Columbians Ahead of Their Time

"The art of teaching requires the instructor to guide his student to work independently to discover principles for himself, and in time to acquire the power of principles to the manifold situations which may confront him."

James Brander Matthews (1852–1929)
Drama Scholar
Faculty 1891-1924
Columbia College 1871, Law 187

Regarded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as America’s leading authority on drama, Brander Matthews believed that performances, rather than texts, provided the key to proper understanding of the art form. An influential critic and writer who became the nation’s first professor of dramatic literature, Matthews established his scholarly bona fides with the 1881 publication of French Dramatists of the Nineteenth Century. Beginning in 1871 he adapted and wrote several plays, two of which—A Gold Mine (1887) and On Probation (1889)—enjoyed success around the country. Over his lengthy career he wrote additional books, numerous reviews, short fiction he called "sketches," and an early (and popular) literature text for high school students. As a member of numerous literary clubs, Matthews advocated for (and in 1893 was publicly feted by) realist writers like William Dean Howells and Mark Twain; he also served as president of the Modern Language Association (1910) and the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1913), and chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1922-1924). His autobiography, These Many Years, appeared in 1917.

Matthews graduated from Columbia College in 1871 and Columbia Law School in 1873. (His law training was intended to help him steward the resources of his wealthy family; had they not been wiped out in a financial panic that same year, Matthews might never have enjoyed the latitude to explore his interest in theater.) He was invited to begin lecturing at Columbia in 1891 and was so well received that Seth Low created a new professorship for him one year later. Soon after he originated the course that persists in today's curriculum as Modern Drama, and in 1899 was appointed by Nicholas Murray Butler to a new chair in dramatic literature—the first such position in an American college or university—which he held until his 1924 retirement. In 1911, Matthews began amassing theater-related memorabilia, which he considered to be essential pedagogic tools; the collection (described in the CU archives as posters, prints, photographs, puppets, masks, set models, manuscripts, books, and ephemera) and an endowment to expand and maintain it was eventually donated to the University, and survives as the Brander Matthews Collection. In 1940, Columbia built at 117th Street and Amsterdam Avenue Brander Matthews Hall, which housed a famed opera workshop. Although the building was razed in 1958 to make way for the present Law School, Matthews is still remembered today with a named professorship in English and Dramatic Literature; so too does his portrait watch over the English Department's seminar room.

Read more about Brander Matthews in the Columbia Encyclopedia

Matthews's archives are on view at CU's Rare Book and Manuscript Library through early 2006.

Matthews was profiled at length in the Spring 2002 Columbia magazine.

The noted opera conductor served as director of the theater in Brander Matthews Hall.

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