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Moulton, Richard Greenlocked

(5 May 1849–15 Aug. 1924)
  • Fred W. Beuttler

Moulton, Richard Green (5 May 1849–15 Aug. 1924), professor, lecturer, and author, was born in Preston, England, the youngest son of James Egan Moulton and Catherine (Fiddian) Moulton. His father was a prominent Methodist minister with four sons, two of whom became ministers: Rev. William Fiddian Moulton, who authored a concordance to the Greek New Testament and was an editor of the Revised Version of the Bible, and Rev. John Egan Moulton, who became a Methodist missionary to Australia. Another brother, James Fletcher Moulton, was a lawyer, judge, scientist, and member of Parliament, with a life peerage as Baron Moulton.

As a Methodist, Richard Moulton could not take a degree from Cambridge or Oxford, so he attended the University of London, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1869. The passage of the Universities Test Act in 1871 enabled Moulton to attend Cambridge, where he took a second A.B. in 1874, and a master’s degree in 1877. On 13 August 1896 he married Alice Maud Cole, of Sheffield, England. They had no known children.

In the 1870s Cambridge University, under Professor John Stuart, had established the first University Extension department, to extend instruction into middle and working class communities throughout England. Richard Green Moulton became one of Cambridge’s first extension lecturers, from 1874 through 1890, working also under the auspices of the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching. In 1890 he spoke in Philadelphia to the newly established American Society for University Extension, where he described the English extension model, arguing that the essence of university education is that it is “education for adults; it is voluntary, it is unlimited in scope, unlimited in age; it applies to man’s whole life” (“Address of Richard G. Moulton on the University Extension Movement,” Philadelphia: The American Society for the Extension of University Teaching, 1890, p.5).

In December 1890 William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, offered Moulton a faculty position, as professor of literature in English. Moulton received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1891 and began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1892, when the new university opened. In 1901 he became professor of literary theory and interpretation, and head of the department of general literature. For the rest of his career, he divided his time between England, from April to September, and Chicago, from October through March. He continued to be affiliated with the London Society throughout his career.

A magnetic speaker, Moulton was one of the most popular lecturers of his era. University extension at the time was a form of academic circuit riding, with almost incessant travel. To cite one example, in Winter Quarter 1910, Moulton taught five courses in five different cities, each week traveling to Wheeling, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Louisville, East St. Louis, and Peoria, Illinois, sleeping in Pullman railway cars. He lectured to crowds of around six hundred, then taught a smaller class taking the course for credit, grading the weekly exam papers on the train. His chief lecture course topics were on Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, the Faust legend, and the English Bible.

Moulton was called an “apostle of adult education” (Sadler, p. 7). He believed that a university had two major functions, the first as a research institution to train specialists, and second, to bring education to working people. Yet he was not only a popular lecturer; he was also a major theorist of literature and criticism. His first book, Shakespeare as Dramatic Artist: A Popular Illustration of the Principles of Scientific Criticism (1885), set forth a theory of interpretation grounded in inductive structural analysis, and his Shakespeare as a Dramatic Thinker (1903) illustrated his general principle that “creative literature is, in the humanities, what experiments are in the natural sciences” (W. Fiddian Moulton, p. 41).

Moving beyond classics, Moulton sought to reemphasize the Hebraic tradition alongside the Hellenic in the formation of European culture. While Matthew Arnold had coined the phrase “the Bible as literature,” it was Moulton who made it known, becoming “the father of the modern literary study of the Bible.” In The Literary Study of the Bible (1896), Moulton argued that the Bible’s medieval style of numbered verses obscured its poetic and dramatic style. He published edited versions of all the biblical texts, finally coming out with The Modern Reader’s Bible (1907) based on the Revised Version and presented “in modern literary form.” Anticipating form criticism, canon criticism, and structuralist readings, Moulton considered the text itself, as it comes, as “an entity in itself,” independent of authorial intent.

Moulton’s larger aim was to establish the independent study of literature as a whole, in all its unity, which he developed in two major works, World Literature and Its Place in General Culture (1911) and The Modern Study of Literature: An Introduction to Literary Theory and Interpretation (1915). In response to the professionalization of literature studies in the early twentieth century, Moulton sought to liberate the texts from academic departments, equating literature with philosophy as the central discipline of the humanities. As such, he was a forceful defender of translations. If one reads Homer in English, something is lost, but, he asked, “Is what he has lost literature?” No, for the elements of Homeric literature, such as epic narrative, heroic characters, plot, and poetic imagery remained. Rather than departmentalizing the study of language, such as in German or French languages and literatures,, Moulton urged a unified literature as the basis of humanistic study.

One of his central themes was “world literature” as “universal literature seen in perspective from a single point of view.” Moulton eschewed any fixed canon of “great books,” instead developing an evolutionary framework of an expanding world literature as the “autobiography of a civilization” (World Literature, p. 429). As a national literature is the reflection of one nation’s history, so world literature reflects the whole course of world civilization. Literature, he believed, was the true “science of Life,” with a capital L. “Many sciences touch Life,” he wrote, “but by their constitution as sciences they can deal with only one aspect of Life at a time. … general literature, besides being the natural organ for the integration of thought, has in this one case a specific function: it serves as the only possible science and practical art of Life.”

Richard Green Moulton retired from the University of Chicago in 1919, returning to England, where he continued his extension lecturing. He was the guest of honor at the Jubilee Celebration of university extension at Cambridge in July 1923, receiving an honorary doctorate. He died in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England the following year.

Moulton was a pioneer in mass adult education and university extension both in England and the United States. An innovative literary theorist, he was one of the first to outline a perspectival rather than a fixed world literature. In an age of specialization and academic departmentalization, he was a passionate defender of a broad liberal arts education in general literature as the center of lifelong learning for adults.


Moulton’s personal papers are at the Janus Archive of Cambridge University, UK. The only full length study of him is by his nephew, W. Fiddian Moulton, Richard Green Moulton: A Memoir (1926), which features an introduction by Sir Michael Sadler. There are a number of studies of his literary work, including Sarah Lawall, “Richard Moulton and the Idea of World Literature,” in Visions and Revisions of World Literature, Michael Carroll, ed. (1996); and Patrick Buckridge, “Taste, Appreciation and the Study of Literature: F.D. Maurice, R.G. Moulton and the Extramural Effect,” Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 13, no. 1 (2008). Jing Tsu, “Getting Ideas about World Literature in China,” Comparative Literature Studies 47, no. 3, (2010) shows Moulton’s influence in China; and David Norton, A History of the Bible as Literature: Vol. 2, from 1700 to the Present Day (1993), considers him the “father” of the Bible as literature. An obituary appeared in The University [of Chicago] Record, New Series 10 (1924): 297–299.