About / Program History


The Sewanee School of Letters, an innovative summer Master’s Degree program in English and Creative Writing, is the newest literary initiative on a campus known for them.

Planning for it began in 2002 when, encouraged by the long success of The Sewanee Review, the nation’s oldest continuously published literary quarterly, and the newer but equally distinguished Sewanee Writers’ Conference, several professors at the University of the South began discussing the idea of a Master’s Degree program on its campus atop the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. We recognized that, though MA programs in English are common enough, most of them are inaccessible to anyone who can't put a job and life on hold for a year or two. What about a summer program, we asked, one that students would attend for six weeks in June and July? After five summers (or four if they wrote their theses elsewhere), they would emerge with either an MA in English and American Literature or an MFA in Creative Writing. We knew we could assemble a distinguished faculty, from Sewanee and other institutions. We’d keep the student body small, so as to maximize each student’s contact with that faculty. Both groups would enjoy our scenic campus surrounded by woods, waterfalls and trails. Secondary school teachers in particular might find that it answered their needs perfectly; many others might as well. A few dozen committee meetings, a course of bureaucratic hurdles, and one timely grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and we were in business.

And so in 2006 the School of Letters enrolled its first students.They came from all over the United States and from a dizzying array of backgrounds; they included the teachers we expected, plus two lawyers, a medical doctor, a clergyman, a college professor, and a Hollywood actor. In age they ranged from their twenties to their sixties. Some arrived alone, while others brought their spouses and children. What they had in common was a desire to deepen their knowledge of great literature, the willingness to work hard at it for an intensive six-week term, and the recognition that doing so in a beautiful place, rich in literary tradition, makes it twice as rewarding. Since then our enrollment has grown, but the students continue to be just as diverse, and just as much alike in their shared enthusiasms.

At Sewanee I could immerse myself in an atmosphere that allowed me to learn about and practice what I am most interested in, the art and craft of writing, without compromising the life I lead the remainder of the year. It’s six intense weeks in a place where one can literally forget the world.

–Greer Tirrill, Atlanta, Georgia

I cannot say enough good things about my first summer in the Sewanee School of Letters. As a high school English teacher, my classes have been greatly influenced by my time on the Mountain this summer. The School of Letters was a wonderful opportunity for me to expand my learning and improve my teaching, and to be able to do so in such a wonderful place with such fantastic people (on both sides of the desk) was truly rewarding. I cannot wait for next summer. 

–Nick Nichols, Houston, Texas

I woke up and went to bed reading poetry. I spent hours in the library. I had as much time as I could stand to write. Besides its distinguished faculty, visiting lecturers, and stunning physical beauty, Sewanee gave me the opportunity to settle into a serious rhythm of reading and writing which I am never able to do in the rest of my life. 

–Philip Carr-Harris, Pleasantville, New York

I can’t believe the six weeks went by so fast. The School of Letters far exceeded my expectations and I was captivated by Sewanee. I had a wonderful experience.

–Doug Smith, Bainbridge Island, Washington

Now there are around 80 students enrolled, and they are proving to be just as talented, energetic, and accomplished as we thought they would be.  School of Letters students are publishing poems and stories in such journals as California Quarterly, Southeast Review, The Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Hopkins Review, Meridian, The Midwest Quarterly, and The Sewanee Review, and essays and papers in venues as diverse as Running Times, American Songwriter, The Bronte Studies Journal, The Shakespeare Newsletter, Books and Culture Online, Thoreau's Legacy: American Stories About Global Warming and in the Proceedings of the Blackfriars' Conference. They are signing book deals with FSG Originals; they are being honored by organizations like The Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society, the Dana Awards, and The English Speaking Union; they're presenting papers at the American Shakespeare Center and study at the Globe Theatre in London.  They are premiering films at the International Wildlife Film Festival. They've published poetry chapbooks, received grants, and given invited readings in Manhattan bookstores.  They're a lively and talented bunch, that is to say, already accomplishing big things and promising bigger ones.

If they sound like your kind of people, if you've considered earning your master's, and if you like the idea of doing it in the summers, on a beautiful mountaintop campus rich in literary history, then read on, or get in touch with us for more information.