School’s almost back in session, and that means thousands of students — undergraduates and graduate students — will head to their respective universities to become better writers, or to study the art of writing. We got to thinking of all the schools that offer courses of study for these students, and it got us to wondering which universities are the most literary friendly — which ones have the best teachers, the most famous alumni, and have the best environments for their more bookish students.
Sure, it’s expensive and tough to get into, but there’s a pretty good reason that we’re opening up this list with this school that was founded 1746 as the College of New Jersey. Princeton is a dream school for writers, thanks to a famous history that counts F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eugene O’Neill among its notable students; Toni Morrison holding titles like Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emerita, Special Consultant to the Director of the Princeton Atelier and Lecturer with the rank of Professor in the Lewis Center for the Arts; a staff that includes Jeffrey Eugenides, Paul Muldoon, and Joyce Carol Oates; a great library with a fantastic rare book collection; and the sort of picturesque Ivy League landscape that can help jog any imagination.
The University of Iowa
We really only need two words to explain why this one is on the list: Writers’ Workshop. You could go study in an overcrowded city, but wouldn’t you rather study in the peace and quiet at the revered program that has featured Philip Roth, Marilynne Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Louise Glück, John Cheever, and has an alumni list that features Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Nathan Englander, ZZ Packer, Denis Johnson, and dozens of other writers whose names are regularly found on your bookshelf? Plus, they put out one heck of a good journal with The Iowa Review.
Did you know that aside from the plethora of young writers, literary landmarks, great indie bookstores, and nightly reading throughout Brooklyn that this City University of New York senior college has a really great two-year program in creative writing and offers Masters of Fine Arts degrees in fiction, poetry, and playwriting? It’s so great that writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Colson Whitehead, Karen Russell, and many others have taught there.
If you’re a writer that wants to study out west, this private liberal arts college in Claremont, California features none other than Jonathan Lethem as the Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English. His predecessor? David Foster Wallace. And in case you’re curious, here is Wallace’s syllabus from 2005 to show there is no messing around at Pomona.
While its neighbors in New York and Massachusetts might carry more name recognition, this school that was originally founded by a group of the city’s upper class citizens during the Gilded Age, including Olivia Langdon Clemens (Mark Twain’s wife) and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It has a strong English department, has given the Edward Lewis Wallant Award out to authors like Nicole Krauss and Dara Horn, and if you’re a student and need inspiration, you can always go visit the town’s literary landmark.
One of the Little Ivies that is really big on books, V. S. Naipaul and T. S. Eliot both taught at this school that overlooks the Connecticut River, and with a list of writers like Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), Ayelet Waldman, Steve Almond, and many others, Wesleyan is without a doubt a writer’s college.
While it isn’t a long trip from New York City, you can’t do better than this Bronxville college in terms of coziness. The faculty includes Stephen O’Connor, Alexander Chee, and Tina Chang, Womrath Bookstore is a great little shop, there’s plenty of coffee, notable alumni like Ann Patchett and Alice Walker, and a really great poetry journal. You might be better off skipping the city and go to Sarah Lawrence instead.
One of few in the country whose Creative Writing Program offers a major at the undergraduate level, this Ohio liberal arts college has worked its way into a few pop culture references via notable alumni like Lena Dunham and Gary Shteyngart. Oberlin is the perfect school for city kids that want to try something different.
Starting to notice a pattern of New England being a hotbed for literary education? This Williamstown, MA, liberal arts school should be on any list of literary colleges simply based on the fact that Jim Shepard teaches there, but this school’s beautiful location and former students like Jay McInerney and Fiona Maazel make Williams a great spot for writers.
As much as we wanted to put the University of Wisconsin on this list (go Badgers!), Lorrie Moore making the move from Madison to Nashville automatically made Vanderbilt one of the most desirable schools for writers in the country.
Smith no doubt earned its place as one of the most well-known colleges in literature since Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar attended the school that just so happens to be the place where Plath herself earned her education. That’s why it shouldn’t come as a shock that this private Northampton college is the home to a great Poetry Center, as well as the school Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black, attended.
University of Mississippi
Want to write like a Southern author? Live like one; in fact, follow in the footsteps of the Nobel Prize-winning William Faulkner by attending his alma mater. But we don’t think you should attend Ole Miss simply based off the fact it has one very famous writer to its name: the school has a great M.F.A. program that features a really great faculty.
New York University
Going to NYU puts you in the heart of New York City, next to great bookstores like St. Mark’s Bookshop and The Strand, and within close proximity to most of the publishing industry. That’s all great, but you could go there and learn from writers like Zadie Smith and E.L. Doctorow. That is part of the reason why NYU is one of the most popular schools in the country.
If you don’t want to live on one of the coasts, Colorado College might be the place for you. The creative writing program is well respected, and you aren’t really being distracted by the publishing industry in a place like Colorado Springs.
Hyde Park might not be the center of Chicago’s nightlife, but it is without a doubt home to one of America’s greatest institutions of higher learning, one that has been quite friendly towards writers with its great creative writing program. Take a stroll around the beautiful campus or visit any of the great bookshops like Powell’s, O’Gara & Wilson, and the Seminary CoOp, and you’ll see why Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, and Saul Bellow (along with a lot of Nobel Laureates in other fields) all wanted to go there.
Hamilton prides itself on being “A national leader in teaching students to write effectively, learn from each other and think for themselves.” The school that Ezra Pound attended is the third oldest college in New York, but it truly became a writers college when it established the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center in 1987.
Do we really need to convince you that Harvard has a great Department of English, or that it’s a good school for writers like Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and John Updike who used as their launchpad to literary stardom? But let’s just say that like most of us you can’t get into this famous Ivy for whatever reason, Cambridge is still one of the most literary cities in America that you should just go visit for the heck of it.
University of Illinois at Champaign–Urbana
We can’t emphasize enough how awesome getting out of the big cities to work on your writing can be, and that’s why a lot of younger writers flock to the middle of Illinois to take part in the great creative writing program at the University of Illinois. But the one nugget that going to school in Champaign has that a lot of schools that aren’t in places like New York have, is having a world class publisher like Dalkey Archive in town.
Sewanee: The University of the South
If you’re interested in writing and you want to go to school in Boston, go to Emerson. The Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing has a great faculty, and the school does the good deed of publishing the very great Ploughshares.
University of Texas at Austin
Aside from the fact that it is in Austin, which is easily one of the best cities in all of America, UT has a great M.F.A. program, and you go to the school that houses the manuscript collections of Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Norman Mailer, Anne Sexton, Don DeLillo, Graham Greene, David Foster Wallace, and a bunch of other writers who probably inspire you even after you’ve spent a night drinking too much beer and yelling “Hook ‘em Horns!”
It is basically impossible to put together any list of great American colleges without including at least a couple of Ivy League schools. Columbia might be the best of all of them thanks to its location, storied history, and always fantastic faculty. Both the undergrad and graduate programs are top-notch and really tough to get into.
Here’s another school that benefits from being a train ride away from New York City, but it’s still far enough away from the hustle and bustle that novelists, poets, and all kinds of other literary folk like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Smiley, and Thomas Beller all went there. And of course we can’t forget Mary McCarthy from the class of 1933, who would go on to write The Group and make her alma mater proud as a great novelist and critic. Students flock to Vassar’s English Department because they also want to be part of that storied history.
The website says: “Literature and writing at Bennington are grounded in the idea that good writers are good readers.” Who can argue with that? Bennington became a destination for future writers after high profile names like Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, and Jonathan Lethem came out of there in the 1980s. But with a faculty that includes names like Phillip Lopate, Amy Hempel, and Paul Yoon, it remains the kind of college the future novelists dream of attending.
The New School
Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, and Tennessee Williams are just a few of the names that made this school their choice out of the many great colleges in New York. Centered in the heart of Greenwich Village, The New School features all the same amenities as its New York University neighbor right up the block. While they share a neighborhood, one of the most notable differences between The New School and NYU is that while New York University is closing in on 40,000 students, The New School has just under 10,000.