History of the Department

In the middle of the 20th century, and in the wake of World War II, American colleges and universities found themselves with myriad new roles, teaching new subjects and in new ways. Johns Hopkins University was, in 1947, among the first major institutions to create a degree for writers. More than six decades old, The Writing Seminars began under the tutelage of Elliott Coleman, who quickly established what has remained the department’s mission: to teach what excellence in written art is, to help those determined to write find the appropriate skills and knowledge, to recognize and instill a love of fine writing in students whose futures might embrace vocations other than writing, and to incorporate in the Hopkins vision one of civilization’s most fundamental tools, the imaginative expression of durable ideas.

The Writing Seminars has been served by a long line of distinguished faculty since Professor Coleman. John Barth, who had been among the earliest students, taught generations of American fiction writers how to extend a literary heritage into a vital literary future. Karl Shapiro, like Barth a man of letters, columnist Russell Baker, and newsman and scholar Louis D. Rubin established a spirit of aesthetic inquiry within the shape of seminar interaction that is today everywhere referred to as “the workshop.” Student writing would be examined in the context of historical models, critiqued, re-visioned, re-written, submitted to the best reading serious, demanding writers could provide. Then cheered on.

Subsequent faculty refined and extended what Coleman and Barth had invented. Charles Newman, fiction writer and editor, came and went. Poets David St. John, Cynthia Macdonald, and Tony Tanner arrived; translator William Arrowsmith, journalist Gary Wills, and novelist Leonard Michaels came, too. Faculty moved on to other positions, each leaving a mark on the evolution of The Writing Seminars. John Irwin, a young scholar and poet in the Hopkins Department of English, left to edit The Georgia Review, but after three years returned as the chairman of The Writing Seminars, a position he held for the next 19 years while he made the department into an image of success in both the Johns Hopkins and the national community. He did so by judiciously hiring writers of impeccable accomplishment to teach, including international stars Julian Barnes, Edna O’Brien, Nobel Laureate J.M.Coetzee, fiction writers Robert Stone and Doris Grumback, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Howard Nemerov and Anthony Hecht. Among his most important hires were professors Alice McDermott and Jean McGarry who, along with Stephen Dixon, would make the Hopkins program in fiction writing the most selective in America.

Under John Irwin the department’s developments were remarkable, both in numbers and in direction. He added concentrated study in science writing, journalism, and screen writing. He recruited students whose names now compose a roster of prizes won, books published, movies produced. Louise Erdrich, Chimamanda Adichie, ZZ Packer, Wes Craven, Rosanna Warren, Porochista Khakpour, Elizabeth Spires, Susan Stewart, Esi Edugyan, Iris Chang, Gil Scott-Heron, Wayne Koestenbaum, Vikram Chandra, Lawrence Hill, Ralph Lombreglia, Jami Attenberg, Wyatt Prunty, Gina Apostol, Padma Viswanathan, Greg Williamson, and John Gregory Brown are just some of the luminaries who’ve gone through the program. These and others studied with distinguished faculty members that would, in the 1990s, include poets Mark Strand, another Pulitzer Prize winner; J. D. McClatchy, editor of The Yale Review; Andrew Hudgins; and Dave Smith, then editor of The Southern Review.

At the advent of the 21st century, The Writing Seminars was once again poised for change. An anonymous gift permitted the department to fund 20 graduate teaching assistantships for their one-year course of MA study. These, in turn, would teach introductory writing courses to undergraduates. The first results were instant: high demand for the positions, dramatically increased undergraduate majors, a vital embrace of minority and international students, and a newly energized departmental participation in all areas of the Johns Hopkins University life.

Other, more specific results soon appeared. The same gift also funded an endowed professorship in honor of founding professor Elliott Coleman. Poet, novelist, critic, and editor Dave Smith joined The Writing Seminars in 2002 as the Elliott Coleman Professor of Poetry. With his arrival, the one-year MA degree program metamorphosed into a two-year Master of Fine Arts degree. McGarry and Smith together in 2006 revised and, in 2007, implemented a new undergraduate curriculum designed to emphasize a coherent, progressive relationship in Writing Seminars courses.

Substantive changes such as those brought about by this gift, and others that followed, have assured that life in The Writing Seminars is exciting and active.  A steady flow of visiting readers and lecturers in recent years has included Colson Whitehead, Claudia Rankine, Marilynne Robinson, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Lorrie Moore, Gish Jen, Jennifer Egan, Ilya Kaminsky, Jesmyn Ward, Tim O’ Brien, Paul Beatty, Isabel Wilkerson, Yiyun Li, Teju Cole, Tracy K. Smith, Esi Edugyan, Terrance Hayes, James Shapiro, James Fenton, Alan Hollinghurst, Dinaw Mengestu, Alice Oswald, Christopher Ricks, Jorie Graham, Colm Toibin, and others.  In 2006, John Irwin realized a dream he had long harbored, the re-foundation and publication of The Hopkins Review, a quarterly journal that appeared briefly in the department’s early days. With unstinting effort, he raised funds to see the new magazine through its first five years. The inaugural issue appeared in the Fall 2007 semester. With this semester, too, came the arrival of poet Mary Jo Salter and novelist Brad Leithauser, authors cumulatively of more than 20 books. In 2013, the department said goodbye to Dave Smith and welcomed new poetry faculty members James Arthur and David Yezzi, and novelist and short story writer Eric Puchner.  Since then, Dora Malech and Andrew Motion joined the poetry faculty, and fiction writer Danielle Evans came on board in 2018.

In truth, however, neither size nor awards, descriptive as they are of the character of The Writing Seminars, manifests the essence of what we are about. We seek students who want intensely to compete with and for the art of writing at the highest standards. We seek those who need and respect the collegial company of their peers. We seek those who, having examined this website to determine if we might offer what they want to learn, find our vision and our intentions and even our skills right for them. We want to teach students what it can mean to write and to be a writer—not always the same thing. The Writing Seminars faculty does not imagine what we do is right for everyone, but we think our tradition is worthy and we look for the next students who want, as William Faulkner said, to lodge their names on the wall of time. Firmly. If we look right for you, please contact us for the names and email addresses of selected students already here. We urge you to ask them about us. To be sure you want what we offer.