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Burch, Charles Eaton(1891–1948) - Literary critic, educator, poet, bibliophile, Chronology

university english defoe literature

Charles Eaton Burch devoted his life to teaching seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature and studying the literary and political activities of Daniel Defoe, English author of Robinson Crusoe . Burch was especially known among literary scholars as an authority on the life and works of Daniel Defoe. Although Burch received international acclaim for his scholarship on Defoe among academic circles, he received very little public recognition for his literary achievements. Burch’s love for teaching and studying literature continued until his death as a result of a heart attack on March 23, 1948 in Stamford, Connecticut.

Charles Eaton Burch was born on July 14, 1891 in St. Georges, Bermuda. As a young child, living in St. Georges, Burch was greatly influenced by his father’s passion for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature. When Burch expressed interest in pursuing a career as a professor of language and literature, his father, a woodworker and entrepreneur, played a significant role in helping him reach his goal.

After passing the Cambridge junior examinations, Burch left Bermuda, with the support of his family, to explore his educational opportunities in the United States. He attended Wilberforce University in Ohio where he received his B.A. in 1914. Burch received his M.A. in English literature from Columbia University in New York in 1918. While at Columbia University, Burch expressed interest in the poetry of Burns, Whittier, and Dunbar, and he wrote a master’s thesis entitled A Survey of the Life and Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar . Dunbar was one of the first persons of African descent living in the United States to receive national recognition as a poet. However, Burch’s interest in Defoe overshadowed this interest in poetry.

Columbia University professor William P. Trent introduced Burch to the works of Defoe. Burch became especially interested in Defoe’s literary and political influence during the writer’s Scottish period. By the time Burch received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 1933, his interest in Defoe was firmly established. Burch’s doctoral dissertation was entitled The English Reputation of Daniel Defoe .

Burch’s research on Defoe has been acknowledged in Cambridge Bibliography of Eighteenth-Century Literature, Who’s Who in American Library Scholarship , and His writings on Defoe have also appeared in distinguished publications in the United States, England, and Germany, such as Philological Quarterly, Notes & Queries, London Quarterly Review , and Englische Studien .

While working at Howard University, Burch went on sabbatical (1927–28) to study the life and works of Defoe at Edinburgh University in Scotland with Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Literature, Herbert Greirson. Burch returned to Scotland in 1938 to conduct further biographical and bibliographical research on Defoe in the archives at Edinburgh University and the National Library of Scotland. At the time of his death, Burch was working on two major projects: a biography on Defoe and an edition of Defoe’s pamphlet on the Union.

While pursuing his M.A. degree at Columbia University, Burch taught English at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (1916–17). After receiving his degree at Columbia, Burch taught at Wilberforce University in Ohio, Morris Brown University in Georgia, Langston University in Oklahoma, and Alabama State University in Alabama. He was a faculty member of the English Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for twenty-seven years. Burch was appointed as assistant professor (1921–24), as associate professor (1924–36) and in 1933 he became the chairman of the English Department, a position he held until his death in 1948.

Burch made several contributions to the English Department at Howard during his career as educator and department head. One major contribution was his introduction of the course, “Poetry and Prose of Negro Life,” one of the few courses devoted to black literature in an American university in the early 1920s. Burch not only felt that cultural awareness and appreciation were important, but he strived for academic excellence. Therefore, he constantly made efforts to strengthen the department by recruiting prominent scholars and by outlining plans for the introduction of graduate-level course work that offered a broad and intensive training in several areas of English study. Some departmental guidelines and precedents set by Burch continued to be used in the English department for thirty years after his death.

Burch died of a heart attack on March 22, 1948 in Stamford, Connecticut. His funeral service was held at the Rankin Memorial Chapel, Howard University, and his body was buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland. Burch was survived by his second wife, Dr. Willa Carter Mayer Burch, whom he married in 1918; he had no children.

The legacy of Burch continues into the early 2000s at Howard University. As a tribute to his accomplishments, the English department at Howard University established the Charles Eaton Burch Memorial Fund and the Annual Charles Eaton Burch Memorial Lectures. Burch’s ambition, dedication, and loving personality set an example for aspiring scholars and educators.


1891 Born in St. Georges, Bermuda on July 14

1914 Receives B.A. from Wilberforce University, Ohio

1916 Teaches English at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama

1918 Receives M.A. in English literature from Columbia University, New York; marries his second wife, Willa Carter Mayer

1921 Starts twenty-seven-year teaching career at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

1927 Travels to Scotland to research the life and works of Defoe at Edinburgh University and the National Library of Scotland

1933 Becomes chairman of the English Department at Howard University; receives Ph.D. in English literature from Ohio State University

1938 Returns to Scotland for further biographical and bibliographical research on Defoe

1948 Dies in Stamford, Connecticut of a heart attack on March 22

Burch(ell), John (Alexander) [next] [back] Burberry, Thomas

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