A Brief History of Creative Writing’s Academic Origins

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Today I started reading D.G. Myers The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880First of all, this title is a bit deceptive since Myers does discuss events prior to 1880, but these events are important to note since they brought about the creation of English Composition at Harvard, which in turn had a number of faculty members in those first years that helped bring about Creative Writing as the academic discipline we know today.

One thing I didn’t expect in this reading was the entrance of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa Address titled, “The American Scholar,” Emerson states “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.” This, Myers notes, is the first time we see creative and writing used together as a term, and yet fifty years after this discussion, there was yet to see any evidence of what Emerson was trying to point his listener’s toward: a more humanistic approach to English. (To add: Emerson also discussed “symbolic sight” by which poets reveal the spirit within matter, so I suppose I really shouldn’t be surprised at finding Emerson is a part of all this. Thank you, Emerson. I owe you one.)

While Emerson wasn’t turning toward the concept of Creative Writing as we understand it today, he was trying to steer students away from the then present teachings of Philology, which focused on studying English as a language, in all its practicality. Literature was only taught to examine language and rhetoric, and not taught to examine the spiritual, or more humanistic or artistic approaches to that literature. This, of course, grew out of things like Darwinism and the importance of rational, scientific discourse that everyone saw as important in a good education. Literary study just wasn’t a part of this.

And what Emerson was trying to point toward was a study of literature we do and know of today, and that is a literary discussion and critique. With this new openness for literature, which became a subject at Harvard with teachers like A.S. Hill, the man who could be considered the “father” of Creative Writing as a discipline Barrett Wendell, Le Baron Briggs, and Charles Copeland, came creative writing.

But when I say out of them came Creative Writing, I am not telling the entire truth since CW wasn’t really a subject yet. Instead, it was English Composition (which formerly had been called the New English). It is simply that the teaching practices of instructors like A.S. Hill, Barrett Wendell, and Charles Copeland helped bring about creative writing as a discipline.

A.S. Hill wrote Principles of Rhetoric (1878) founded on the belleristic notion that elements of literary style are suitable for any type of speech or writing. While Hill was essentialist in his thinking, and embraced ideals of Platonic authorship in that he felt that innate genius had something to do with good writing, he was also moving toward a constructivist approach  in that writing could be seen as a way humans construct a self. Further, there are four features of Hill’s idea of composition that mirror Creative Writing:

  1. Literary over the rhetorical
  2. Writing is thought of in terms of its intrinsic demands
  3. Writing is a constructive activity that depends on judgement and devise a solution to a unique problem of literary form.
  4. Writing is a liberal art, and an effort to retrieve English from Philology and Rhetorical dogmatism.

While it would seem at A.S. Hill could be considered the “father” (and yes, I hate using that word almost as much as you hate seeing it) of Creative Writing, Barrett Wendell appears a more likely candidate. Wendell was hired to teach an advanced composition class at Harvard and in his classes he required his students to write a daily theme, and it is from him that we get this idea of writing a theme in Composition classes. While you may scoff at the daily theme idea, this had an instructional purpose in that they were used as a scaffold to help students write longer, more complex essays, which he had students turn in every two weeks.

What is unique about Wendell in terms of him ushering in a place for Creative writing is that he required the writing his students turned in had an effect on the audience and not just show that students understood the content of the material, which is what other writing teachers asked students to do. And sure, there are rhetorical elements here, such as the notion of audience effect, but this is as rhetorical as Longinus is rhetorical.

Myers argues that Wendell reinvented the teaching of writing in five ways:

  1. Writing was the subject of instruction. Writing was no longer part of another discipline. Instead, writing was its own discipline.
  2. Writing is not just rhetorical, but also about expression, personal or social or otherwise.
  3. Writing Required literary judgement and aesthetic cultivation for it to be successful
  4. Writers should be the teachers of writing
  5. Purpose of writing is not scholarly examination, but also in the making of that writing. In other words, there needs to be a purpose for why the writer constructed the essay as he or she did (hence, the rhetorical mention in #2).

While Wendell did a lot to help us understand English composition, as well as help create a space for creative writing in the university, Le Baron Briggs is sometimes seen as taking his place in this roll call, if you will, but only because he was seen as a better teacher than Wendell and students simply liked him more. In other words, Myers seems to argue that Le Baron Briggs was the “cool kid” everyone wanted to be and people liked him and therefore they wanted to give him the credit for this, but it really wasn’t him. Just laying that down for you all.

The final instructor, Charles Copeland, seemed to argue for a less romantic and and less imaginative type of writing, and looked more to writing as reporting. The only reason Myers seems to mention him is because he told students to write of life as they see it, and that is one of the big tenets in creative writing: a creative writer can only write what they know.

What I found interesting in this reading was how English Composition and its close cousin, Creative Writing, came about because people were sick and tired of the scientific approach to studying literature, which came about because of Darwin, etc. They wanted to harken back to the Romantics and their way of thinking, which of course brings us all back to the idea of Platonic authorship, or the Author-Genius. And really, many of these Harvard instructors mentioned that, but they also can be seen as constructivists as well, as Copeland asks them to write of the world as they see it and Hill believed that writing helped to relay a sense of self. But they were all doing what Emerson had mentioned in his address in 1837: emphasize a creative thinking and a creative writing. Something far removed from the philological study that was ever-present at Harvard until Charles W. Eliot begin his presidency at Harvard and ushered in A.S Hill and others to teach English Composition.


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