1940s Overview

For the English department, as for the nation, the defining event of the 1940s was the war. Students, as well as faculty and staff, were called to active duty. A total of 9,508 served in the military forces; 249 died. And from 1942 to 1945, the campus was mobilized to serve the war effort—in particular through the Air Cadet Training Program, the Army Specialists Training Program, and the Civil Affairs Training School at the University of Pittsburgh (known as CATSUP). The English department provided courses in writing, public speaking, and literature. Those from the English department who saw active duty included Charles Crow, Robert X. Graham, W.D. Harrison, Buell Whitehill and George Crouch.  

When asked to comment on the role of the English department during the war years, Frederick Mayer, the department’s new chair, responded that the English department was pleased to do its duty, to be “in the war.” The teachers in the department, he said, “believe, with passion, that their subject is practical in peace and in war; and when we say ‘practical,’ we mean useful to every man in his work for wages and in his happiness as a human being.” 

By the end of the war, the University had provided training to a little over 7,000 members of the armed services. And now the university was suddenly flooded with GIs pursing a degree through the GI Bill. For the academic year 1947-48, there were 25,700 students enrolled, a substantial increase over the previous years, and 13,268 were veterans. The university struggled to find classroom and dormitory space; the department struggled to find faculty.

There were, however, significant moments in the history of the English department unrelated to World War II. Perhaps the most significant were the resignations of both Chancellor Bowman and the English department Chair, Percival Hunt. There was no immediate connection between these two resignations, but Hunt’s career had been closely aligned with Bowman’s from the time they both arrived in the early 1920s.

By the end of the 1930s, the Bowman administration was surrounded with controversy. Bowman had always opposed a code of tenure on the Pitt campus. He had expelled the student leaders of the Liberal Club. He dismissed a very popular and politically progressive Associate Professor of History, Ralph Turner. Many felt that this was due to Turner’s progressive politics (and his criticism of the Mellons). By the end of the decade of the 1930s, Bowman’s actions were being investigated by the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives, by the Board of Trustees, who had formed a faculty/board committee, and by the AAUP, who put Pitt on their blacklist. Bowman stayed on as Chancellor through the difficult war years and then, in February 1945, he asked the Board of Trustees to accept his resignation, effective July 1. The Board accepted his resignation and he was succeeded by the Provost, Rufus Henry Fitzgerald. 

Percival Hunt stepped down as department chair in 1941 and he retired in 1948.  Hunt had been the public face of the English department since the 1920s. In the 1940s, Edwin L. (Pete) Peterson had assumed this role. In the early 40s, Pitt students began to dominate the three major national literary contests, contests sponsored by Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and Story Magazine. Peterson was identified with this success. In 1939 Peterson had begun a workshop-like course, around the same time that Iowa began to be known for its “Writer’s Workshop.” By the end of the decade, the department would announce a new Writing Major, perhaps the first in the country. In the late 1940s, the department began to hire writers as well as scholars—that is, colleagues distinguished by their records as poets or novelists: George Abbe, Lawrence Lee and, as a Visiting Professor, Storm Jameson. All of this received both local and national attention.

The other defining event was the loss of the Speech Division and its faculty when, in 1949, the division was granted independent departmental status and Buell Whitehill became the Speech Department’s new chair. Whitehill had created an ambitious and successful program in theater, theater arts, public speaking and debate, and the Speech division of the English department was drawing substantial numbers of students and producing successful PhDs. In the 1940s, Whitehill turned the curriculum toward the new media of radio and cinema, with film as the focus. By the end of the decade, the Division sponsored courses in film history, film analysis, and film production. Here, too, the English department was leading the country in the ways it was redefining the range and scope of English studies. In 1949, however, the Speech division went off on its own. English lost colleagues and courses that focused on media, debate and performance. Hunt had always insisted that “reading and writing” defined the core mission of the department.   Reading, by the end of the decade, had become primarily the formal study of literature, and writing was represented more and more by the work of poets and fiction writers, “creative” writers, and the value of writing was measured in terms of national critical reception. 

Perhaps the best way to end this overview of the 1940s is with a photograph from the 1949 Conference for Writers. This was the 4th annual conference designed to bring together faculty and students from the colleges and universities of Western Pennsylvania. The 1949 conference featured Cleanth Brooks, listed as “one of America’s most important contemporary critics,” Warren Beck, an award winning fiction writer and Professor at the Bread Loaf School, Storm Jameson, the well-known British novelist and past President of the British section of Penn, and Norman Corwin, who wrote, produced and directed radio dramas for CBS. The event featured workshops for student writers and it celebrated the remarkable success of Pittsburgh students in national writing competitions: 6 awards in the 1947-48 Atlantic Contest for College Students and 6 awards in the 1948-49 Atlantic contest, including a first prize in the short-story division to Montgomery M. Culver, Jr, for his story “Black Water Blues.”