Brander Matthews

James Brander Matthews (February 21, 1852 – March 31, 1929) was an American writer and educator. He was the first full-time professor of dramatic literature at an American university and played a significant role in establishing theater as a subject worthy of formal study in the academic world. His interests ranged from Shakespeare, Molière, and Ibsen to French boulevard comedies, folk theater, and the new realism of his own day.

James Brander Matthews
Matthews circa 1910
Born(1852-02-21)February 21, 1852
New Orleans, United States
DiedMarch 31, 1929(1929-03-31) (aged 77)
New York City, United States
OccupationProfessor of Dramatic Literature
NationalityUnited States


Matthews born to a wealthy family in New Orleans, grew up in New York City, and graduated from Columbia College in 1871, where he was a member of the Philolexian Society and the fraternity of Delta Psi, and from Columbia Law School in 1873. He had no real interest in the law, never needed to work for a living (given his family fortune),[1] and turned to a literary career, publishing in the 1880s and 1890s short stories, novels, plays, books about drama, biographies of actors, and three books of sketches of city life. One of these, Vignettes of Manhattan (1894), was dedicated to his friend Theodore Roosevelt. From 1892 to 1900, he was a professor of literature at Columbia and thereafter held the Chair of Dramatic Literature until his retirement in 1924. He was known as an engaging lecturer and a charismatic if demanding teacher. His influence was such that a popular pun claimed that an entire generation had been "brandered by the same Matthews."

During his long tenure at Columbia, Matthews created and curated a "dramatic museum" of costumes, scripts, props, and other stage memorabilia. Originally housed in a four-room complex in Philosophy Hall, the collection was broken up and sold after his death. However, its books were incorporated into the university library and its dioramas of the Globe Theatre and other historic dramatic venues have been dispersed for public display around campus, mainly in Dodge Hall. Matthews was the inspiration for the now-destroyed Brander Matthews Theater on 117th Street, between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive. An English professorship in his name still exists at Columbia.


Matthews' students knew him as a man well-versed in the history of drama and as knowledgeable about continental dramatists as he was about American and British playwrights. Long before they were fashionable, he championed playwrights who were regarded as too bold for American tastes, such as Hermann Sudermann, Arthur Pinero, and preeminently Henrik Ibsen, about whom he wrote frequently and eloquently. His students also knew him as an opinionated man with a somewhat conservative political bent. Playwright S.N. Behrman, who studied with him in 1917, recalled in his memoirs, "One day I made the mistake of bringing into class a copy of [the liberal magazine] The New Republic. I had, actually, a contribution in it. Matthews looked at The New Republic and said, 'I am sorry to see you wasting your time on that stuff.' As a staunch Republican and intimate of Theodore Roosevelt's, he had his duty to do." He could also be "easy and anecdotal," Behrman acknowledged, and he was respected on campus as a man-of-the-world.[2] He lived for the theater and made clear his belief that theater was a performance art, first and foremost, and that plays as literary texts should never be viewed in the same light. Yet in the classroom he was an exacting guide to stage craftsmanship.

Other students recalled him as a teacher who elicited "mingled affection and impatience"[3] and who conducted himself in a manner that never attempted to hide his privileged background, connections, and connoisseurship. His relations with Columbia colleagues were sometimes adversarial. His conservatism became more pronounced in his later years: he was adamant about not admitting women to his graduate courses[4] and publicly expressed the opinion that women did not have the natural ability to be great playwrights.[5] According to Mark Van Doren, he taught an "ancient" American literature elective that he refused to revise over the decades. Not surprisingly, he was a natural target for the World War I-era generation of writers and activists. Reviewing Matthews' autobiography in 1917, the radical critic and fellow Columbia graduate Randolph Bourne complained that for Matthews, "literature was a gesture of gentility and not a comprehension of life."[6] In On Native Grounds, Alfred Kazin characterized him as a "literary gentleman."[7]

Matthews taught a number of students who went on to have major careers in the theater, including playwright Behrman and drama critics Stark Young, Ludwig Lewisohn, and John Gassner.


Brander Matthews was a prolific, varied, and uneven writer, author of over thirty books. His own novels and plays are undistinguished and long-forgotten (the claim to fame of one of his plays is its footnote status in Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie: it is the melodrama, A Gold Mine, Carrie attends which leads her to consider a career on the stage). Some of his surveys of American literature and drama sold very well as high-school and college texts. Yet one of his earliest books, French Dramatists of the Nineteenth Century (1881), is an excellent scholarly study of the subject and was revised and reprinted twice over two decades, while his 1919 autobiography, These Many Years, is a deftly-told story of an education in the arts by a man who lived a rich and productive life. It also offers an interesting evocation of life in Manhattan c. 1860-1900. Matthews published a biography of Molière in 1910 and a biography of Shakespeare in 1913.

Other activities

Matthews had an active professional life off-campus. He was one of the founders of the Authors' Club and the Players' Club and was one of the organizers of the American Copyright League. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1913. In 1906, he was named the first chairman of the Simplified Spelling Board and served as president of the Modern Language Association of America in 1910. In 1907, the French government decorated him with the Legion of Honor for his services in promoting the cause of French drama.

Professional and personal friendships

Brander Matthews was not a typical academic for his time. He was friends with many notable men, e.g. Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Theodore Roosevelt.[8] His relationship with Twain[9] had a bantering quality (Twain, in his famous essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," lambastes Matthews' statements concerning Cooper's literary merits), while his friendship with Howells was earnest and supportive. Matthews' correspondence with Roosevelt, which extended from the 1880s through the White House years, was posthumously published. They shared a temperamental affinity as well as an interest in the cause of simplified spelling.[10]

Despite his complacent persona in later years, wearing mutton-chop whiskers long after that style has passed, Matthews was always an intensely social man. He regularly invited students to his West End apartment for evenings of conversation. In the 1890s he was a charter member of an informal group called "the Friendly Sons of Saint Bacchus," which met in a bohemian cafe in Greenwich Village for entertainment and readings. Other members of the group included the erudite and cosmopolitan critic James Gibbons Huneker and the rowdy Ash can painter George Luks, two New Yorkers notorious for their hard drinking, whose presence would suggest that the "sons" were not devoted to purely intellectual pastimes.[11] Huneker shared Matthews' desire to see drama accepted as a subject for serious criticism and, like his academic friend, lobbied for more attention to be paid by American audiences to the advanced European dramatists.[12] The two had crossed paths in Europe when Matthews was doing research for his first book, The Theatres of Paris (1880). Matthews was also a member of the long-running Gin Mill Club, a more exclusive informal organization whose members included the university's president, Nicholas Murray Butler, and numerous public officials equally devoted to fraternal evenings of conversation, good wine, and good food.[13]

Brander Matthews retired from Columbia University at the age of seventy-two. He was predeceased by both his wife, Ada Harland, an actress who had given up her career when they married, and their only child, a daughter. He died in New York City five years after his retirement, in 1929.


  • The Theatres of Paris (1880)
  • French Dramatists of the Nineteenth Century (1881, revised in 1891 and 1901)
  • Margery's Lovers (1884)
  • Love at First Sight (1885)
  • Actors and Actresses of the United States and Great Britain (five volumes, 1886), with Laurence Hutton
  • In the Vestibule Limited (1892)
  • Americanisms and Briticisms (1892)
  • The Decision of the Court (1893)
  • Vignettes of Manhattan (1894)
  • Studies of the Stage (1894)
  • The Royal Marine: An Idyl of Narragansett Pier (1894) (Harper's New Monthly Magazine June 1894)
  • The Gift of Story-Telling (1895) (Harper's New Monthly Magazine Oct 1895)
  • His Father's Son (1895), a novel
  • Bookbindings Old and New: Notes of a book-lover, with an account of the Grolier Club of New York (1895)
  • Aspects of Fiction (1896; revised in 1902)
  • An Introduction to the Study of American Literature (1896)
  • Studies in Local Color (1898)
  • A Confident To-Morrow (1900)
  • The Action and the Word (1900)
  • The Historical Novel and Other Essays (1901)
  • Parts of Speech, Essays on English (1901)
  • The Philosophy of the Short-Story (1901)
  • The Development of the Drama (1903)
  • American Character (1906)
  • The Short Story (1907)
  • Americans of the Future and Other Essays (1909)
  • Molière: His Life and Works (1910)
  • Introduction to the Study of American literature (1911)
  • Fugitives from Justice (1912) Poetry.
  • Vistas of New York (1912)
  • Shakespeare as a Playwright (1913)
  • On Acting (1914)
  • The Oxford Book of American Essays (1914)
  • A Book About the Theater (1916)
  • These Many Years (1917): autobiography
  • Principles of Playmaking (1919)
  • Playwrights on Playmaking (1923)


  1. Matthews' father went bankrupt and the family fortune was lost, but his mother's money provided him with a comfortable living and eventually his own books sold quite well. Biographical information from this entry is taken from Matthews' autobiography.
  2. S.N. Behrman, People in a Diary (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972). p. 8.
  3. Green, p. 84.
  4. Green, p. 49.
  5. Brander Matthews, A Book About the Theater (New York: Scribner, 1916), pp. 113-125.
  6. Thomas Bender, New York Intellect (New York: Knopf, 1987), p. 232.
  7. Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (New York: Harcourt, 1942), p. 61.
  8. Green, p. 83.
  9. Matthews wrote the Introduction to the New York edition of Twain's Collected Works.
  10. Nathan Miller, Theodore Roosevelt: A Life (New York: William Morrow, 1992), PP. 422-423.
  11. Arnold Schwab, James Gibbons Huneker: Critic of the Seven Arts (Berkeley: Stanford University Press, 1963), p. 113.
  12. Schwab, p. 151.
  13. Michael Rosenthal, Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2006), p. 262, ISBN 0374299943.


  • Green, Ashbel (ed.). My Columbia: Reminiscences of University Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Matthews, Brander. These Many Years: Recollections of a New Yorker. New York: Scribner, 1919.
  • Oliver, Lawrence J. Brander Matthews, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Politics of American Literature, 1880-1920. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1995.
  • Stein, Howard. "Brander Matthews and Theater Studies at Columbia." Living Legacies: Columbia University of the City of New York. in Columbia Magazine, Spring 2002

Further reading

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