English Department to celebrate 125th anniversary
The Department of English Language and Literature is celebrating its quasquicentennial, or 125th anniversary, this year and incoming department head Shelley King is helping prepare for celebrations this fall.
Dr. King has been spending a lot of time uncovering interesting stories about the department’s last century and a quarter, and hopes to highlight that history through several special events.
In September, an exhibit entitled “125 Years of Canadian Literature at Queen’s” will open in Special Collections at the W.D. Jordan Library, and Prof. Carolyn Smart will host an alumni reading series. During the October 4-6 Homecoming weekend, the department will host an alumni mixer and a "Battle of the Books" – a debate by faculty members on this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize nominees.
“Being active for 125 years means there is a lot of history to our department and it is worth celebrating,” says Dr. King. “According to some people (there is some debate) Queen’s had the first English department in Canada, so that gives it some bragging rights. It has sustained a high reputation both nationally and internationally for teaching and scholarly productivity.”
The first Department of English chair was James Cappon, a Scottish-born academic who was appointed over Charles G.D. Roberts, one of the great 19th century figures of Canadian literature, who became known as the father of Canadian poetry. Queen’s Scottish roots helped Cappon get the job, according to Dr. King.
“Queen’s being Queen’s, school officials appointed the Glasgow man. Cappon then went on to build a career writing about Charles G.D. Roberts,” she laughs.
Cappon and Queen’s had another brush with a Canadian artistic icon. When Cappon retired in 1919, the university commissioned a portrait by future Group of Seven member Frederick Varley. It was Varley’s first commissioned oil portrait painting.
“It’s a stunning portrait that is now sitting in the vaults of Agnes Etherington Art Centre. It’s been fun for me trying to uncover these amazing, little-known stories about the Queen’s English department,” says Dr. King.
Another item that caught Dr. King’s attention was a letter to the editor in a 1977 Alumni Review magazine from Bert Diltz (ArtSci’21). Shelley was surprised to learn that, according to Bert, legendary poet Robert Frost came to Queen’s in January 1921 to be the first poet-in-residence at any Canadian university. Subsequent investigation in the Queen’s University Archives confirmed the details of Frost’s visit.
Dr. King also learned the first female professor at Queen’s was Wilhelmina Gordon (Artsci 1905). She began teaching English at Queen's as a tutorial assistant in 1909 before being promoted to assistant professor in 1925. The Department of English still awards a scholarship each year in her name.
Dr. King plans to keep digging into archives and posting the fascinating Department of English stories she uncovers on the Queen's English Quasquicentennial’s Facebook page.