Modern Language Association of America American Literature Section papers, 1922-1999

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Modern Language Association of America
7 Linear Feet
7,586 items
Collection ID:


Scope and content:

The Modern Language Association, American Literature Section (ALS) Papers date from 1921 to 1993(bulk 1928-1993).Most of the Section's records consist of correspondence saved by Secretaries or Chairs and mechanically-reproduced reports, minutes, and ballots. These last materials are contained in folders designated "Reports" and dated by year. Additionally, there are folders of material used to compile reports (such as institutional polls and other "raw" information) generated by committees, concerning the American Literature journal and Section organization, and copies of papers to be delivered at Section meetings. Correspondents include Joseph Blotner, Edward Bradley, Edwin Cady, Paul Carter, Alexander Cowie, Richard Beale Davis, Robert Falk, Benjamin Franklin Fisher, William M. Gibson, Allan Halline, Harrison Hayford, Elaine Hedges, J. Herber, High Holman, Jay B. Hubbell, Alexander Kern, Robert Edson Lee, J.A. Leo Lemay, Michael Millgate, William Mulder, Russel B. Nye, R.H. Pearce, Henry Pochmann, Walter B. Rideout, Louis D. Rubin, Robert Spiller, Willard Thorp, Arlin Turner, and James Woodress. Papers of the following individuals (past officers of the ALS), which pertain to the American Literature Group, are included in this collection: Joseph Blotner, John Gerber, Robert Edson Lee, Ernest Marchand, William Mulder, Charles Nilon, Henry Pochmann, Lewis P. Simpson, Robert Spiller, Willard Thorp, Arlin Turner, and Donald Yannella. Also, there are folders pertaining to these publications: Reinterpretation of American Literature,Eight American Authors, and American Literary Scholarship.

The folders are arranged chronologically based on the date of the earliest material contained in them. A few exceptions have been made for folders where the material is very unrepresentative of the whole. These folders are nonetheless dated by their entire span. Researchers are advised to begin with the "Reports" folders within the period that interests them, for they provide an overview of the year useful for making sense of contemporary folders of manuscript material, and in some cases indicate activities that have no documentation outside of these reports. Minutes from the December meetings sometimes occur as a discrete document and sometimes as part of a report mailed to Section members early in the following year. Since even these reports rarely contain much information that dates from later than the meeting, they have been placed in the "Reports" folders of the year of the meeting documented (i.e. reports dated early in one year appear in the folder for the previous year).

The records of the Section are augmented by the individual papers of a number of Section Chairs and Secretaries, also housed in the Hubbell Center.

Addition (00-041) (6 items, .1 lin. ft.; dated 1994-1999) includes annual reports for the ALS, 1994-1998, and a mold used to cast the Jay B. Hubbell medals.

Addition (08-267) (300 items, .3 lin. ft.; dated 1974-1987) includes records for the section's Advisory Council over the period, as well as for the awarding of the 1986 Hubbell Medal.

Biographical / historical:

The American Literature Group was formed in 1921, after the Modern Language Association (MLA) reluctantly acknowledged a growing scholarly interest in the writing of the United States. At the time such literature was studied primarily in secondary schools, and most colleges and universities had no courses on the topic. Those that did, usually offered only a single survey course. The idea that American literature could stand on its own as a discipline was viewed with skepticism, it being understood at the time as a branch of the literature of England - a branch almost wholly lacking the greatness of its parent.

The members of the new group felt that in order to prove their subject reputable, they must bring it into line with the model of disciplines that had come into being in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This model was based on the empiricism of the sciences, which had been modified in English as philology, author biography, textual history, and in its furthest speculative reach, influence study. Interpretive criticism was viewed as insufficiently scholarly, the domain of the "amateurs" who had dominated writing about American literature up to this point. Similarly, some in the Group thought that it should organize a way to better train secondary school teachers in the area, but this was rejected as insufficiently academic.

The Group met each December at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Many of the early papers presented under the auspices of the Group dealt with the problem of how to build a proper discipline. Work was immediately begun on bibliographies and on lists of manuscript resources and dissertations written (or needed). In 1926, as an aid to research, the field was divided into three areas: the Puritan tradition, Romanticism in American literature, and the frontier spirit. In 1928, the Group's approach was documented by the essays in The Reinterpretation of American Literature (edited by Norman Forester), which added a fourth area, realism. Efforts to establish a quarterly journal that dealt exclusively with American literature began in 1924. Duke University eventually won a small bidding war for it, and the first issue of American Literature was dated March, 1929. In 1928 a full scheme of officers and procedures was put into place with the first version of the articles of organization. This document would be periodically revised over the following decades. One project that never got off the ground was a history of American literature. Almost from its inception, the Group was dissatisfied with the existing one - The Cambridge History of American Literature (1918) - because it was written prior to the discovery of much information, gave no relative weight to different figures and genres, and had no overarching vision of the area. A committee headed by Robert Speller worked toward a plan for a new history during the thirties, but conflicting positions concerning readiness and approach caused the plan to be abandoned by 1941. (Speller proceeded with the project outside of the Group, his work resulting in The Literary History of the United States (1948).)

After World War II, with American literature firmly in place as an academic area, the Group became less central to the discipline's development. The rise of American studies in the early 1950s prompted discussion and dispute concerning the difference between cultural-historical work, and more traditional emphases on literary excellence and the humanistic approach to literature (particularly in the classroom). Insurgent movements occasionally have arisen as the Group was felt to be behind the critical times. In 1968 younger members staged a protest at the annual meeting, agitating for a direct denouncement of the Vietnam War and more explicit politics in general (particularly regarding the college students whom the professors were serving). Meanwhile the Group (which became a full-fledged MLA Section in 1966) has periodically had to fight for particular kinds of recognition and privilege within its parent organization.

A full list of the Group's/Section's Chairs and Secretaries (later Executive Coordinators) is appended to this inventory and may be used as a cross-reference with the container lists to interpret the collection's coverage of various periods and figures. A fuller listing of officers from 1921-1948 is provided in Kermit Vanderbilt's book (cited below) on pages 545-548.

For more information on the American Literature Group/Section, see the following books, parts of which were written using the American Literature Section Papers: Kermit Vanderbilt, American Literature and the Academy(Philadelphia: U. Penn. Press, 1986)David R. Shumway, Creating American Civilization: A Genealogy of American Literature as an Academic Discipline(Minneapolis: U. Minn. Press, 1994).

Acquisition information:

The American Literature Section Papers (1922-1994) were transferred from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1985) and donated by Section members (1983-1995).

No systematic preservation of records has ever been supervised by the American Literature Section itself. Henry Pochmann, English professor at the University of Wisconsin, realized in the late 1960s that the opportunity to assemble an archive reaching back to the Section's early days was rapidly disappearing. He solicited material from all those past officers of the ALS he was able to contact, thereby forming the basis of the collection. Beginning with 1928, the collection of annual reports, committee work, and correspondence is extremely thorough. Some periods are documented by the files of several members, some by only one, but little of the Section's history seems to have been lost.

Pochmann's original collection was housed at the University of Wisconsin until 1985, when it was transferred to the Hubbell Center. By that time, newly-generated files had been coming directly to the Hubbell Center for two years. Material was not deposited regularly over the following decade, but retrospective collecting was done at the time the collection was organized into its present form.

Processing information:

Processed by John Hilgart

Completed in 1995

Encoded by Robin LaPasha

Updated because of additions by Alice L. Poffinberger, February 2009


Because the American Literature archive was created retrospectively out of a large number of separate contributions, some of which overlapped with others and some of which consisted of material separated by years or decades, it was decided that chronological interfiling made the most sense. Files generated by a single person over a discrete period were left intact and organized internally by date. If such files were donated with pre-existing separations (material relating to a particular committee, for example), those divisions were retained. To the extent that it was possible, each discrete project, committee, or body of material relating to a particular event was given its own folder, and thus title, to aid finding. If the producer of a portion of material was named or deducible, that name appears as part of the folder title. A significant part of the total material of the archive consisted of duplicate mailings, minutes, and reports. All such material was extracted, and the best copy of each was placed in that year's "Reports" folder.

Physical location:
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Rules or conventions:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard


Click on terms below to find related finding aids on this site. For other related materials in the Duke University Libraries, search for these terms in the Catalog.

Periodical editors
Women periodical editors
American literature -- History and criticism
American Literature (Durham, N.C.)
Modern Language Association of America. American Literature Group
Duke University Press
Pound, Louise, 1872-1958
United States -- Study and teaching


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Access note. Hubbell Award Committee materials are restricted.

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The copyright interests in this collection have not been transferred to Duke University. For further information, see the section on copyright in the Regulations and Procedures of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

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Preferred citation:

[Identification of item], The Modern Language Association of America, American Literature Section Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.