Foreword
Redefining
American Literature
In the fall of 1896, William Lyon Phelps was an assistant professor at
Harvard, and he introduced the concept of an American literature in the
United States for the very first time. He chose Poe and Hawthorne, Mel-
ville, Whitman, and Dickinson. In the ensuing semester he was told to stop
teaching, and I'm quoting, that "so-called American literature." He was
threatened with dismissal. Phelps went on, of course, as we already know,
to agitate for the inclusion of American literature in American colleges and
universities. That "so-called literature" phrase may sound familiar when
one thinks of Americo Paredes, for one, who established the Center for
Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, and of the
men and women at other institutions who established Chicano Studies
programs in the late sixties.
Now, as for Phelps, I doubt very much if it entered his head to include,
say, African-American literature or to wonder if there were any other Amer-
ican literatures except his New England variety. However, his stance is un-
derstandable. American literature, though, even the New England variety,
was by no means widely accepted in the United States, or rather in univer-
sity curricula, despite the later presence of Crane, Twain, Dean Howells,
Dreiser, and so on. I should like to add two additional facts. The first is that
the first Ph.D. in American literature is a twentieth-century phenomenon.
The second is that it wasn't until after World War II that a degree in that
literature was added to the curriculum in America's heartland, Kansas and
Missouri.
American literature professors of the time faced the same problems,
headaches, and opposition to its offerings as did the professors of Hispanic-
American literature in the Romance language departments in this country
for the first fifty years of this century. It wasn't until after 1957 that
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