From the University's beginnings, proficiency in English, as well as French and German, was required of all candidates for degrees. The first faculty member to teach English was Francis J. Child, a visiting professor from Harvard and holder of a Ph.D. from the University of Gottingen. He was "Lecturer of English Philology" in 1877 and 1878. The first courses which he offered became staples in the department: Chaucer, English and Scottish ballads, and Shakespeare, the last of which consisted of intensive study of Macbeth and Hamlet. Another lecturer in English Literature during the University's earliest years was poet Sidney Lanier, who taught from 1879 until ill health forced him to resign shortly before his death in 1881.
In the early years, English was grouped together with German under the heading "Teutonic Studies"; instructors and teaching responsibilities overlapped. The first full-time, permanent faculty in English was Albert S. Cooke, a graduate of Rutgers who joined the faculty as an Associate in 1879. In 1881, however, he resigned to assume a position at the University of California. Henry Wood, who was later a professor of German, replaced Cooke. Wood held a doctorate from the University of Leipzig, and his training in German manifested itself immediately in the increased number of courses in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. When Wood assumed exclusive responsibility for German courses in 1886, James Bright, another German linguist, began to oversee the teaching of English. Bright had become first Hopkins Ph.D. in English in 1882 and had returned to the University in 1885 after briefly teaching at Cornell. As Wood was to do with the German courses at Hopkins, Bright complemented courses in philology and textual criticism with offerings in grammar and composition. Nonetheless, a large proportion of courses offered through 1900 still dealt with Anglo-Saxon and Middle English.
Bright became the first occupant of the Caroline Donovan Chair of English, which was established in 1905. He held the chair until his retirement in 1925. His successor as Chairman (though not as Donovan Professor) was John Calvin French, a 1905 graduate of Hopkins who specialized in American literature. French was appointed University Librarian in 1927, and Lewis Wardlaw Miles assumed the chair. Under Miles's influence, English courses at Hopkins attracted increasingly greater enrollments until by 1930 there were over fifty graduate students, both male and female, taking English courses. Miles also broadened the English course offerings, creating courses in Milton and Spenser which reflected his own interest in English poetry. Miles was a colorful figure; after receiving his Ph.D. at Hopkins, he joined the Army at the time of the United States' entry into World War I and won the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1918. During the time he taught at Hopkins, Miles was distinguished for never being seen wearing a necktie; he preferred bow ties and, according to a local paper, "affected them constantly."
When Miles retired in 1942, he was succeeded by Raymond Dexter Havens, a Harvard graduate who boasted that he had never once "married, driven a car, or used a typewriter." An expert on Milton, Havens had worked on a book on that poet for nearly twenty years. During his term as Chairman of English more courses were introduced in Victorian and American literature. Survey courses in literature also appeared under Havens's direction, courses which were designed especially for non-English majors.
The leadership of the English Department changed again in 1944, as Kemp Malone succeeded Havens as chairman; Havens retired from teaching in 1947 and Malone was appointed to the Donovan Professorship that same year. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Malone had written over five hundred articles and books in his career and had been knighted by the governments of Iceland and Denmark for his scholarship in Anglo-Saxon literature. In addition to his academic achievements, Malone had once served as a consultant to a lawyer who was trying to trace the origin of the word "thermos" for use in a patent-fraud suit. While Chairman, Malone inaugurated the "Study of Literature" course which was designed as "the basic literature course for all students in the University."
Charles R. Anderson assumed the chairmanship in 1950, to be succeeded in 1956 by Don Cameron Allen. Allen was an authority on Renaissance literature whose interest in Renaissance culture extended to all branches of study, including astrology. Allen had received his Ph.D. in 1931 from the University of Illinois and had worked as a newspaper reporter before beginning his academic career. He took pride in his total commitment to Renaissance scholarship; in his own opinion, one of his greatest academic achievements lay in never having written a book on Shakespeare. It was Allen who began courses in technical writing designated exclusively for engineering students; under his guidance the department also saw a growth in courses in Icelandic and Norse.
In 1959, Allen was replaced by Earl Wasserman, an expert on Romantic poetry and a 1937 Hopkins graduate. He was succeeded in 1964 by J. Hillis Miller, a graduate of Harvard and an expert on Dickens. Both of these men continued to expand the course offerings in the department with a view to covering more literature of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In 1969 Ronald Paulson was appointed Chairman. Paulson was a graduate of Yale and an expert on Jonathan Swift. Paulson was generally recognized for his scholarship in the field of eighteenth-century literature; he had won a National Book Award for a text on the paintings of Hogarth and their relation to the works of contemporaneous popular novelists. In 1973, Paulson became the first English Department Chairman ever faced with a faculty shortage: deaths and resignations left an unprecedented four spaces open on the faculty. One year later, Paulson was appointed Director of the Humanities Center at Hopkins and was succeeded as Chairman in 1976 by Laurence Holland. A Harvard graduate, Holland had previously been head of the American Civilization Program at Princeton. A specialist in American literature, he was concerned with what he perceived to be the plight of undergraduates at Hopkins; he remarked once that "Princeton seemed always on the verge of spoiling its undergraduates, while Hopkins always seems on the verge of neglecting them." In order to make students more aware of their own culture, Holland increased course offerings in American literature and especially in the works of twentieth-century authors.
When Laurence Holland died in an accident in the summer of 1981, Hugh Kenner was appointed Chairman. Like Holland, Kenner was an authority on American writers. His book The Pound Era had won a Christian Gauss Award (an annual prize bestowed by Phi Beta Kappa) in 1972, and he had been Professor of American Literature at the University of California before coming to Hopkins. Kenner was also, like Paulson, holder of a Ph.D. from Yale. He resigned the chairmanship in 1985 and was succeeded by Stanley Fish. Fish held the post until 1986 when Paulson, the present Chairman, was re-appointed.
As of 2017, Christopher Nealon is Chair of the English Department.
"Dr. E.R. Wasserman, JHU English Scholar." The (Baltimore) Sun, March 6, 1973.
"Dr. J.C. French Will Retire From Hopkins." The Sun, June 21, 1948.
"Dr. L. Wardlaw Miles To Be English Head." The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, May 3, 1927.
"Dr. Malone dies at 82." The Sun, October 14, 1971.
"Hopkins Professor Debunks Noah in Recent Book." The Sun, March 8, 1950. The Johns Hopkins University. The University Circular, 1976-1986.
"L.W. Miles, Educator, Dies at 71." The Sun, June 28, 1944.
"Laurence B. Holland, chairman at Hopkins." The Sun, July 14, 1980.
"Malone Services Set for Saturday." News American, October 15, 1971. "Raymond D. Havens: Invigorating Teacher, Eminent Scholar." Rochester Review, November 1954.
"Rites for Dr. Bright Will Be Held Today." The Sun, October 29, 1926.
"Three Departments Face Shortages." News-Letter, October 23, 1975.
Woolf, H.B. "Kemp Malone 1889-1971." Names, Volume 21, Number 3, September 1973, pp. 129-130.