From the Cradle ... the Rise of Romance Philology in American Academia (1900-1970)

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Romance philology in American academia started out very much as the enterprise of a handful of individuals and a series of unconnected casual events: Lorenzo da Ponte, who was teaching Italian at Columbia as early as 1825, had failed as a merchant and grocer in Pennsylvania; (1) Aaron Marshall Elliott, before becoming the founder of the Department of Romance Philology at Johns Hopkins, had been a private teacher for eight years and was an autodidact who'd studied all sorts of languages all over Europe. He could have very well taught any kind of language when he was appointed associate professor for languages--and not Romance languages--to the newly founded University of Johns Hopkins in 1876. (2)

It took time for the discipline to emerge. Gradually, between 1875 and 1915, things got organized. (3) Departments of Romance philology were founded all over America, first on the East Coast, then, with the turn of the century, in the Midwest and at Berkeley. A new community of scholars separated from the original flock of classical philologists, first as modern philologists--dealing with English, German, Romance languages etc.--then as a tribe of their own, Romance philologists. Modern Language Notes, the first journal devoted to modern philology--as opposed to classical philology--was launched in 1884 in Baltimore, followed, one year later, by the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, published by the newly founded association of the same name, and Chicago's Modern Philology in 1903. But by 1910, the Romanic Review, as the first journal entirely devoted to the study of Romance languages and literature, marked the advent of specialisation. (4)

By and large, this evolution is no different from what had happened in Europe a few decades earlier, where national philologies had emerged, subsequently leading to the creation of specific departments, university positions and journals for Romance philology. (5) Once the discipline was established in the United States, its evolution continued in a very similar manner on both sides of the Atlantic, and medieval studies, including French literature, on which we will be concentrating here, developed in a parallel way. (6)

A look at the number of doctoral dissertations in the field of medieval French and Occitan philology is very revealing: in the thirty years from 1880 to 1910, about forty dissertations were written in a few universities on the East Coast. (7) This considerable number is partly due to the fact that linguistics and philology were at that time not hermetically separated and thus many dissertations in historical linguistics were written and supervised by medievalists. Today, between 1995 to 2000, approximately sixty doctoral dissertations were published in the field in the USA and Canada, a number six or seven times higher per annum than one century ago. (8) This increasing output in the field of French literature of the Middle Ages is of course strictly arithmetical: it reflects the growing number of universities with French and Medieval departments, and, thus, the greater number of medievalists active in that area rather than a greater involvement in medieval studies than one hundred years ago. But the numerical increase is undeniable: when the International Arthurian Society and the Societe Rencesvals were established in the 1950s, the members from the USA and Canada could be counted on the fingers of two hands. (9) Today, there are hundreds of us.

These figures show the North American landscape being gradually covered by a constantly growing number of citadels of knowledge and teaching of Romance philology, not unlike the famous white cloak of Cistercian abbeys spreading over twelfth-century France. Of course, exactly the same expansion could be registered, simply a little earlier, all over Europe, and the whole phenomenon could thus be dismissed as part of the progression regarding higher education in the western world over the last century. …

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