Department of American Studies ELTE
Department of American Studies US flag
Eötvös Loránd University

History of the Department

The history of the department goes back to the 1970s, when, as part of the general thaw in the Soviet block, America began to be taught at Eötvös Loránd University’s (ELTE) Department of English. In the 1970s American culture was exclusively represented through literature; among the instructors teaching courses on American literature were, in near chronological order, Mária Újházy, Gyula Kodolányi, Péter Egri, Aladár Sarbu, István Géher, Charlotte Kretzoi, Ferenc Takács, Éva Federmayer, and Enikő Bollobás. Zoltán Kövecses taught classes on American English.

In 1977 the first conference wholly devoted to American culture was organized by Tibor Frank. Two of the founders of American Studies in Hungary, László Országh and Charlotte Kretzoi were present, representing two other Hungarian centers of American Studies, Kossuth Lajos University of Debrecen and University of Szeged (the former József Attila University). In 1978 Debrecen celebrated the 40th anniversary of its English Department with a conference where strong emphasis was put on American topics.

In the 1980s courses devoted to American topics were increasingly offered and M.A. theses and doctoral dissertations were being written. These years were marked by several highly visible gatherings, national and international, of American studies professionals. In 1980 ELTE, under the chairmanship of Professor Péter Egri, then head of the English Department, put on a landmark event in American Studies, organized by Tibor Frank. This first international conference in American Studies in Hungary brought together scholars from the West and the East in the splendid halls of the Hungarian Academy of Letters and Sciences (its proceedings appeared as The Origins and Originality of American Culture, ed. Tibor Frank). An even grander meeting, this time of the European Association of American Studies (EAAS), followed in 1986, organized by Zoltán Abádi-Nagy and Aladár Sarbu (its proceedings appeared as The Early Republic, European Contributions to American Studies, ed. Zoltán Abádi-Nagy and Aladár Sarbu). Hungarian Association for American Studies (HAAS), the Hungarian chapter of EAAS, was ultimately set up in 1992, with Antal Bókay and Zoltán Kövecses as its first Co-Chairs.

The 1980s were transitional years in the East-Central European region, characterized by strangely contradictory political signals. While Hungary’s communist leaders had little strength to block academic ties with Western Europe and the U.S., they still dreaded the responsibility of allowing, for the first time in the Eastern block, a separate university department devoted to the teaching of American Studies. In Kádár’s Hungary the U.S. could only be discussed, at the most, in a colonial manner, as a corner of the English world. The idea of teaching disciplines directly relating to the U.S. and within a separate administrative entity was still anathema: it was considered a subversive act, a revolt against the established order — somewhat like America itself.

Charlotte Kretzoi, having in the meantime transferred from the University of Szeged to ELTE, deserves to be remembered as a long time instigator of American Studies at ELTE. Her efforts, as well as the efforts of Tibor Frank and Zoltán Kövecses, for the setting up of a new department were repeatedly met by the refusal of university and party officials. The ultimate founding of the department had to wait for the new winds of political change: this is what Zoltán Kövecses sensed in the fall of that annus mirabilis of 1989, prompting him to mobilize Enikő Bollobás and Gyula Kodolányi. Tibor Frank was also brought in, though for the moment only through the telephone, unsure yet as to when he would return after years of teaching in the U.S. It was clear during that historic spring of 1990 that the political changes now allowed, for the first time ever, for the launching of a separate academic unit for the teaching of American Studies. Kövecses, Kodolányi, Bollobás, and, by proxi, Tibor Frank prepared the whole packet for the Soros Foundation, who, in an effort to set off cutting-edge disciplines at ELTE, pledged to support American Studies (as well as Cultural Anthropology and Theoretical Linguistics). Documents, proposals, curricula, syllabi, book lists, etc., were submitted and the necessary visits were made to government and university administrators. The Ministry of Culture, especially then Deputy Minister Károly Manherz was extremely helpful, and USIS funding was also secured. By the summer it all fell together, and the members of a veritable department were lined up: Zoltán Kövecses, Gyula Kodolányi, Tibor Frank, Enikő Bollobás, Éva Federmayer (with Zsófia Bán, Tamás Magyarics, and Erzsébet Mészáros to join a year later), and two positions for native American language instructors were granted by the Ministry. ELTE’s Department of American Studies, the first such full-fledged department in the country, was officially launched in June 1990, with the backing of the new government of József Antall, the Soros Foundation, and the U.S. Embassy. Zoltán Kövecses became its first chair (1990–1992), to be followed by Tibor Frank (1992–1994), Zoltán Kövecses (1994–1996), Tamás Magyarics as acting chair (1996–1997), and Enikő Bollobás (1997 to the present).

So here came the 90s, which most of us welcomed with a sigh of relief. They brought an end to state censorship: no more was short-sighted politics able to block the teaching of a culture of a world power; no more had apparatchiks the power to prevent the publication of a book for ideological reasons. Nobody would write police files on what we did or said, in the classroom or among “friends.” This was the decade of the coming of age of ELTE’s Department of American Studies too. Within a few years it ceased to be a B-major and became an A-major (meaning that incoming students could take American Studies already in their first year) with the possibility of a teaching degree equivalent to a degree in English. In 1999 Canadian Studies was attached to the Department and the Ph.D. Program in American Studies was launched in 2000.

In 1991 the Kellner family began to support the Department of American Studies in all kinds of ways. The Kellner Foundation donated hundreds of books to the program early on, thereby securing the foundations of our library. They also purchased office machines and other equipment to the newly-founded department, which made it possible to set up our department office. The Kellner Scholarship, offered by the Foundation to ELTE students, primarily American Studies majors, each year since 1991, has grown into one of the most competitive and prestigious scholarships in the country, making the Kellner family one of the chief benefactors of ELTE.

The American Studies Section of SEAS Library has received donations from several sources: USIS, the Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Kellner Foundation, and the U.S. Army. The Carnegie Collection of the Central University Library of ELTE has been moved here, and we also house (and use) the private book collection of our long-time former native language instructor, Geoffrey Heller. The SEAS library’s latest donation has been received from Antonia Burrows, former colleague from the English Studies, also active for years in promoting gender studies at the Department of American Studies.