1920s Overview


Cathedral Construction

This is the decade of Bowman and Hunt, and it is one of the most significant decades in the long history of English at the University of Pittsburgh. The 1920s mark the emergence of a modern English department, with a comprehensive curriculum (rather than a list of available courses) and a research faculty large enough to support it. The transformation begins in 1921 when John G. Bowman is appointed Chancellor.   

By temperament and education, the new Chancellor was prepared to see the English department as central to the mission of a modern university.  Bowman completed his BA and MA in English at the University of Iowa, where he was also active in the literary societies. He taught introductory courses in English (literature and composition), first at Iowa, as a graduate student, and then at Columbia.   In 1917, he published a book of poems, “Happy All Day Through,” and, in 1926, “The World That Was,” a memoir of childhood through a series of short, lyric essays. 

Bowman left Columbia in 1907 to serve as the Secretary of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  In 1911, he returned to the University of Iowa to serve as its 9th (and youngest) President, a position he held until 1914, when he resigned after a confrontation with the Iowa Board of Education.   In 1915 he became the Director of the American College of Physicians and Surgeons, and, in 1921, he was appointed the tenth Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, with the charge to build a great American university.  

Chancellor John G. Bowman

It was Chancellor Bowman who imagined and then created the Cathedral of Learning. And he worked as aggressively to reform the institution. He closed departments, opposed the granting of tenure, demanded curriculum reform and, in the first year alone, he called for and received the resignations of 53 faculty members. In his first Chancellor’s report, he addressed the importance of writing in the undergraduate curriculum. By 1923, with the support of the Board of Trustees, he made the ability to write a “satisfactory page of English prose” a requirement for any student graduating from any School at the University of Pittsburgh.  

And as part of this mission, Bowman recruited his Iowa colleague, Percival Hunt, to Chair the English department. Hunt had created and directed Iowa’s composition program (“Constructive Rhetoric”) from 1904 to 1919. He had also taught fiction in a program that was the precursor to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He was a fabled teacher and a much admired administrator. He joined the Pittsburgh department in 1921 at the rank of Professor; in 1922, he was appointed department Chair, replacing Lincoln Robinson Gibbs. Gibbs left a year later to join the faculty at the University of Miami.

In the next two years, Percival Hunt hired seven Assistant Professors; in the decade of the 20s, he hired a total of 14, a remarkable number considering past hiring practices, and this group included Ellen Mary Geyer, the first woman to hold a tenure track position in the English department. In 1924, Hunt hired Hoyt Hopewell Hudson at the rank of Professor.    

Hudson had just received his PhD from the rhetoric program at Cornell, a program said to have revived the teaching of Classical Rhetoric across colleges and universities in the U.S. Although hired to help shape the department, Hudson didn’t last long. He left in 1927 to take a position as an Associate Professor at Princeton, where he went on to a distinguished career, including an appointment as Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory and Chair of the English department. Hudson ended his career at Stanford.    

Percival Hunt would continue to chair Pitt’s English department for almost two decades, until 1941. He was certainly one of the most influential figures in the development of our programs in Composition, Writing and Literature. In 1936, the University awarded him an honorary doctoral degree.

In her history of the University, Agnes Lynch Starrett says,

For one who has been a student of Professor Hunt for fifteen years, to stop with merely a mention of his name is difficult. His standards for English composition, the basis of all teaching in the English department, are tradition among hundreds of men and women who have been his students through more than thirty years of teaching, at the University of Iowa and in Pittsburgh. Charmed hours in his Shakespeare and poetry classes are cherished by many, among the intangible abiding riches of the College.