restricted access Norman Holmes Pearson, Canon-Maker
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Norman Holmes Pearson, Canon-Maker

Literary studies produce canons rather than kings, and from the appearance of the Oxford Anthology of American Literature in 1938 to his death in 1975, influential Yale professor Norman Holmes Pearson shaped the American canon through both his institutional influence and his gift for cultivating writers.1 Over the course of his long career, Pearson was on the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets from 1964 to 1975; he served on the boards of American Quarterly (1952–55) and American Literature (1957–60); he was a member of the original Smithsonian Council (1966–69); he chaired the Department of American Studies at Yale from 1957 to 1967; and he was the faculty advisor of the Yale Collection of American Literature from 1947 to 1975. Pearson was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships (1948 Guggenheim Fellowships (1956) and wrote at least ninety-nine recommendations for others; he was in the American Literature Group of the Modern Language Association; he received regular invitations to National Book Award ceremonies; and he wrote entries for Encyclopedia Americana on American literature (a 16,000-word survey), H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Nathaniel Hawthorne, and more.2 This merely partial list of Pearson’s myriad professional activities nonetheless demonstrates the central role he played in the advancement of American literature, a field whose prominence expanded exponentially during his lifetime. This essay will consider two aspects of Pearson’s career: his early involvement in editing the influential 1938 Oxford Anthology of American Literature, which both shaped and reflected Pearson’s sense of the canon—especially the field of modern poetry—and the way in which he harnessed Yale’s institutional influence to bring attention to writers he championed, such as Gertrude Stein, Marianne [End Page 443] Moore, and H.D. As one of the architects of modernism, Pearson sought to shift critical attention from the American Renaissance to modernist writers; he increased the exposure of these three women writers in significant ways, thus opening their work to serious critical attention; and he participated in archival projects that provided crucial scholarly tools to the emerging feminist critics. A heterosexual, married man himself, Pearson validated female and queer writers, creating the foundation for the modernisms that began to flourish in the 1980s. As a canon-maker, Pearson positioned Stein, Moore, and H.D. as writers integral to modernism.

Fig. 1. Norman Holmes Pearson and Bryher, New Haven, CT, circa 1950s. Bryher Papers, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
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Fig. 1.

Norman Holmes Pearson and Bryher, New Haven, CT, circa 1950s. Bryher Papers, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Pearson’s impressive academic career began early and led to an invitation to work on the Oxford Anthology of American Literature. Born in 1909, he attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and graduated from Yale with a BA in 1932. Armed with his undergraduate degree from Yale, Pearson enrolled at Oxford University as a Senior Student, passing the final examination in English; this second BA was conferred on him in 1934. (The MA was conferred on him in absentia in 1941.3) During his years at Oxford, he spent two semesters in Berlin at the Institute für Ausländer and Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm University.4 Pearson then returned to Yale for his PhD, passing his orals in 1940, completing his dissertation in 1941, and beginning to teach at instructor rank, an academic trajectory interrupted by the United States’s official involvement in World War II. After distinguished service in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the [End Page 444] precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the war, Pearson returned to Yale in 1946 as an assistant professor.5 It was in 1936, during his PhD years, that the already accomplished Pearson was invited to work on the Oxford by Stanley Williams, one of Pearson’s professors at Yale, who generously wrote to Pearson that on the anthology “we are partners.”6

Thus, at age twenty-seven, Pearson began collaborating on the Oxford Anthology of American Literature, a formative experience that connected him to the elite writing circles of the day and shaped his sense of the American literary canon. Indeed, it was through this project that he first met...


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