Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Getting creative writing wrong

In a review of Mark McGurl’s Program Era (Harvard University Press) in the June 8 issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand observes that McGurl’s book is “not a history of creative-writing programs.” So he supplies the missing history:

Creative-writing courses did not suddenly spring into being in 1945. A course called Verse Making was available at Iowa in 1897, and from 1906 to 1925 George Pierce Baker taught a drama workshop at Harvard, the first graduate writing course in the country; Thomas Wolfe took it. The term (and the concept) “creative writing” dates from the nineteen-twenties, which is when Middlebury started the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where Robert Frost served as the world’s first writer-in-residence. In 1936, Iowa launched the Writers’ Workshop—officially, the Program in Creative Writing—under the direction of Wilbur Schramm, and began awarding the first M.F.A.s. In 1941, Schramm was replaced by Paul Engle, a prodigious creative-writing proselytizer and cultural Cold Warrior, who made Iowa into a global power in the field. Engle eventually brought writers from seventy countries to study at Iowa.Nearly every word of this is mistaken.

Creative writing is not the same as verse-writing, and was conceived in fact as a break with the older humanistic tradition that verse-writing represented. George Pierce Baker’s “47 Workshop”—his graduate course in playwrighting—belongs to theatrical history, and was not even the “first graduate course in writing.” (That honor goes to Barrett Wendell, who introduced the practice of the daily theme at Harvard.) The term creative writing was coined by Emerson in “The American Scholar” (1837) and was explicitly adopted by Hughes Mearns, a progressive educator who taught at the Lincoln School, the laboratory school of Teachers College, Columbia University, when he introduced the subject of creative writing into the curriculum for the first time. (Mearns used the term in print for the first time in 1922.) When it was established on the university level—by Norman Foerster, not Wilbur Schramm—creative writing quickly replaced writers’ retreats like Bread Loaf. Writers no longer needed summer writing-stints, because they were paid to write full-time by universities. That development, however, belongs to the postwar period: what McGurl calls the “program era.”

The history of creative writing is set out in my Elephants Teach (University of Chicago Press, 2006). In an exchange of email messages between us, Menand apologizes for not citing the book, but points out that a magazine article did not give him the room to do justice to the full complexity of the history, as I had set it out. (He also disagrees with my conclusions, although a citation, if he had had room for it, would have permitted him to do so directly.) In my original post on his article, I described Menand’s views as “ahistorical rubbish,” which was itself a mistake. That is why I have rewritten and reposted my reaction. Much ahistorical rubbish has been written on creative writing’s history, as I note in the Introduction to The Elephants Teach, and though I believe Menand’s version to be mistaken, I would no longer call it ahistorical. Just not as good as mine, although he is the historian.

Many thanks to Dave Lull for bringing Menand’s review to my attention.


Dave Lull said...

Here's another take on Mr McGurl's book:

London Review of Books
Vol. 32 No. 18 · 23 September 2010
pages 3-8 | 8439 words

Get a Real Degree
Elif Batuman

* The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl
Harvard, 480 pp, £25.95, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 674 03319 1