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Short History

A Short history of the Department of English

The Department of English was born when the University was – in 1904.  From rooms beneath the clock tower in the present administrative building, the first Head, Stanley Kidd, conducted a one-year bachelor’s programme.  In addition to studying Milton, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Jane Austen, students attended one lecture a week, which the 1906 Calendar laid out as follows:

1 and 2, General Introduction to the Period; 3, Dr Johnson and his Circle; 4, Dr Johnson as a Writer; 5, memoirs and Letters; 6, Philosophy and Science; 7, Politics and Oratory; 8, Lexicography; 9, Literary Criticism; 10, The Development of Historical Literature; 11, Gibbon’s life and Work; 12, the Drama of the period; 13, The origins of the Novels; 14, The Modern Novel; 15, Richardson; 16, Fielding; 17, Smollett and Sterne; 18, The Domestic Novel; 19, The Romantic Movement in Literature and Art; 20, The Terror Novel; 21, The Historical Novel; 22 and 23, The Transition in Poetry: (a) Art, )b) Nature; 24, Sir Walter Scott; 25, Wordsworth; 26, Coleridge; 27, Shelley; 28, Keats; 29, Byron; 30, Periodical Literature; 31, The Development of English Prose; 32, Contemporary Foreign Literature.

It was a small-scale operation: Kidd was one of only four original staff members, and was at first simultaneously Professor of Greek, Latin, History and Philosophy.  Hailing from Manchester and Sheffield, Kidd worried about the ‘deterioration’ of spoken English in South Africa (how some things stay the same!), attributing this to ‘the contamination of English by contact with alien tongues’ (how, happily, have some things changed!).  Kidd remained Head of English until 1932, being honoured eventually in 1954 and at the age of 86, with an Honorary Doctorate, and later still having a residence named after him.

Kidd was succeeded as Head of Department by Peter Haworth, and later Alan Warner.  Warner had arrived from Cambridge in 1939, and began to teach the then exciting school of ‘New Criticism’.  One of his students was Guy Butler, who in his memoir Bursting World remembered him as ‘a gentle, subtle expositor, a disciple of F R Leavis ... Shelley was written off as a windbag, and Milton was under a cloud’.  He wrote a little booklet in 1943, entitled About Books and published by Grocotts and Sherry, which began thus:

“Of the making of many books there is no end!” So sighed Ecclesiastes more than 2000 years ago.  If his words were true then, how much more true are they today?  The ordinary reader must often feel depressed when he enters a library and gazes at the rows upon rows of books.

The mind boggles at what he might have thought today.

As for Guy Butler, he studied for his BA from 1936-1938, before joining the global war against Hitler’s Germany, serving in North Africa and Italy and incidentally writing what would remain some of his best poems.  He returned to Rhodes to take up the headship in 1952, and remained there for an astonishing 37 years.  Within the Department he introduced the tutorial system that still remains a foundational strength, and inserted African literature into the syllabus for the first time in the country.  Under his direction the Department also moved physically, first into the GLT building (where CHERTL is today) and then into the Drostdy Lodge (now Mathematics).  Butler was also the driving force behind many local institutions: the Drama department and its theatre, the department of Journalism, the 1820 Settlers National Monument, the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, the journal English in Africa and the poetry journal New Coin – all of which have gone from strength to strength and remain in operation today.  When the controversial N2 bypass was cut in the late 1970s, Butler organised for huge boulders to be set around the Monument as compass points to what he hoped would be a more inclusive future for racially-divided South Africa.  And when the Monument was massively damaged by fire in the 1980s, it was Butler who galvanised the efforts to fund its restoration.  Amongst the many students, lecturers and young writers to whom Butler was gentle patron and friend was Don Maclennan, who arrived as a young teacher in 1966 and would write a moving tributary poem, “To Guy in the Monument.”

Butler also wrote tirelessly – poetry, drama, non-fiction – and in one of an autobiographical trilogy, A Local Habitation, he wrote about his task:

As Head of Department you are part of a body of students from first-years to research workers, and teaching colleagues in various established posts from temporary junior lecturers to lecturers, senior lecturers, associate professors and full professors.  Being a head of a large Department calls for a measure of self-denial and self-effacement which does not come easily to most of us.  As my staff increased in size I had to sacrifice nearly all my preferred topics of teaching.  It has been a series of farewells to all my favourites, to Conrad, Yeats, Hopkins, Keats and most of Shakespeare; but worse, one had to spend countless hours on administration, on the annual nightmare of justifying to the staff you had on establishment [sic] or persuading the staffing committee of your need for more; of interviewing and selecting new staff members; on the laborious but important annual drawing-up of syllabuses and selecting set books; on the setting of examination papers and on the marking and moderation of the same.  One ceases to be oneself, becoming possessed by one’s staff and students.

Another student of Butler’s was Ron Hall, who stayed on to become a much-loved lecturer himself.  At the time of writing (2013), Ron is retired but continues to teach his most treasured texts in the department.  He recalled being a student in the 1950s:

Guy Butler had already been heading the Department for a few years.  I think he became head in his early thirties – very unusual nowadays.  Of course, we first-years were so young at the time that I’m sure we all saw him as a very seasoned old campaigner – which no doubt, in his own way, he already was!  His lectures were famous, and I remember a very specific lecture-moment on Macbeth from which I believe I can date the beginnings of my real love of, and excitement by, Shakespeare (as distinct from the dutiful yet bewildered respect conceded by many students both then and now).  Guy was, as is well known, an inspirational and generous-spirited teacher – and much the same as a department head, as I learned later when working under him.  

            …Lectures were held in various places including the GLT itself and various parts of the Arts Block.  (It really was an Arts Block in those days, not an Admin one – and the library, small, attractive, with wooden shelves and probably a fearsome fire hazard – was upstairs where the Senior Common Room is now.)    First- and second-year classes were fairly large in those days (where degree requirements were generally stricter in the matter of language credits); and even English III was fair in size – I think our class of 1957 had 44 members.  In my Honours year I was one of four, including Tony Voss who subsequently taught for a while here, then in the old Rhodesia and in Durban. Of course Rhodes itself at the time had less than 1000 students; it strikes me that though English has dwindled proportionally as the university has grown, it has maintained by and large a similar actual number of students for most of that time. 

            My memories of the English staff are subject to correction, but I think at various stages of the late fifties and early sixties they included quite a formidable array of people:  Dr Robert Wahl, an expert on Rossetti and the Preraphaelites, and later Professor at Bloemfontein; his wife Cecily; Tony Woodward (subsequently professor at Wits); Gordon Hartford; Christine Roberts; Marshall Walker (an expert in American literature); Alan Hall; Denis Davison (who became a well-known Marvell scholar); Dr David Terry (father of our present Professor of Computer Science); Eric Harber; Ron Ayling; and Shelagh Osborne.  Several of these people subsequently moved abroad, variously to Australia, New Zealand, Canada or Britain.  As is so often the case, our loss became the undoubted gain of those countries.  The first English I tutorials I remember were with a young postgraduate student called Ken Durham – subsequently a highly successful schoolteacher and then, for many years, a pillar of the Rhodes Education Department.

            Shelagh Osborne was a drama specialist (rumoured to have known Bernard Shaw personally) who tutored our special Honours course in modern drama when Beckett’s Godot was the latest thing – and of course we had no drama department in those days, but a great deal was achieved by the campus Dramsoc and the Gilbert and Sullivan Society; moreover, several talented English students combined to script and arrange wonderfully entertaining musicals for the Rag period – notably Neil Jardine, Andre de Villiers and Tony Voss.  Guy Butler himself directed a couple of highly successful Shakespeares: an incredibly funny Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1957, and a fine Othello a year or two later – starring the Professor of Zoology, Jacques Ewer, in the title role.  These shows were all done in the Great Hall – the Rhodes Theatre had not yet been built.  The eventual Drama, Linguistics and Journalism Departments were all, in fact, Guy Butler’s brain-children – a fact that should not be forgotten.

            A glance at undergraduate syllabuses will give some idea of what was expected of us (I wonder how many of us read all of it).  English I included a large range of poetry; lectures on practical criticism I. A. Richards-style (as was quite fashionable then); about half a dozen plays ranging from Shakespeare to O’Casey; and – remarkably – a dozen novels by mid-18th- to mid-20th-century authors: Smollett, Dickens (Bleak House – now a difficult third-year text), Austen, Samuel Butler, James, Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, Steinbeck and Joyce Cary. From our present perspectives, of course, conspicuous by their absence are South African and American works (though we did later, as undergraduates, encounter Faulkner as well as Moby Dick).  The second year included a smattering of Anglo-Saxon and phonetics, but it was largely devoted to poetry (the Romantics and Victorians in large doses) and drama (tragedy, specifically, and not limited to the Shakespearean period, though that did dominate).  In the third year the poetry moved back to Chaucer, the Elizabethan and metaphysical  lyric, and Milton (in fact, we met Paradise Lost in both second and third years); and the drama course (comedy and the history play) involved a large variety of works from Marlowe to Oscar Wilde.  Then some more novels, including the Faulkner and Melville already mentioned, Eliot’s Middlemarch, and some more Dickens and Conrad – two of Guy’s special loves, as I remember.  

Guy Butler finally retired as head of department in 1979, to be succeeded by Malvern van Wyk Smith.  Van Wyk Smith was a Rhodes Scholarship-holder with a PhD on Boer War poetry from Oxford.  His new vision coincided with another move, from the bat-infested Drostdy Lodge to a brand new building adjacent to the Main Library, where the department is still housed today.  Though continuing Butler’s avuncular and linguistic legacy in many ways, van Wyk Smith took a somewhat stronger stance during the exceptionally dark years of apartheid, and along with his courageous wife Rosemary, was actively engaged in opposition politics.  At the same time, he served on various university and national committees and educational boards.  Together with the late Nick Visser he founded the Association of University English Teachers of South Africa (AUETSA), which continues to organise an annual conference.  At Rhodes he established the still very popular Modern Fiction in Translation course, helping extend literary studies beyond the narrowly ‘English.’  An accomplished stylist and researcher in his own right, he published, among many other books and articles, Grounds of Contest (a history of South African literature), and most recently The First Ethiopians (a magisterial study of the origins of European views of Africa).

Malvern van Wyk Smith remained head for 17 years.  But times they were a-changing: the role of the headship was becoming much more administratively onerous, and overall structures becoming more democratic; as a result, the position would be more regularly rotated amongst a more substantial professoriat.  (From its tiny beginnings, the department could, by the 1990s, boast around ten full-time lecturers and some 600 students ranging from first-year to PhD.)  So the headship would fall, in succession, to Professors Paul Walters (1992-95 and 2000-2003); John Gouws (1996-99); and Gareth Cornwell (2004-2009).   Walters came with vast educational experience, especially concerning the ground-breaking Molteno project aimed at enhancing education in South Africa’s most-deprived schools.  For his part, Gouws had impeccable scholarly credentials and particular expertise in Renaissance studies (he is the world expert on the work of Fulke Greville).  Cornwell was fresh from a stint as director of the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown, a relationship with which the department continues to foster.  Cornwell had also been a student at Rhodes, and penned this delightful memoir:

When I started at Rhodes in 1971, the English Department had a very British and severely highbrow air about it. The Drostdy Lodge was an intimidating place populated with intimidating people; the Head, Professor Butler, addressed you by your surname, public-school style. As a group, the English Department staff invited caricature: they were everybody’s memory of the tweed-jacketed, bachelor schoolmaster who conversed largely in quotations, told unfunny pedantic jokes, and retired each evening to his pokey, dark, book-lined rooms to read and listen to classical music. While I can’t say that any individual on the staff actually matched the stereotype, the general impression seemed later confirmed when I got to visit some of their homes – untidy, book-filled, more shabby-genteel than Bohemian, proclaiming a renunciation of all worldliness in favour of an ascetic dedication to the life of the mind.

Ruth Harnett seemed the very avatar of literary sensibility. I admired her but found her and what she stood for terribly remote. She tried but failed to get me to join a group of students who used to meet each Thursday evening at her Darling Street home, salon style, to drink tea and listen to composers like Elgar. Her sitting-room reminded me of British soldiers’ homes in black-and-white movies about the Second World War.

Once during a double Honours class on Walt Whitman, a student called Lloyd Halliday dared to interrupt Ruth as she was reading from her carefully prepared text. She asked him whether he thought he knew as much about Whitman as she did. “No?” she said; “Then keep quiet and listen.” It wasn’t exactly OBE.

       The most memorable lecture I ever attended as a student was delivered early one afternoon by a Dr Toby Oldfield. We heard that he had been drying out in Fort England, but he had clearly fallen off the wagon over lunch. He swayed and slurred his way through a lecture on Alexander Pope, dwelling derisively on the poet’s physical deformities and pointing out that Pope had to be strapped into a corset every morning before he could even stand up! We were greatly entertained, and rather disappointed when he lurched out of the room after half-an-hour. I think he left the university soon after.

At about the same time I scandalized Cathy Salomon, as she was then, by declaring that I’d rather play rugby than read a novel by Jane Austen. I don’t think I actually believed that the only alternative to Pride and Prejudice was rugby football, but it seemed an appropriate and adequately rebellious thing to say. Cathy was probably only pretending to be shocked, anyway.

 The trouble was that I did in fact love some of the texts that we read in class – Heart of DarknessA Passage to India, the poetry of Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Frost and Hardy  – and for a time struggled with the problem of how to fit the study of literature into my life; into the real world, as I understood it. It seemed to me that one would have to be a particular sort of person, a sort that I wasn’t, in order to be serious about literature. I contemplated dropping out: for some reason, a pair of overalls, a job at the docks in PE and a flat in Central seemed appealing. It was a romanticized kind of class protest, and it wasn’t very productive.

I was eventually shown a way out by two teachers: Don Maclennan and Nick Visser. Don’s insistence on articulating the experiential – on saying how a poem made you feel, and then trying to account for why – helped to close the gap between life and literary art for me. I first got genuinely excited by a poem, that is, registered a distinctive thrill that seemed simultaneously cerebral, emotional and physical, in one of Don’s tutorials on Dryden’s “Ode on St Cecilia’s Day”.

Then, in Honours, Nick Visser, who insisted we call him Nick, taught us Hemingway, said “fuck” a lot and smoked Lucky Strike Plain, introduced me both to the burgeoning new field of literary theory and to the possibility of research on black South African writing. At last I could square my interest in literature with my own sense of what was real and relevant. I can’t say that I never looked back, but it’s from then that I date the beginning of my sense of emancipation from the yoke of a peculiarly British, perhaps colonial, kind of cultural sensibility. This is of course quite a different thing from the lingering sense of shame about those years, shame by association – however mediated or repudiated – with the era of apartheid. From that there is no liberation, and none should be sought.

In retrospect, my experience as a student presents itself as typical, even paradigmatic, coinciding as it did with the growing academic interest in popular culture and the erosion in the West of the symbolic dominion of traditional high culture; with the emergence in the Anglophone world of structuralist and Marxist approaches to literature (shortly to be followed by poststructuralist ones); and, importantly, with growing Black anti-apartheid militancy at home and an ever-intensifying identity crisis and sense of alienation for young, white English-speaking South Africans.

       When I returned to the English Department as a lecturer in 1989, it was to a new building but to a virtually unchanged staff! I took Ruth Harnett’s job; the only other appointments in the decade that had elapsed since I had completed my MA were those of Wendy Jacobson and Margot Beard. Since then, we have said goodbye to Arthur Morgan, Cathy Birkinshaw, Don Maclennan, Ron Hall, David Bunyan, and Malvern van Wyk Smith (who, more than anyone else, had become a mentor figure to me). Guy Butler and Nick Visser, alas, have died.

       At the very least, the Department can today be said – like much else in South Africa – to be in the midst of a gradual but far-reaching process of change. I like to think that the overall tone of things has been lowered since I’ve been here – that proceedings have become more casual, less highbrow, less “white”. While I don’t believe our job to be unimportant, I do think that sometimes we need to remind ourselves that books never matter as much as people, and that we have a responsibility to be sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the emerging society in which we live.

       I also like to think that students find us and what we do here less intimidating and more accessible than was my experience 33 years ago. But this may be just a question of perspective: after all, I have reached such an advanced age that students seem to find my invitation to them to call me by my first name positively indecent; and it’s quite probable that I and my senior colleagues embody something – an era, a set of values – that are to them worthy only of rejection!

Finally, in 2010 Professor Dirk Klopper, former head of the English Department at Stellenbosch, arrived to inject different perspectives and a renewed initiative to enhance Southern African literary studies as the core business of the Rhodes department.  While certain perennial ‘greats’ have remained a staple since the 1906 syllabus quoted earlier, the department now offers a heady mix of those alongside contemporary world literatures from Africa, India, Australia, America and the Caribbean, among others.

               Researched and written by Dr Sam Naidu and Professor Dan Wylie


Last Modified: Wed, 31 May 2017 11:03:24 SAST