1950s Footnotes

Creative Writing:  Who’s on First, Pitt or Iowa?

From Iowa to Pittsburgh and Back Again

The University of Iowa English department is a natural reference point for the English department at Pitt, since the ties between the two have been both frequent and deep.  

The formal connection began with Percival Hunt, who chaired the Iowa department and who was part of a group teaching courses in fiction writing, courses cited as precursors to the Iowa Writers Workshop. John G. Bowman, a former President at the University of Iowa, brought Hunt to Chair the Pittsburgh English department when he came as the University of Pittsburgh’s 10th Chancellor in 1921. Once in Pittsburgh, Hunt continued to teach and to promote courses in fiction writing, while also guiding the Composition program and its interests in the literary essay. Hunt’s Pittsburgh student, John Gerber, who received his BA and MA from our department, went on to chair the English department at Iowa (1961-1976) and to write a history of English at Iowa  (The Teaching of English at the University of Iowa:  Volume 1, The First One Hundred Years, 1861-1961, Maecenas Press, 1995).

Gerald Stern and Jack Gilbert in Paris in the 1950s

Iowa was the first to have a course in creative writing, if by “creative writing” we mean a course in the writing of fiction or poetry. According to Gerber, the first Iowa creative writing course was a “verse-making” class taught by George Cram Cook in 1896. The course was later titled “Versification” and taught by Cook until he left Iowa in 1899. In the Fall of 1899, Clarke Fisher Ansley taught a two semester advanced composition course at Iowa which included assignments in the short story.  

In 1902, Percival Hunt, who was directing the Iowa composition program, first taught Iowa’s short story course, a course he would elect to teach when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1921, just as, in Pittsburgh, he would bring the techniques of fiction into his advanced composition courses. At Iowa, as at Pittsburgh, the line between composition and creative writing was not rigidly drawn. Hunt’s composition courses drew upon literary values in promoting description and narration in expository essays. As Gerber says, “Almost as though he were teaching poetry writing, Hunt insisted on careful attention in narrative writing to structure and to the color and connotations of individual words.” Gerber lists Hunt as one of the “true fathers” of Iowa’s creative writing program.

In Pitt’s English department, the first course in the short story, “The Art of the Short Story,” was taught by George Gerwig in 1910, a decade before Hunt’s arrival. Gerwig pursued a career in Pittsburgh outside the university but continued to teach evening and extension courses, including courses in short fiction. In 1912 his course was titled “Materials and Methods of Fiction.” In 1910, Lincoln Robinson Gibbs joined the University of Pittsburgh English department as Professor and Chair. He taught a course in the short story in 1914 as part of the regular college curriculum, where it remained a standard offering. Gibbs’ students include the novelist Hervey Allen (who said, “I owe much to the good Dr. Gibbs”) and the children’s writer, Marie McSwigan.   Percival Hunt began to teach the short story course and to promote writing in the Pittsburgh curriculum, both fiction and nonfiction, when he arrived in 1921 to replace Gibbs as chair.  

The Writing Major and The Writer’s Workshop

The next step, however, is not so clear—that is, the step beyond individual courses to a defined area of study. Our department was the first of the two to offer an undergraduate Writing Major (in 1946). Iowa does not have an undergraduate major in writing, although there is a creative writing “track” within the English major. Iowa, however, was the first to offer a graduate program in creative writing. In the early 1930s, Paul Engle received the first Iowa MA based on a book of poems rather than a thesis. In 1941 Engle would be appointed as Director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, an MFA program in creative writing. Pitt’s MFA program was created in the 1970s.   

But what about the designation, “Writer’s Workshop”? This term refers to both a method of teaching and a gathering of established writers in support of those who would aspire to a writing career. According to Gerber, the workshop as a way of teaching came to Iowa in 1905 when Edwin Ford Piper had students discussing and evaluating their own work. Pittsburgh had advanced writing courses in the 1920s and these were taught by Hunt and his colleagues. It is hard to know, however, if they could be called “workshops.”  

We do know that in Pittsburgh in 1939, Edwin Peterson (who learned from Hunt to teach writing) developed a new course, “Conference in Writing,” where 15 students met regularly in the Early American Nationality Room to share work in progress—poetry, fiction, and fiction. In this course, Peterson said, “students are really writing, not just talking about it.” This is the first direct reference at Pitt to a work-shop like course. Although Piper’s Iowa writing seminar was informally referred to as a workshop, that name was never in the Iowa catalog until 1939, when the course listing said, “Writer’s Workshop, credit arranged.” It is certainly possible that Hunt and Peterson and others, like Emily Irvine, were teaching workshop-like courses at Pitt before 1939.   

In 1936, Iowa began to bring writers to campus as visitors to give readings and to meet with students, this under the direction of Wilbur Schramm. And in 1939 Peterson created the first of what would be an annual Writer’s Conference at Pitt, where leading figures in writing and publishing would come to campus in the summer for a program of discussions on writing, publishing and editing. The program also included seminars where the participants would meet with student writers to talk with them about their manuscripts. In 1945, Paul Engle was an invited participant in the Pittsburgh Writer’s Conference. And in the 1940s, Pittsburgh began to bring published writers to campus as visiting (and then as regular) members of the faculty.

Iowa was the first to develop a graduate program in Creative Writing. Pittsburgh was the first to develop an undergraduate major. In the 1930s, both developed a faculty, a course structure, and a program to bring student writers into contact with publishers, editors, agents and authors. These programs were carefully conceived, well supported and fully developed. That Pittsburgh would conceive and develop a program for undergraduates is part of the legacy of Percival Hunt, who had always argued that the study of English was, most properly, the study of reading and writing, a preparation for life rather than the beginning of a career.

The Writing Major at the University of Pittsburgh

For readers who have not read through the “Courses” page for the 1940s, it might be useful to return to the original document (1946) announcing the Writing Major at the University of Pittsburgh.  

Percival Hunt had stepped down as Chair in 1941 and he retired in 1948, but he remained on campus and was an active presence in the department. Edwin (Pete) Peterson was his protégé and his successor. We’ve already written a good bit about Peterson, but he had Hunt’s ability to engage generations of students and teachers with writing as a course of study. The new writing major was, most surely, a joint effort, and one that engaged others in the department, but of the two at the center, Hunt and Peterson, it was Peterson who most valued writing for the professional opportunities it might provide.      

The original announcement described the major in these terms:

The English department offers, in addition to its usual major in English, a special major in writing. This is an integrated program of courses in composition (journalism, fiction, advertising, radio, verse, and article) and in literature and criticism that trains students to take advantage of the opportunities in writing now open to young men and young women. 

From the core courses (still referred to as composition courses), students would learn the “special skills of writing”: 

how to get a character from one room to another, how to edit a news story for accuracy of statement, how in a magazine article to make a fresh and true approach—how, in short, to put down in words whatever emphasis and interest an experience has for the writer.

Central to the major, however, was the belief that,      

to be successful, a writer must know more than the skills and techniques of his craft. It is equally important that he have something to say, that he be informed in as many fields of human interest as possible. 

Gerald Stern and Jack Gilbert at NYU in 2009And so the program relied on faculty advisers who would direct students not only toward courses in literature but to courses in other department, “in fine arts or history or biology—in any of the social and the natural sciences.” This was one of program’s most distinctive features, the gesture to send students away from literature and toward other methods for engaging the world.

In establishing a Writing Major, the department was also making a commitment to bringing distinguished writers to campus to give lectures, to meet with small group of students, and to discuss student manuscripts. One way this was accomplished was through annual conference (begun in the 1930s by Peterson) bringing writers, critics and editors to campus to discuss contemporary writing, publishing, editing, and the teaching of writing. The department would also sponsor a magazine of student writing, MSS (Manuscripts: Writing at the University of Pittsburgh),” and, following the success of Peterson’s students in national competitions, the Atlantic Monthly promised a four year scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh for the winner of their annual writing contest for high school students.  

Student Writing

In the 1950s, Edwin Peterson continued to edit and publish an annual collection of student writing: MSS: Manuscripts--Writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Below are some sample entries from this decade, including prize-winners from the Atlantic student writing competition. The first was written by Montgomery Culver, who would later become director of the English department’s program in Creative Writing.  

"Black Water Blues" by Montgomery Culver

"One Happy Family" by Donald E. Baker

"The Success of Scott Fitzgerald" by James T. Steen

"A Crown for the King" by Martin S. Madancy

"Restoration Samson" by Robert H. Wilcox

"A Pair of Shoes for Maria" by Meredith Carpenter

"The Trouper" by Diane Dimon

"The Peasant's Son" by Irene Powlenok

"Heritage" by Irene K. Davis