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Bergen Evans (1904-1978) Papers

Identifier: 11/3/11/9

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Scope and Contents

The Bergen Evans Papers, comprising 83 boxes and spanning the period 1921–1978, are arranged in eight main subseries: biographical materials, educational materials, correspondence, teaching materials, research and consulting files, addresses, television and radio program files, and publications.

One should be aware of Evans' penchant for using the same material to serve several purposes. For example, if one is interested in material relating to Evans' radio show, “Words in the News,” some will be found in the subject folders for that topic (Box 22, Folder 20 through Box 23, Folder 12), but additional related material is also scattered throughout the folders for various of Evans' books, especially his dictionaries.

The biographical folders include a copy of Evans' will (dated May 15, 1953), many curricula vitae (some include schedules of lectures given outside Northwestern); clippings concerning Evans' speeches and appearances on television and radio, and his comments on stories in the news; the texts of several of the eulogies given at the memorial for Evans held on June 12, 1978.

Of special interest are two diaries kept by Evans (Box I, Folders 2-3). The first, March 20 - August 26, 1930, covers part of the time that he was in residence at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and also his experiences as a junior courier with a group tour to the continent for the Franco-Belgique Company. Some of the entries are quite personal; many of the incidents and individuals described in the diary reflect Evans' perceptive view of people and the use of language.

The second diary, November 22 - December 12, 1932, records some of Evans' early experiences as an instructor in English at Northwestern. In includes personal comments on his relationships with students and fellow faculty members. Also included are outlines, anecdotes, and notes for an autobiography that was never completed and two bibliographies of Evans' publications. The second, from a library science master's paper (Fall, 1971) by Gordon Brent Kyle, also includes a biographical sketch of Evans.

The educational materials include a copy of the Miami Recensio for 1923, a student yearbook published by the junior class at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which Evans edited. Also, here are two of Evans' student papers: “Wordsworth's Connection with Public Affairs After 1805,” March 5, 1924; and “A Review of Some of the Puritan Theories and Practices of Toleration, with Special Emphasis on the Banishment and Subsequent Writings of Roger Williams,” January 15, 1925 which he wrote at Harvard. Evans' student notebooks on “Purchas His Pilgrims,” several of Shakespeare's plays, Vergil, and other writers are also included.

The greater part of the educational materials (Box 2, Folder 13 through Box 5, Folder 1) consists of detailed notes from the Cambridge History of English Literature, some of which also draw upon other sources.

The general correspondence primarily includes incoming letters concerning Evans' writing, teaching, and public appearances. Of special interest is the carbon of a five-page letter (January 26, 1944) from Evans to Professor W.T. Bryan, Chairman of the Department of English at Northwestern, in which Evans summarizes his major accomplishments during his first dozen years at the University. He refers to the popularity of his teaching in English B10 and several composition courses and to the thorough and detailed manner in which he prepares his lectures. Many of his lectures, with background notes and revisions, are filed with his teaching materials, Box 8, Folder 3 to Box 19, Folder 10. Re also reports the successes of some of his students. Evans also drew attention to stories and articles he wrote that were published in popular journals, noting that “they are not wholly to be disregarded in a teacher of composition.” He comments at greater length on his scholarly articles and books, especially his work on Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Evans worked his way across the Atlantic as a pantry hand on the S.S. Schoharie in the summer of 1923. Two documents (one has a photograph of Evans appended) and a letter concerning this trip are in Box 5, Folder 2.

Also in the general correspondence is material related to Evans' role in the television program, “The $64,000 Question.” Evans was in charge of a committee that produced questions for the program, and when a scandal over the coaching of contestants broke, Evans was initially implicated. However, an affidavit and several letters (November 6, 9, 12, 1959) make it clear that Evans had no connection with the scandal.

While folders of general correspondence contain several rejection letters (e.g. from Ladies' Home Journal (March 13, 1934), and from the New England Quarterly (March 7, 1934)), they also include positive responses such as the letter from Scribner's Magazine (November 30, 1938, also January 24, 1939) that his manuscript had won second prize in its “Life in the United States” contest and enclosing an agreement to purchase it for $500.

Evans' outspokenness was occasionally misinterpreted or objected to by a student. Examples are illustrated by a copy of a letter from Evans to the Dean of Women (May 9, 1935), a letter from Marie Klopsteg, a student, to Evans (October 6, 1936), and letters to President Franklyn Snyder (January 31, February 12, 1944).

While Evans spent virtually his entire teaching career at Northwestern he received several offers from academic and commer-cial institutions (he was offered, for example, the Berg Profes-sorship in English and American Literature at New York University on November 27, 1957). One of the more interesting of these came from Life (August 21 & 26, 1947) in the form of a full-time position to edit Winston Churchill's memoirs.

Of special interest are thirteen letters from Groucho Marx (Box 5, Folder 5), primarily concerning Evans' publications and Marx's appearance on Evans' television show, and a long exchange between Evans and Ashley Montagu (Box 5, Folder 6). Many of the latter letters involve Evans and Montagu's collaboration on a book originally entitled Vulgar Errors. Much of this material appeared in Evans' Natural History of Nonsense in 1946. The two became embroiled in disputes over their respective contributions to the manuscript, which eventually involved their publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

The teaching materials pertain primarily to Evans' enormously popular course, Introduction to Literature (English Bl0). The bulk of the materials consist of an alphabetically arranged series of folders on famous authors (Box 8, Folder 3 - Box 19, Folder 10) that served as the basis for Evans' lectures. The folders include the texts of his lectures along with notes, clippings, annotated copies of poetry and drama, and various preliminary lecture drafts. Much of the supporting material is mounted on eight and one-half by eleven-inch sheets. Also included in the teaching material are examination questions, syllabi, reading lists, and grade books for B10 and several folders pertaining to general literary themes and periods, as well as, other literature and composition courses taught by Evans.

In addition to his teaching at Northwestern Evans was a leading member of the faculty of the Famous Writers School from 1958 to 1972. The school prospered until an expose of its shortcomings by Jessica Mitford appeared in the Atlantic in 1970. Evans played a central role in the School's public response to Mitford's accusations. Included here are printed transcripts (from Radio, TV Reports, Inc.) of Dick Cavett'is interview with Evans on June 26, 1970–the month Mitford's article appeared–and a Merv Griffen's interview with Mitford held on November 17, 1970. Several letters (chiefly to Evans) pertain to these interviews, the article, and related activities of the School and members of the faculty. Additional correspondence discusses the formation of the School and the issuance of public stock.

The research and consulting files reflect the broad range of interests. He consulted on a variety of educational and commercial projects ranging from the vocabulary used in workbooks for fifth graders to the names of potential additives for toilet papers. Particularly noteworthy is a series of letters in which Evans' sister, Cornelia, endeavors to explain the work of Noam Chomsky, the noted linguist, pointing out several of Chomsky's errors.

The material relating to Evans' speeches illustrates, in part, why Evans' style, dry wit, and outspoken views made him such a sought-after speaker. It includes background and presentation notes as well as drafts and final copies of speeches. His two speeches on students and civil authority delivered at Northwestern and Miami Universities during the tense summer of 1969 were widely and favorably referred to and quoted. (See, for example, Box 5, Folder 3 for letters from Ann Landers (June 18) and from John G. Searle, President of Northwestern's Board of Trustees (June 19).)

The radio and television material deals primarily with “Words in the News” (1962 - 1964) and “Down You Go” (1951 - 1956, 1961 - 1963). The latter was probably Evans' most well known program. Included is correspondence, postcards from contributors, prompt cards and notes, and clippings. Much of the material relating to “Words in the News” (Box 22, Folder 22 through Box 23, Folder 12) consists of clippings from newspapers, magazines, and books illustrating various usages of words. Evans often added his own comments or additional source notes to these sheets (usually typewritten but occasionally handwritten). Some of the notes were prepared by his various assistants. Evans was also involved in educational programs, including a forty part television series that appeared in 1961 called “English for Americans” (Box 23, Folder 13).

The bulk of Evans' papers (Box 29, Folder 1 through Box 83, Folder 6) relate to his voluminous writings. These included columns or individual items for newspapers, articles for popular magazines and scholarly journals, and books. Of special importance, among material relating to his published books, are the substantial files on The Natural History of Nonsense (1946) and The Spoor of Spooks (1954); two books in which Evans illuminated, often wittily or satirically, popular beliefs. Included are notes, background materials, and some portions of texts. Many folders include typed indexes of their contents. The notes and clippings reveal the breadth of Evans' reading and interests and his persistence in tracking down the sources of stories and their validity.

Materials concerning the Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, (1957), co-authored by Evans and his sister Cornelia, include not only much background material for this best seller but also copious notes for a second edition. The bulk of the material consists of clipped entries from various dictionaries pasted onto sheets. Also included are handwritten and typed notes prepared by Evans and his assistants. Some correspondence stimulated by Evans' radio and television shows, and other related material, is also filed here.

The material for the second edition, which was never published, consists primarily of clippings from other sources (e.g. Theodore M. Bernstein's A Modern Guide to English Usage (1965) and Jacques Barzun's Modern American Usage (1966)).

Included in the material pertaining to unpublished books is a substantial amount (Box 57, Folder 16 through Box 75, Folder 5) on the Dictionary of Synonyms and Similars. Evans and his sister worked on one version in the late 1950s and on another in the early 1970s. The two versions have been interfiled in one alphabet. A considerable amount of duplicate material was discarded. Materials pertaining to this unpublished work consist primarily of clippings from dictionaries and typed or handwritten drafts of entries. A number of pages of clippings have notes and cross-references added, and some drafts of entries were prepared by Evans' assistants.

Evans' articles encompass both non-fiction subjects and fiction. The former includes pieces on language, dictionaries, and education that appeared in various scholarly and popular publications. He also wrote prefaces for several anthologies that he edited. Early in his career he wrote many short stories and some longer fiction. Some were published, including a detective story called “I Spy”, but most were not. On some of the rejected manuscripts Evans noted the names of the magazines that had rejected them. Occasionally there is a correspondence but most is of a formal, brief nature. One of the short stories, “Doctor Dillon's Denouement”, is attributed to Evans' father, Rice K. Evans, and another, “Hellbirds”, to the two jointly.

Also included is material relating to Evans' contributions to two columns that he originated: “The Skeptic's Corner” in the American Mercury and “How Words Work” in Coronet. Also present are copies of several syndicated newspaper columns on word usage.

Manuscripts of several unpublished works on language, e.g. “Book of English Usage”, and “History of English Language”, are also included, as are three scrapbooks of Evans' “Collected Works,” a variety of offprints, and copies of many book reviews by Evans or of books written by him.


  • 1921-1978


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is stored off-site and requires two business days advance notice for retrieval. Please contact the McCormick Library at or 847-491-3635 for more information or to schedule an appointment to view the collection.


84.00 Boxes

Language of Materials



Bergen Evans joined the faculty of Northwestern University in the department of English in 1932. He was an incredibly popular instructor, and remained at Northwestern until his retirement in 1974. The Bergen Evans Papers, comprising 83 boxes and spanning the period 1921–1978, includes biographical materials, educational materials, correspondence, teaching materials, research and consulting files, addresses, television and radio program files, and publications.

Arrangement Note

The Bergen Evans Papers are arranged in eight main subseries: biographical materials, educational materials, correspondence, teaching materials, research and consulting files, addresses, television and radio program files, and publications. Within subseries and folders, the basic arrangement is chronological.

Method of Acquisition

The Bergen Evans Papers were donated to the University Archives in four accessions: Accession Nos. 74-3 (received July 2, 1975); 79-79 (April 27, 1979); 79-224 (November 8, 1979); and 80-49 (March 20, 1980). Accession No. 74-3 was donated by Bergen Evans; the three following accessions were donated by Jean (Mrs. Bergen) Evans.

Separated Materials

Approximately 20 boxes of duplicated material were discarded.

Processing Information

William K. Beatty, August 6, 1982 - Feb. 7, 1983. Preliminary processing done by Margaret Faverty, Elisabeth Wittman, and Andrew Leslie, 1979 - 1980.

Guide to the Bergen Evans (1904-1978) Papers
William K. Beatty
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Library Details

Part of the Northwestern University Archives Repository

Deering Library, Level 3
1970 Campus Dr.
Evanston IL 60208-2300 US