History of the Department

The Department of Romance Languages and Literatures was founded at the inception of the University in 1892. The department’s name and early organization reflected the philological search for the origins and development of languages and literatures that predominated during the nineteenth century. The leadership of the department was initially entrusted to the Hispanist William I. Knapp, who was also charged with the recruitment of faculty. In 1893 the department offered its first year of courses with a faculty of five: Knapp, plus Eugene Bergeron, George Howland, René de Poyen-Bellisle, and Elizabeth Wallace. Wallace would become the first woman to attain the rank of full professor at the University of Chicago (in 1923). 


Elizabeth Wallace, first woman to attain the rank of Full Professor at the University of Chicago University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-08546r, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Over the years RLL has distinguished itself in a number of fields. First, members of the department have led the field in the production of important dictionaries and linguistic studies. In 1932 Swiss philologist and visiting professor Walther von Wartburg, along with Oscar Bloch, published the Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française; in 1948 Professors Carlos Castillo, Otto F. Bond, and Barbara M. García published their best-selling University of Chicago Spanish-English and English-Spanish Dictionary; and in 1954 Joan Coromines, a brilliant philologist, lexicographer, and specialist of Catalan, produced the first etymological dictionary of the Spanish language, the Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua castellana. Coromines also published a nine-volume Catalan etymological dictionary.

Members of the department have been responsible for field-transforming innovations in critical theory. Pierre Robert Vigneron, who joined the faculty in 1924, reacting to what he perceived as overly philological and historical approaches to literary criticism, introduced American scholars to his pioneering system of explication de texte, or close reading. His methods would shape what later became known as the Chicago School of Criticism. In 1965 George Haley published his famous article, “The Narrator in Don Quijote: Maese Pedro’s Puppet Show,” in the Modern Language Notes journal. This essay was the first piece of writing on Spanish literature in a new wave of criticism derived from the Chicago School ushered in by Vigneron, Wayne Booth, and others. This new approach emphasized the consideration of the rhetoric implicit in narratives and, relatedly, the (implicit) relationship between author and reader.


William A. Nitze, Chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (1909-1941) University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-01180r, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

The Department has a long tradition of excellence in medieval and early modern studies. French medievalist Thomas A. Jenkins, who joined the department in 1901, published a highly acclaimed edition of the epic poem La Chanson de Roland. His colleague William A. Nitze, who chaired the department from 1909 to 1941, was the originator and director of the Arthurian Romances Project, which traced the Arthurian legends and the story of the Holy Grail through the various literatures of medieval and post-medieval Europe. Ernest Hatch Wilkins, a member of the faculty from 1912 to 1927, was an important scholar of medieval and early modern Italian literature, who wrote on Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. His The Making of the “Canzoniere” (1951) was the first philological text on the composition of the canzoniere. Wilkins published numerous other works on Petrarch and was instrumental in discovering Petrarch’s compositional methods. Joan Coromines taught and published not only on Castilian language and literature, but Provençal and Old French as well. Under the influential chairship of Bernard Weinberg, himself the author of the award-winning book, History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance, Peter Dembowski (medieval French), Paolo Cherchi (medieval Italian and Spanish) and George Haley (Spanish Golden Age), joined Coromines in the department. All would make Chicago a destination for medieval and early modern studies in the Romance Languages.  

RLL has long practiced what is now often referred to as Latin American and Iberian Studies, a formulation that points to an expansive understanding of literary production not limited to works produced in Spanish or in the Iberian peninsula. Dating back to Elizabeth Wallace’s promotion of the literature and culture of Latin America at the inception of the University, faculty undertook teaching and research in Latin American literature alongside older philological traditions: Carlos Castillo taught courses on writers from Peru and Mexico, while Salomón Treviño taught courses on Spanish and Latin American Romanticism. In 1964 Portuguese language studies were established in the department. These studies were formalized c. 2000 when an agreement was signed with the Luso-American Foundation to foster academic studies in Portuguese language and literature. For many years the department regularly hosted visiting professors of Portuguese language and literature from Lisbon, most recently Miguel Tamen (spring 2014). In 1981, with the support of an endowment from the Tinker Foundation, the Tinker Visiting Professor Program was established at the Center for Latin American Studies, then directed by René de Costa. The program brings three or four senior scholars of Latin American Studies to the University annually, and, more often than not, to the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. The Program in Catalan Studies (Lectureship and Visiting Professorship) was established in 2005 thanks to an agreement with the Institut Ramon Llull. In 2005-2006 the department started offering courses in Catalan language and hosted the first Visiting Professor in Catalan Studies (the Joan Coromines Chair). A list of visitors can be found here.

The Program in Basque Studies, which was initially established in 2010 in the Department of Linguistics, has recently moved to the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. Similar to the Catalan Studies program, this program includes a Lectureship in Basque language (offering 4 courses per year: a sequence of elementary Basque, plus a course on Basque culture) and the Koldo Mitxelena Visiting Professorship (teaching one course per year).

Finally, the department has long included eminent scholar-authors, including Francisco Ayala, winner (1991) of the Cervantes Prize, Spain’s highest honor for contributions to Spanish literature and Ricardo Gullón, who served as a visiting professor during the 1970s. Present day author-critics include Frederick de Armas, Maria Anna Mariani, Victoria Saramago, Thomas Pavel, and Khalid Lyamlahy.