; literature, also, preserves the values of its time.  So to teach literature is to teach the history of human values over the millennia.  Thus, literature is as important as composition in an English Department.

The ideal English professor, Stewart once wrote, is a political liberal and an educational conservative.  The professor must have a ‘generous and tolerant’ – that is, “liberal” –  attitude toward books, and work  to conserve the literature of the past as a repository of the values of history.  He viewed the curriculum as a hearth – lovely image – around which faculty members gather.

One wonders how he’d feel about the current Berkeley English curriculum, which seems to downplay the work of 20th century American authors, like himself – there is no course at Berkeley which considers his work or that of his Berkeley colleagues.  But as he points out in his book, the Department goes through periods of greatness and mediocrity, times when composition for employment takes precedence and times when the idea of literature as the conservator of values comes to the forefront.  And as his own life shows the Department sometimes enters a Golden Age when someone like Stewart breaks out of the mold, changes human thought, invents new types of books, and otherwise shows the kind of work a Department of English OUGHT to be doing.

Golden Ages are rare, and hard to sustain, and Stewart realized that.  So he finished the work by calling The Department of English a testament to The Department in its first century. He wrote, “Few people, I think, will read this small book, and even who those will be, I  scarcely know.”

Yet this is a book which every member of an English Department and every English major should read, for its careful consideration of the purposes of an English Department, as illustrated by the history and personalities of the first century of the Department of English of the University of California on the Berkeley Campus.

Writing the history, Stewart  got the last word about the Head of the Department who had kept him from his deserved promotion (and thus propelled him into his writing career).  He described  the years under Montague as the “11 bad years.”   And his description of those years presented a place of fear and suspicion, under the “leadership” of someone almost dictatorial in how he ran the Department.  It’s Stewart’s take on things, of course; but since it was in a Department-approved publication it’s safe to assume that it has truth to it.

The book was elegantly printed by Lawton and Alfred Kennedy, fine printers in San Francisco.  Relatively few copies were printed, so it’s hard to find now.  But for those interested in Berkeley, its Department of English, or the study of English, it’s worth seeking.  For anyone else, it’s a good read, and provocative.

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