Early Undergraduate Publishing At The University Of Vermont: Literary And Debating Societies & Their Publications, 1803-1865

Alexander Hampton Ellis, University of Vermont


Since the foundation of the University of Vermont’s (UVM) first official extracurricular organization in 1803—the literary and debating society, Phi Sigma Nu—undergraduates have continuously produced extracurricular publications for differing purposes, made possible by the changing varieties of undergraduate organizations that developed concomitantly with the university over time. Several historical monographs have been written that utilize these various types of materials to describe undergraduate student life, yet none have focused their efforts upon these printed sources in and of themselves, nor has the subject of undergraduate publications merited a full historical monograph to this day. This thesis seeks to address this historiographical deficiency.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, UVM’s early extracurricular organizations acted as a supplement to the official classical curriculum, facilitating much of these early students’ interactions with the English language in a period prior to the professionalization and departmentalization of English literature within the formal university. Undergraduates of the early national and antebellum eras employed the literary and debating society as an organization to connect ideas located in their classical course work with the vernacular, English-speaking world that surrounded them, and their publications exist as one of the mechanisms that these students utilized to marry their early neohumanistic curriculum with the changing necessities of life in Burlington, the state of Vermont, and the nation on a whole. These undergraduates—immersed in the oratorical culture of the classical college—published transcripts from important speeches, discourses, and poems that they had heard spoken at events such as commencement or the anniversary celebrations of the societies and later desired to preserve for future reading or sharing with others. Such publications represent the earliest form of undergraduate publishing at UVM and can provide historians with not only the means to describe undergraduates’ earliest relationships with the rising medium of print in the new national and antebellum periods, but also an important clue into the boundaries and interests of their own intellects.