The Kenyon College English department first gained international recognition with the arrival of the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom in 1937 as Professor of Poetry and first editor of The Kenyon Review. Ransom had been recommended to the new president of Kenyon by Robert Frost, and he was quickly followed to Kenyon by a group of talented students, including Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor and Robie Macauley.
The first volume of The Kenyon Review appeared during the winter of 1939, and the magazine quickly achieved international acclaim as a groundbreaking literary journal, publishing early works by generations of important writers, including Robert Penn Warren, Ford Madox Ford, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Flannery O'Connor, Boris Pasternak, Bertolt Brecht, Dylan Thomas, Anthony Hecht, Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, Lewis Hyde, Derek Walcott, Woody Allen, Louise Erdrich and Ha Jin. Yet The Kenyon Review is not the literary journal at the College with the longest tradition of continuous publication: that distinction goes to Hika, a student-run literary magazine founded in 1935, which has attracted contributions from W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and others. Both The Kenyon Review and Hika continue to publish today, along with numerous other student literary magazines.
While the Kenyon College Department of English might be best known for the writers it has produced—award-winning novelists E.L. Doctorow and William Gass, poets James Wright, Anthony Hecht and Daniel Mark Epstein, and many younger poets and fiction writers—its greatest influence on American literature derives from the central role that it has played in the development of a theory of literary study known as "the New Criticism."
At a time when many scholars and teachers focused on the historical backgrounds of a literary text or probed authors' biographies for psychological clues, John Crowe Ransom and his contemporaries argued for a method of literary analysis that took literature to be the most significant way humanity has ever devised for exploring reality, and that took texts themselves with corresponding seriousness, reading them closely and interpreting them intensively. The Kenyon School of English—a summer program for the intensive study of literature—helped to spread this new theory during the late 1940's. According to Newsweek, "The roster of instructors was enough to pop the eyes of any major in English."
Faculty included many of the most prominent writers and literary critics of the period, among them Jacques Barzun, Eric Bentley, Cleanth Brooks, William Empson, Alfred Kazin, Robert Lowell, Arthur Mizener, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and Yvor Winters. This theory has become the dominant approach to the teaching of literature, and its influence can be seen in the way that literature is taught today at colleges and universities across the world. Wherever students may go to college, they are—in a sense—learning from Kenyon.
In recent years, the department has become home to a wide range of critical approaches, allowing students to read literary texts through feminist, poststructuralist, psychoanalytic, New Historicist and postcolonial theories and also through more traditional approaches. The department views this intellectual diversity as one of its strengths and encourages students to engage with a variety of critical models during their years at Kenyon.
Creative writing at Kenyon has also continued to flourish, with many students choosing to pursue an emphasis in creative writing within the English major. Each year, the Thomas Chair in Creative Writing brings a variety of important writers to campus to teach workshops and literature courses. The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop offers an opportunity for further intensive study of creative writing with distinguished visiting writers for two weeks each summer. Students interested in careers in literary publishing can acquire hands-on experience through the Kenyon Review Student Associates Program.
Kenyon's English department has built its reputation on decades of dedicated teaching and scholarship, inspiring generations of students to pursue their own critical and creative engagement with literature. Through these exciting opportunities, the department encourages its students to recognize their place in the great literary tradition that is still being written at Kenyon College.