1950s Overview

In the 1940s the department was radically redefined. Rhetoric, debate, theater, performance, the new media of film, radio and TV—the faculty and students with interests in these areas went to a newly formed Speech department (where, in a short period of time, theater, performance and the new media would become an afterthought). And English created a new undergraduate Writing Major, formalizing a long standing interest in student writing, but insisting for the first time on a division between “creative writing” and the forms of writing gathered under the older designations of “composition” and “literature.” In the 1950s, then, the faculty in English was left to make sense of the new structures created in the 40s. While much was going on, there is not much to report.

The decade of the 1950s was also a time of significant faculty turn-over. The department had grown dramatically in the 1920s and 1930s, and that older generation was moving quickly toward retirement. In the period 1947 to 1959, in the tenure track faculty, there were 7 retirements, 4 deaths and 5 resignations, a total of 16; and this in a department of 28 (26 in the 1940s). Eleven assistant professors were hired in the 1950s, and some of them were promoted quite rapidly to Associate rank. 

The Humanities

In July 1956, Edward Litchfield became the university’s 12th Chancellor. One of his early concerns was to reorganize the undergraduate curriculum in the College of Arts and Sciences to re-focus general education, an education (he said) that must prepare students for advanced study and the professional schools. Courses in the “humanities,” a term promoted nationally in the 50s by the major foundations, were seen as essential to the proper development of intellect and character.  Litchfield’s inauguration included a series of 17 Inaugural Seminars. One was titled, “The Humanities in a Free Society: The Role of the Universities.”

The seminar was led by George Crouch, chair of the English department. The invited participants were John W. Dodds, professor of English and director of Special Programs in the Humanities at Stanford; James L. Clifford, Professor of English, Columbia; Glenn Olds, Director of Religion, Cornell; Andrew C. Ritchie, head of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Reverend William G. Ryan, President, Seton Hill College; and Roger Sessions, Professor of Music, Princeton. The seminar was a day-long event, with talks in the morning and an afternoon discussion with the audience--prominent citizens, university faculty and students.  According to Crouch, who reported on the event for the alumni magazine,

There was general agreement that one of the dangers to the humanities in our time is mass vulgarization, especially through shoddy television programs and third-rate movies. The universities must use these media to raise the level of taste among people.

Litchfield was promoting the humanities, a new curricular concept that would produce thematic courses (“The Devil, Hero, and God” or “Literature and Human Values”), courses that would focus on issues rather than close readings or literary history, courses with Big Ideas and Eternal Questions that could draw faculty and students from across departments and reinvigorate general education.

There is not much evidence that the push in this direction had much effect in the department or on the Pittsburgh campus. One response, however, was the formation of an interdisciplinary Poetry Reading Group, organized in 1956 by the newly formed Humanities Society and led by Jack Kolbert, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern Languages, and Ruth Haun, an Assistant Professor of Speech. The aim of the group was to offer students the “extracurricular opportunity to hear the great works of literature interpreted, presented, and discussed by members of the faculty and distinguished visitors." Faculty members were encouraged to present bilingual programs.

The English department and its faculty and students were much involved with the Poetry Reading Group, which seems to have lasted until the end of the decade. In the first year, for example, Lawrence Lee read from his own work, Prometheus in Pittsburgh. William Bliss, from History, read from Kipling and Blake; Erle Fairfield, a Professor of Modern Languages, read from Heine; George Crouch read from Dickens; and George Fowler, a Professor of History, read from the poetry of China and Japan.


The Western Pennsylvania Conference for Writers

Edwin Peterson began the annual Western Pennsylvania Conference for Writers in 1946. Each summer a panel of writers, teachers, critics and editors would come to campus to meet with an audience of students and teachers, as many as 500, who were interested in careers in writing and in the teaching of writing. The conference began with an opening set of presentations, followed by informal meetings, including meetings where the panelists would meet with students to their manuscripts. The speakers would comment on the state of American letters, on careers in writing in publishing, and they would offer “if I were you” advice to young writers--or as one reviewer put it, “direct advice from experience to innocence.” In 1953, Peterson renamed the conference, calling it a Conference for Readers and Writers, recognizing that the participants had an interest in contemporary literature, in reading as well as writing. In 1951, the alumni magazine provided a five year summary of the conference and declared it a major success.

The conference drew national attention throughout the decade of the 50s. Here, for example, are two reviews of the 1952 Writers’ Conference:

Among the other things I carried away from both conferences—Smith College and the University of Pittsburgh—was the conviction that concern for the things of the mind and interest in cultural values, far from having perished in America, are being vigorously fostered and stimulated in an increasing number of our colleges.

                                    Donald Adams, The New York Times Book Review

Certainly Pittsburgh’s interest in writing is more intense than ever. For the first time in its eight years of existence the University of Pittsburgh’s Writers’ Conference has had to hang out the SRO sign. Hopeful young writers from surrounding high schools and colleges filled the Foster Memorial and asked questions worthy of the Forum members who answered them. 

Professor Edwin L. Peterson, better known to Pittsburgh writers and would-be writers as “Pete”, can take a bow, for the conference is his “baby” and it is doing quite well, thank you!

                                                           Dorothy Kantner, Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph


The following is a list of some of more noteworthy panelists in the 1950s:

Allen Tate: Professor of English, Princeton

Walter Bradbury: managing editor of Doubleday and Co.

Martha Foley: former editor of Story magazine, Columbia University

Frank Luther Mott: Dean of the School of Journalism, Missouri

Henry Volkening: Volkening and Russell, literary agents

Caroline GordonAleck Maury, Sportsman; None Shall Look Back

A.B. Guthrie, Jr.: The Big Sky and The Way West (Pulitzer Prize winner)

John Crowe Ransom: Kenyon College, editor Kenyon Review

Saul Bellow: novelist

I.A. Richards: critic, rhetorician, theorist

Loren Eiseley: The Immense Journey, Darwin’s Century

Donald Adams: Book Editor, New York Times

George Joel: editor, the Dial Press

Walter HavighurstPier 17, Annie Oakely of the Wild West

Warren Beck: Bread Loaf School of English

John Selby: former editor in chief, Rinehart Publishing

Robert Shaw: writer for radio and TV

Jesse StuartTaps for Private Tussie, Tales from the Plum Grove Hills

Malcolm Cowley: critic, editor, author

Manuel Kromroff: playwright, screenwriter, novelist

Margarita Smith: fiction editor, Mademoiselle

Diggory Venn: director of Chautauqua Writer’s Workshop

Louis Untermeyer: poet, editor, critic

Elliott Schryver: editor, G.P. Putnam

J. Saunders ReddingTo Make a Poet Black, No Day of Triumph

Sara Henderson Hay: poet and critic