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How Cleanth Brooks Read his Seventeenth Century News Letter: James Marshall Osborn, Joseph Milton French, and the Organization of English as a Profession in Mid-Century America

Kathryn James

Abstract


The founding of the Seventeenth Century News Letter, publishedNew Brunswick, New Jersey, from 1942–1951 and described in the Yale University Library online catalog as a “Quarterly (irregular),” marks a particular moment in English literature as a profession in mid-twentieth century America. The original newsletter offers a glimpse into the organization of literary scholarship in the period, and the practices by which English literature as a professional community functioned. This period, with its battles over the centrality of literary criticism and literary history, and with the heated opposition to successive fashions in literary theory, has been usefully studied, and within the context of Yale in particular, by Gerald Graff. Yet there are spheres of literary scholarship which Graff’s study does not address, in part through its focus on the workings of academic departments, and their courses and curricula, in university English departments. Important professional spaces—the library, most notably—and
practices, such as collecting and corresponding, are excluded from
this study. These are precisely the spheres occupied by Osborn and
his colleagues in this period. This paper turns to two examples of Osborn’s work as a literary scholar and collector in the 1940s, to illustrate the networks by which professional practice was governed,
and complicated, in English literature in mid-century America. In the imagined community of seventeenth-century scholarship found in the Seventeenth Century News Letter, and the collaboration between Osborn and literary critic Cleanth Brooks on a scholarly edition, one finds a lived experience of English literature which was by no means as polarized, as exclusionary, as that portrayed by Graff and others.

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