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"Shakespeare, Poet of Liberty:
Charles Mills Gayley and Anglo-Saxon Shakespeare"

Coppélia Kahn

Department of English

Brown University


I propose to examine the career of Charles Mills Gayley, who chaired the English Department of the University of California at Berkeley from 1889 to 1919, in the context of the fierce debates that surrounded immigration, American national identity, and America’s entrance into World War I. Among those intellectual leaders who argued that to become Americans, immigrants had to be assimilated into an “Anglo-Saxon” culture, Gayley was the only literary scholar, and the only westerner. With the publication of Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America in 1917, Gayley positioned Shakespeare at the center of a complex circuitry engaging the English language, American democracy, and the Virginia Company’s settlement in Jamestown.


By 1916, the war in Europe was almost two years old. The imminent possibility of America’s entrance into it, combined with swelling numbers of immigrants from non-English speaking countries such as Russia and Italy, made the longstanding question of what transformed an immigrant into an American more urgent than ever. Chair of Berkeley’s English Department during the decades when the recently-founded land-grant university attained national stature, Gayley was renowned for his Shakespeare course, influential in shaping California’s public education system, and prominent in civic activities. Under his leadership, Berkeley’s English curriculum had become a model for the modern academic study of English literature. Gayley himself had written several textbooks and anthologies instrumental to that curriculum, among them Poetry of the People, “comprising poems illustrative of the national spirit of England. . .and America”(1903) and Plays of our Forefathers (1907). His curricular investment in English literature as the foundation of American culture fused with his passionately pro-British stance toward the war to make his 1917 book a not-so-covert argument against Wilsonian neutrality and for America’s defense of Britain as its political and cultural ancestor, with Shakespeare as standard-bearer.


A year before the book, Gayley had hailed Shakespeare as “Poet. . . .of the Blood. . . .Born of the Mayflower, born of Virginia” in a widely reprinted poem. Making “the English-speaking tradition” (a widely used term) tantamount to a racial trait, he anticipated the argument of the book that “an Anglo-Saxon majority” of British blood had defined what was quintessentially American.


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