- The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880
D. G. Myers opens his history of creating writing instruction in America with an anecdote: When Vladimir Nabokov was proposed for a chair in literature at Harvard, Roman Jakobson objected. “What’s next?” he said. “Shall we appoint [End Page 529] elephants to teach zoology?” This question not only provides Myers’s book with its title but also suggests a major issue of literary pedagogy: is the teaching of literature the province of philologists and theorists who interpret books, or is it the province of authors who write them? Jakobson the philologist implies that writers, who just produce the stuff, lack knowledge of interpretive method and thus have little business in the classroom. Others—writers and teachers alike—have thought differently and have over the past century fostered the growth of creative writing at American colleges and high schools.
The Elephants Teach is a comprehensive and coherent effort to deal with a ponderous mass of history and discourse: the development of writing curricula since 1880 and the ongoing professional dialogue about the proper relationship between writing and teaching. The first four of his seven chapters deal with roots and preliminaries: the rise of literature instruction as philology after the Civil War, the inception of English composition at Harvard (championed by Adams Sherman Hill, Barrett Wendell, Dean Le Baron Briggs, and Charles Townsend Copeland), and the professional, cultural, and financial forces drawing writers to campuses in the early twentieth century. These chapters establish three major forces leading to the rise of the creative writing curriculum: the consensus that writing experience is of value to the individual and society, the reiterated conviction that literary instruction should consider the perspective of the writer, and the broad recognition by “serious” writers, who had little or no access to the mass market, that they could agreeably support themselves in the classroom. These forces would lead to what Myers correctly sees as a massive compromise: a complex of writing programs simultaneously satisfying students’ needs and allowing thousands of writers to pursue, if only by fits and starts, their professional calling.
Myers then serves up the main course: a three-chapter narrative, stretching from the 1920s down to the present, of the history of creative writing as a so-named and self-conscious institution in American education. The opening of this section is not only informative but characteristic of the overall lucidity of Myers’s style: “Creative writing was first taught under its own name in the 1920s. It began in junior high school where it was originally conducted as an experiment to replace traditional English—grammar, spelling, penmanship, even literature classes—with something more appealing to young people. As such it was part of a broader movement to reform American education in the first half of the twentieth century. The cry was that subjects should not be taught, students should; the reform movement called itself progressive education. Creative writing was invented to transport progressive methods and materials into a junior-high-school English classroom. The man who invented it was a progressive educator—once well known, now largely forgotten—named Hughes Mearns” (p. 101). William Hughes Mearns (1875–1965) was himself a disciple of John Dewey, whose ideas formed the basis for progressive education in general. Adapting the Deweyan concept of learning as a spur to personal [End Page 530] development, Mearns saw writing “as the efficient cause of an education in which the final cause was personal growth” (pp. 104–11).
After Mearns, Myers considers a somewhat more familiar chapter in history: the appearance of creative writing as a self-contained discipline on the college campus. Credit for the original initiative goes to Norman Foerster (1887–1972), who in 1930 took over the newly-founded School of Letters at the University of Iowa. A follower of Irving Babbitt and the “new humanism,” Foerster set out (in his own words) “to give all types of literary students a rigorous and appropriate discipline” (p. 126). Foerster’s “discipline” was a varied curriculum including...