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  • PART I: Infancy through Middle Childhood / 1930s and 1940s (Volume 1, Number 1, through Volume 11, Number 9)

Editor's Note: In this and all subsequent introductions, citations for The News Letter and The CEA Critic will appear in parentheticals as (e.g. 4.7.3)


The College English Association was formed in December 1938 during the annual Modern Language Association Convention, which was being held in New York City. There, founders declared they were to be an organization for "the college English teachers of America" (4). The first publication of the resulting organization appeared six months later, in June 1939, as The News Letter of the College English Association. The early News Letter was a four-column tabloid, typically between four and ten pages, appearing monthly during the academic year. Its easily foldable design made it perfect for reading while commuting to campus (Figure 1).

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Fig 1.

The first issue of The News Letter of the College English Association.

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The earliest issues of The News Letter served as a kind of communique from the organization to its members. More bulletin than academic journal, its few pages were filled with announcements of regional meetings, dunning requests for membership dues, and ballots and biographies for CEA officers (as well as a hefty number of advertisements, nearly all from publishers of academic texts). The first issue boasted, "the enrolled membership [of the CEA] now includes representatives from more than 100 colleges and universities throughout the country" (1.1.1). In a world where communication was very different from ours, The News Letter was email, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, Twitter, and LinkedIn all in one. The nature of The News Letter was captured, perhaps, by the image of a medieval scriptorium that appeared on the cover of the first issue and reappeared occasionally throughout the journal's history (Figure 2).

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Fig 2.

The caption from 1939 reads, "Scribes at Work" (circum 717 A. D.) Holinshed's "Scotland," 1st ed., courtesy of Warren Shepard, Syracuse U.

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As early as two issues after The News Letter's start, there was a vision that the publication could be something more. An editorial titled "A Periodical Publication" explained that, although a primary purpose of the "humble" and "unpretentious" News Letter was "to convey several items of information to enrolled members with a minimum of effort and expense," the editors anticipated another role for the publication—namely, as a place to foster "better mutual understanding and exchange of ideas" (1.2.2). Even in those early days, the nature of those ideas was already a topic of discussion. For example, alongside the above-mentioned editorial was a letter by Henry Seidel Canby, one of the CEA's founding fathers. Canby's "ideas" would cause a bit of a stir: "I do not believe," he began, "in courses in contemporary literature, for I think that the material is still too untested for satisfactory teaching, and that the very large majority of teachers are not sufficiently in the atmosphere of the writing world to interpret and discriminate in any definitive way" (1.2.2) Canby's assertion provoked just the kind of "exchange of ideas" the editors sought. Among those engaged in that exchange was Willa Cather, whose two pieces, "Contemporary Literature Again" and "Literary Experimentation" are republished in this issue alongside Canby's original.

Quite a bit of the content in the early issues of The News Letter involved framing the publication and the CEA itself. These latter discussions are especially meaningful to those of us who value what the CEA represents. Letters to the editor, editorials, and committee reports sought not only to formulate policies and procedures but, as well, to establish the ethos of the association through its goals and mission. For example, the first issue of The News Letter reprinted a letter dated April 18, 1939, from the members of the new CEA to the MLA. Less interesting in this letter are procedural matters regarding the split and more the assertion by the CEA that "[the members] are primarily interested in classroom teaching...


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